Algal booms

C&I Issue 16, 2011

While attention is focused on developing cellulosic biofuels, another second generation biofuel feedstock is often overlooked – algae. The market for algal-derived biofuels looks set to blossom over the next decade, according to US market intelligence fi rm Pike Research, which specialises in clean technology. Algal biofuels stand out as one of the most promising options in the alternative fuels sector. Pike believes that with strong demand from aviation and military consumers, the algal biofuel market could reach $1.3bn by 2020.

Worldwide interest

North America and Asia Pacifi c are expected to be the key markets for algal biofuel, according to Pike, together accounting for 82% of production by 2020, amounting to over 50m gal/year. In Europe, which still accounts for some 30% of activity in algae, the focus has been on research and Pike believes that this together with insuffi cient access to water, land and nutrient sources will limit growth.

Through its seventh framework programme, the European Commission has provided the majority of the funding to the BIOFuel From Algae Technologies (BIOFAT) project, which aims to demonstrate that biofuels made from microalgae can offer energy effi ciency, economic viability and environmental sustainability. A major goal will be to develop the ‘algorefi nery’, which can produce high-value co-products in addition to biofuel. The BIOFAT project is being carried out by a multinational consortium, coordinated by Abengoa Bioenergia Nuevas Tecnologias, a subsidiary of Spain’s Abengoa Bioenergy, with its members drawn from academia, industry and the public sector. BIOFAT members include the University of Florence and its spin-out company Fotosintetica and Microbiologica in Italy; Ben-Gurion University in Israel; process plant manufacturer Evodos in the Netherlands; engineering company AlgoSource Technologies in France; recent start-up company A4F-AlgaFuel in Portugal; and consultancy Hart Energy in Belgium.

The four-year project is designed to integrate the whole value-chain in the production of bioethanol and biodiesel, from initial strain selection, through optimisation of the culture medium, to cultivations, low-energy harvesting and technology integration. The project team will utilise existing prototypes in Israel, Portugal and Italy with a view to scale-up to a 10-hectare demonstration plant with a capacity of 900t/year of algae.

In Finland, energy concern Neste Oil has joined the five-year AlgaePARC project, launched in the Netherlands, which is focused on developing technologies and processes for growing algae on an industrial scale. The project is being coordinated by Wageningen University and Research Centre and involves 18 corporate partners. Neste is also joining the Solar Bio-Fuels Consortium in Australia, which is coordinated by the University of Queensland. This three-year project brings together seven companies and research institutions to study various techniques for growing algae and optimising conditions to achieve high oil yields. ‘Our goal is to expand the range of raw materials we use for producing NExBTL renewable diesel, and algae represent one of the most promising materials here because of their excellent potential oil yields,’ says Markku Patajoki, head of Neste Oil’s biotechnology group.

As Pike Research points out, technological advances in the production, cultivation and extraction of algal oils, together with investment in large-scale projects, however, will be critical to the widespread growth of such fuels. Currently, the high costs involved have deflected the focus of potential fuel producers into other market opportunities.

‘Due to high costs associated with producing crude algal oil for the aviation, ground transportation and other fuel end-markets, most industry ventures have pivoted away from a fuelfirst approach to focus on the development of revenue streams from high-value, low-volume co-product markets,’ says Mackinnon Lawrence, an industry analyst at Pike Research. ‘Scale-up of algae-based biofuels will depend on the realisation of value in non-fuel end-markets. As key capital and operating cost hurdles are overcome, algaebased biofuel production should expand rapidly.’

Algal attraction

So why is algal biofuel so attractive? A key reason is that it is unaffected by the long-running fuel versus food debate that has hampered the development of first generation biofuels based on carbohydraterich food crops.

Algae, can be grown in purpose-built reactors in ponds on non-arable land, can yield up to 20 times more oil per acre than other leading oil seed crops and can utilise a wide variety of water resources, including wastewater and seawater. Another advantage is that algal production facilities can be co-located with stationary sources of CO2 emissions, providing an alternative to carbon capture and sequestration at fossil fuel power stations, for example. Algal biofuels therefore have the potential to offer a number of environmental advantages, compared with other alternative fuels.

