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Explainer: what are algal biofuels?

The problem we face with fossil fuels being ultimately a finite resource has exposed our need for renewable fuels. But research is underway on new and more environmentally-savvy ways to fuel our growing…

Algae synthesisers – a new crop for biofuels, without the need for land. Kirsten Heimann

The problem we face with fossil fuels being ultimately a finite resource has exposed our need for renewable fuels. But research is underway on new and more environmentally-savvy ways to fuel our growing planet – among them algal biofuels.

The situation is made more challenging with expected global population growth, increased pressures on food production and higher demand for energy and fuel.

Beppie K.

Third-generation biofuels, such as algae, are created without interference with human food production or land use, and are the subject of current investigations for capture and use.

This is particularly important for Australia, as only 6% of our continent’s surface is cultivatable.

Algae are the ideal crop to address all these issues – often simultaneously.

Hang on … what are algae?

Algae are aquatic organisms inhabiting freshwater and marine environments. They range from microscopic single cells called microalgae (visible with the aid of a microscope), to macroscopic, multi-cellular organisms (macroalgae).

Irrespective of size, these organisms convert carbon dioxide using the sun’s energy into organic carbon, just like plants.

Algae. Travis S.

Algae evolved when the surface waters of Earth were highly enriched in nutrients and trace elements. Algae, like plants, require nutrients and trace metals from their environment for growth – a process known as fertilisation.

Algae can absorb and store high levels of metals such as iron, copper and manganese, and nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous, often more efficiently than plants.

Therefore algae are ideally suited to remediate metal and nutrient-rich waste waters.

What’s happening now?

The algal biofuels industry is still in its infancy and it is yet to be confirmed whether the technology can consume emission and produce substantial volumes of bio-fuel.

As is the case in other countries, Australia is doing its bit to develop algal biofuels and provide the leg up to help the industry mature.

A pilot project site at Tarong in Queensland is the first of its kind, testing and providing insights into the operating potential of algal synthesiser technology when attached to industrial power plants.

The pilot site in Tarong, Queensland. Image/ Kirsten Heimann

It is a vital pilot program that will help to shed light on automation, harvesting and processing options for the biomass. Testing and improving the technology is paving the way for more efficient, large-scale and low-labour carbon abatement operations.

Research into algal biofuel conversion to look into the potential of macroalgae - macroscopic, multi-cellular organisms such as seaweed - has been supported by funds from ARENA.

Specific funds have been earmarked for the development of renewable aviation fuels.

Aside from government funding, oil companies, airlines and aircraft engine manufacturers are joining Australian federal and state funding schemes to accelerate the development of algal biofuels nationally and globally.

What are algal synthesisers?

Algae synthesisers are vessels used to cultivate algal biomass. There are various types of systems technologies. These are classified as open, closed or hybrid systems, with initial costs being lowest for open system, and highest for closed systems.

Open systems are more prone to invasions by unwanted organisms compared to closed systems. Invasions present a challenge for the newly developing algal industry as they can be detrimental for target end product quality.

agrilife

In all of these systems, carbon dioxide is converted to biomass carbon using the energy from the sun.

All these different systems tailor features of the operation depending on the end products of choice, the characteristics of the algal strain being cultivated, and the environmental conditions at a site.

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18 Comments sorted by

  1. John Newlands

    tree changer

    While fuel from oilseed can never replace petroleum based fuels it has several logistic advantages. At the farm level this includes moisture removal by air drying before harvest and the ability to reduce pest propagation at key stages. In the case of canola the yellow flower dies off leaving pods of small dry beans. Then the oilseed mash can be used as a stock feed after oil extraction then after the oil is used in frying it can be filtered and made into motor fuel. Those advantages are substantial…

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    1. Tyson Adams

      Scientist and author

      In reply to John Newlands

      Natural gas is a terrible idea for machinery. Don't be fooled by the "natural" in its name.

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    2. Tyson Adams

      Scientist and author

      In reply to Jonathan Maddox

      Not really. I'm making the point that "natural gas" is usually mined, usually a fossil fuel and still has greenhouse gas emissions from a long term stored source.

      But, yes, I take your point that methane generated from effluent (etc) could be used in much the same manner as LPG.

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  2. George Michaelson

    Person

    so what *are* the harvesting options? what happens to the water? the solids? whats the energy inputs for energy outputs?

    this obviously co-located at tarong for a reason. is it warm water? or electrical power for maintaining the bioreactors?

    a simple diagram of the cycle would help.

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  3. Gerard Dean

    Managing Director

    Sorry Kirsten, I am afraid it is not that simple.

    The author claims,and I quote, "Third-generation biofuels, such as algae, are created without interference with human food production or land use,"

    The problem is that you cannot get something for nothing, and that 'something' is huge. The energy required to lift and carry an A380 Airbus to London from Melbourne is enormous. Multiply that by all the flights and it is obvious that biofuels, be they extracted from crops or algae will have to consume millions and millions of tonnes of feedstock to produce the same amount of energy we burn each day in the sky, in the paddock, classroom, machine shop or cinema.

    Also I note that the author has not mentioned the Algae Tec pilot plant opened at Shoalhaven NSW in 2012. Evidently it promised to produce useable fuels by this year, however I have not heard any further news on this subject. Perhaps someone can advise how they are going.