In terms of the types of algae involved, Pike Research believes that the algal biofuels market will be dominated by microalgae, which can be genetically modified to exhibit rapid growth. On the other hand, macroalgae are expected to continue to be attractive in countries with large coastal regions, though Pike expects that investment in harvesting and conversion technologies will lag behind R&D investment in microalgae. There are an estimated 200,000 to 800,000 species of microalgae, according to Carlos Fernandez, a US crop physiologist at the Texas AgriLife Research and Extension Center in Corpus Christi, but only 35,000 species have so far been described.

Speaking at the recent annual meeting of the US Society for Industrial Microbiology in New Orleans, Jerry Brand from the University of Texas said that the challenge is the selection of the algae to be used. He believes that there are advantages in selecting algae isolated from the local environment in which they are likely to perform well in culture. Brand also believes in the advantages of culture collections, and runs such a collection of wild types bacteria at UTEX in Austin, Texas. The UTEX culture collection includes approximately 3,000 different strains of living algae, representing most major algal taxa. Cultures in the collection are used for research, teaching, biotechnology development, and various other projects throughout the world. UTEX supports this community of users through the provision of algal cultures along with a variety of other goods and services, and sells living microalgae in bulk culture volumes.

Technology in development

Also speaking in New Orleans, Qiang Hu, from Arizona State University, looked at the alternative technologies available for algal production facilities, which generally fall into two types: open or closed bioreactors . The simplest form of open system is a lagoon, but raceway or circular ponds, with paddles or rotating arms to circulate the cultures, are preferred. The yields from such ponds have increased from a few grams/m2/day in the 1950s to almost 20g/m2/day during the 2000s, with maximum biomass yields of around 45t/ hectare/year giving 10-20% oil yields, he said. The biomass target is 90t/hectare/year.

For closed reactors, whether panel or tubular, higher biomass yields can be expected, he said, around 30-40g/m2/day, equivalent to 60t/hectare/ year of biomass, giving oil yields of 30-40%. The theoretical maximum biomass yield would be around 180t/hectare/year, limited by availability of light, which can only usually penetrate up to a few centimetres into the culture.

Texas University’s Brand pointed out that while algal biofuel production is close to commercial production scale, there is a major issue with openair facilities that are likely to cover hundreds of acres: contamination. Arizona State’s Qiang Hu pointed out that such contamination can range from other algae, through bacteria to fungi and insects, with the potential for a ‘culture crash’. ‘Amoeba “graze” on algae and can eliminate algae within 24 hours,’ he added.

While this problem has been conquered for cheese and beer production in closed factory conditions, Brand says ‘scale-up leads to emergent problems that cannot be fully eliminated and therefore need to be managed rather than controlled if contaminants enter the system’ and progress is being made, he added. He believes it is necessary to marry aquaculture with industrial microbiology, using heterotrophic bacteria, before it is possible to scale-up open production systems.

Projects underway

In 2007, General Atomics and Texas AgriLife Research formed a strategic, collaborative alliance to research, develop and commercialise biofuel production through farming microalgae in Texas and California. The US Department of Defense awarded a multi-year grant for algae R&D and development.

Soon after, a $4m grant from the State of Texas Emerging Technology Fund was awarded to develop an algae test facility at the Texas AgriLife Research Pecos (Texas) Research Station. AgriLife Research has also partnered with the nearby Barney M. Davis power plant in Corpus Christi. ‘It’s a natural gas- operated power plant that is an excellent source of carbon dioxide from its flue gases that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by passing them through microalgae systems,’ says Fernandez. A similar potential partnership is envisaged with the various water treatment facilities of the City of Corpus Christi.

raceway pondsThe use of wastewater from a municipal treatment plant is also being examined by US researchers at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) in New York. In addition to producing lipids for biodiesel production, the microalgae being used, Scenedesmus, is also removing 99% of the ammonia, 88% of the nitrates and 99% of the phosphates from the wastewater in which the algae grow – ‘all those nutrients you worry about dumping into the receiving water,’ says Jeff Lodge, associate professor of biological sciences at RIT. ‘In three to five days, pathogens are gone. We’ve got data to show that coliform counts are dramatically reduced below the level that’s allowed to go out into Lake Ontario.’