    Gerard Dean

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    1. Tyson Adams

      Scientist and author

      In reply to Gerard Dean

      Feedstock? You do realise that algae are plants, right, Gerard? That means that the algae needs nutrients, water and sun. Effluent ponds in the sun?

      Maybe you've been breathing too much JetA1 fuel.

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  4. Tyson Adams

    Scientist and author

    I've seen some really cool algae lamps that are being made now. The real issue with this technology is when it will be out there replacing fossil fuels.

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  5. Derek Bolton

    Retired s/w engineer

    I see no mention of the source of the CO2. AFAIK, the schemes most likely to be economically viable in the near term take it from coal- or gas-fired power stations, and the most economic benefit comes from using the fuel created in transport or cattlefeed. It is hardly ever pointed out that this would not constitute a zero-carbon technology. The process as a whole takes carbon from underground and dumps it into the biosphere. At best, it is single reuse, halving the carbon intensity.
    With the present exemption from a carbon impost for transport fuel, this creates an opportunity for rorting. The tax/permits are avoided on the carbon captured by the algae, but not incurred when the fuel is subsequently burnt. If ARENA funds also support this then someone should have a word in their collective ear.

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    1. Tyson Adams

      Scientist and author

      In reply to Derek Bolton

      Good question, where do plants get their CO2 from?

      I'm going to go out on a limb here and say, from the air.

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    2. Derek Bolton

      Retired s/w engineer

      In reply to Tyson Adams

      Quite so, but my understanding of the algae technology is that it's much cheaper to use a concentrated source, such as the effluent from a coal-fired power station. If you search for examples of pilot plants that's what you'll find. My point, therefore, is that it should not be considered a renewable energy source until it is economically viable to draw the CO2 from the atmosphere.

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    3. Tyson Adams

      Scientist and author

      In reply to Derek Bolton

      Doesn't make much difference. Algal growth is not really going to be limited by CO2 but by the nutrients and water. It makes more sense to use current waste water and nutrients (effluent) rather than worry about injecting CO2. The increased efficiency from CO2 injection is not that big a deal in a water substrate for the algae, as far as I understand, so bring on the ponds.

      I believe there were also talks of ocean "ponds" being developed to suck phosphorus out of the water and be a biofuel. Not sure how good that is for the ocean.

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  6. Mark Lawson

    senior journalist at Australian Financial Review

    I don't have any argument with the article as such but I have seen estimates that existing biofuels (that is, oil from crops grown in fields) cost more in energy to grow and harvest than they generate. So what's the energy trade off here?

    There are a few other policy issues but considering what's happening in the oil and gas industry at the mo, and the real headaches the existing biofuels industry is giving several governments, maybe a new biofuels industry isn't going to get anywhere just yet..

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    1. Tyson Adams

      Scientist and author

      In reply to Mark Lawson

      What headaches? Biofuels are a blip on the radar currently. 87% of the world's biofuels are produced in the USA and Brazil. US uses the corn and canola for biofuels to continue to subsidise their corn industry, despite the corn being, as you said, more energy to make than is yielded.

      But this article isn't about stupid governments making stupid politically and market motivated decisions. This is about actual technology that can replace our use of fossil fuels.

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    2. Mark Lawson

      senior journalist at Australian Financial Review

      In reply to Tyson Adams

      By headache I meant subsidies that they can't now get rid of, although there is no reason at all for them. That's always a headache. but it is quite stupid as you say. The technology sounds fine to me. My sole point was that it might have to wait until the next crisis. I recall interviewing someone with a technology for converting coal into oil (yes, I know the Germans did it in WWII) and he thought it would become viable when prices got to $US40 a barrel.. they're just under a $US100 (glanced at Bloomberg earlier today), and no move to convert coal.. I don't suppose anyone knows the price point for this process?

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    3. Alex Serpo

      Garbologist

      In reply to Mark Lawson

      Mark - if you're interested in coal to liquids, or gas to liquids for that matter - the best place to go is the CSIRO.

      They have have a research flagship on this. I'm sure they'll be happy to talk to you about both economics and technology.

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    4. Jonathan Maddox
      Jonathan Maddox is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Software Engineer

      In reply to Mark Lawson

      The price point for synthetic fuels is "when they're less expensive than the marginal barrel of crude oil".

      However high prices don't just prompt new investment in oil extraction and fuel synthesis -- they also prompt demand destruction, in good both ways (efficiency and substitution) and bad (recession) alike. Which in turn, of course, lets the price fall again.

      Because the price of oil remains very volatile and current-technology Fischer-Tropsch synthesis capital costs are *huge* (tens of bilions for a GTL plant like Pearl in Qatar), investors' responses are very cautious and somewhat delayed -- there's probably almost as much risk capital going from high-tech VC funds into very small scale R&D efforts as there is from the oil and gas industries into industrial deployments at scale.

      Going the methanol route instead makes quite a lot of sense, as http://www.carbonrecycling.is/ have been doing in Iceland.

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  7. Jonathan Maddox
    Jonathan Maddox is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Software Engineer

    Synthetic liquid fuels are also on the radar.

    Synthetic fuel from coal (mainly in South Africa these days), from gas (in Malaysia, Qatar and probably soon in the USA) are established businesses. Synthetic fuel from biomass (generally straw or woodchips) has been attempted but not with great success. Synthetic liquid fuel from renewable electricity may become a major business in coming decades.

    http://www.carbonrecycling.is/
    http://www.dotyenergy.com/

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