In Spain, what is described as ‘blue petroleum’ is under development by Spanish and French researchers at Bio Fuel Systems (BFS), a small company located next to a cement works near Alicante. The cement plant provides carbon dioxide through a pipeline to photo bioreactors containing microalgae. ‘We are trying to simulate the conditions which existed millions of years ago, when the phytoplankton was transformed into oil,’ says one of the engineers, Eloy Chapuli.

BFS founder French engineer Bernard Stroiazzo-Mougin, describes the algal oil produced as ‘ecological oil’ but believes it will take a further five to 10 years before industrial production can begin. ‘In a unit that covers 50km2, which is not something enormous, in barren regions of Spain, we could produce about 1.25m barrels/day,’ he says, or almost the same amount as Iraq’s daily oil exports.

German technology major Linde is partnering with Sapphire Energy, a US expert in algal biofuels, to co-develop a low-cost system to deliver carbon dioxide to commercial-scale open pond algae facilities. In addition, Linde will supply all the carbon dioxide requirements for Sapphire’s commercial demonstration facility in Columbus, New Mexico. According to Linde, a single commercial-scale algal fuel production facility is estimated to require around 10,000t/day of carbon dioxide, which is comparable to about 30% of the current US merchant market for carbon dioxide.

Military might

Military agencies around the world, including the US Department of Defense (DoD), have a key priority to gain increased access to clean and reliable energy, both as a means of providing increased energy independence and increasing efficiency and performance across requirements, ranging from transportation, through base and facility operations, to portable power for foot soldiers. The size of these requirements is daunting; as an organisation, the DoD is actually the world’s largest single energy consumer.

Pike Research estimates that the total global spend by the world’s military agencies will reach $26.8bn/year by 2030, up from $1.8bn/year in 2010. ‘Military investment in renewable energy and related technologies, in many cases, holds the potential to bridge the “valley of death” that lies between R&D and full commercialisation of these technologies,’ says Pike’s president Clint Wheelock.

In terms of transportation, much of the focus is on biofuels to replace fossil fuels in vehicles, including tanks and trucks, and also fighter jets and naval vessels. The military in the US and elsewhere is therefore seen by Pike Research as a major potential consumer of algal biofuels.

In the US, for example, Independence Bio- Products has produced algal oil, which has been converted into jet fuel, which has been tested by the US Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright Patterson air force base and shown to have a composition similar to biofuel derived from other plant oils, such as soya beans, Jatropha and camelina. Using Independence Bio-Product’s proprietary technology, the algae were grown and harvested in open ‘raceway’ ponds adjacent to a power plant in Shadyside, Ohio, and the algal oil was upgraded to fuel by Applied Research Associates, based in Panama City, Florida, using a catalytic hydrothermolysis process to convert the plant triglycerides to pure hydrocarbons very similar to their petroleum-based counterparts.

The development forms part of a federally funded project to examine Algae To Fuel (ATF) processing strategies. The ATF project was launched in June 2009 to explore the best strategy for creating, cultivating and expanding a so-called algaculture industry in Ohio. This public/private project has been jointly led by the Ohio Aerospace Institute, the Edison Materials Technology Center of Dayton, and the Center for Innovative Food Technology of Toledo, together with several industry and university collaborators, including Independence Bio-Products, which is also developing a 400-acre project on reclaimed mining land in Texas. The new facility is scheduled to open in 2012 and has the potential for future expansion to over 20,000 acres.

As the executive director of the US Algal Biomass Organization, Mary Rosenthal expresses it: ‘The success the armed forces and others have had with biofuels, including those made from algae, is an important indicator of the impact our industry will have in the coming years.’

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