Algae bioreactors show another way to fuel cars
AN Australian company may be the first in the world to commercialise an algae bioreactor that can strip carbon dioxide emissions from the flues of coal- fired power plants and convert them into high quality diesel for cars.
Peter Edwards, grandson of Victor Smorgon, one of Australia’s most successful industrial entrepreneurs and managing director of the Victor Smorgon Group, a privately- owned company with a 75- year history of manufacturing and recycling, says he is on the verge of moving from a laboratory- scale trial to a pilot project. The trial has been operating at Hazelwood power station in Victoria, comparing growth and survival rates of different types of microalgae in different types of water — waste, potable or ground water.
We have just got a pilot plant up and running in January, and if it performs according to expectations we could go into commercial production within 18 months.’’
There are about 1000 hectares of land around Hazelwood that could be used to grow algae, and Edwards hopes to produce 100 million litres of biodiesel a year.
At $ 800 to $ 1000 per tonne for biodiesel, carbon dioxide may come to be seen as a valuable input rather than a dangerous waste product.
We’ve had a lot of enquiries from companies wanting to clean up their emissions’’ Edwards says, but we want to get the bioreactors operating at Hazelwood before we do anything else.’’
Edwards says that algae bioreactors could be installed at any plant that produces carbon emissions, such as a brewery or ethanol plant.
The implications are enormous for greenhouse gas abatement and energy independence. Algae bioreactors have the ability to convert up to 85 per cent of the carbon dioxide emissions into oxygen using the simple and natural process of photosynthesis, and although they can only do it in the presence of sunlight, emissions could potentially be stored at night and used in the day.
All living plants convert carbon dioxide into oxygen through the process of photosynthesis, but the difference with algae is that it grows much faster than other plants and thrives in a carbon dioxide- rich stream of emissions.
Algae have great benefits compared with other biofuel crops such as corn, sugar cane, canola or palm oil. For a start, algae produce far greater quantities of oil — up to 50 per cent oil in some types of algae. They can be harvested daily to produce around 100,000 litres of oil per hectare per year. A hectare of canola or palm oil produces only a fraction of that — from 1000 to 5000 litres per year.
A second advantage of algae is that it doesn’t require either arable land or potable water like other biofuels, which compete with food crops for these scarce inputs. Algae can grow in salt or even contaminated water, sometimes purifying that water.
Far from taking up valuable farming land, algae can grow in plastic bags hanging up like washing around any source of carbon dioxide emissions such as a power plant, brewery or cement factory. All they basically require is sunlight, carbon dioxide and some nutrients.
When it comes to processing, algae is also much easier to break down into oil because it doesn’t have a starchy celloluse structure like other plants. As an added benefit algae bioreactors also reduce nitrous oxide by 86 per cent.
VSG is already licensed to produce biodiesel from animal fats, canola oil and recycled cooking oil collected from fast- food outlets, restaurants and industrial cooking enterprises, but algae could end up dwarfing current sources of biodiesel.
VSG has licensed the experimental technology from GreenFuel Technology, a company based in the US and which has more than a dozen pending patents on its algae bioreaction systems.
GreenFuel is the brainchild of Isaac Berzin, who was a rocket scientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It was while working on an experiment to grow algae at the International Space Station that he thought of using it to clean up power plants. GreenFuels is involved in a number of emissions to biofuels’’ pilot projects — in the US with Arizona Public Service at their Redhawk 1040MW power plant, in Europe with IGV, a private industrial research institute headquartered in Potsdam, Germany and in South Africa.
We are working co- operatively with our partners and are in touch about once a week comparing results. The pilot we will build in Australia is a fourth- generation algae bioreactor. We’ve benefited from all the research that the other partners have done.’’
The Australian Government and the coal industry have invested in carbon capture and storage, in which carbon dioxide is captured and stored in geological formations, but an algae bioreactor would be much cheaper to install. Power plants and industrial facilities would require no internal modifications to host an algae bioreactor. Although the algae would have to be stored to sequester the carbon emissions, using biodiesel made from algae would still dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reduce the need to burn fossil fuels for transport.
Tom Beer, stream leader for transport biofuels at the Energy Transformed Flagship at CSIRO is undertaking a scoping study on biodiesel made from algae.
I’m beginning to believe this is going to be quite important for Australia’’ he said.
Other food crops that are grown for fuel have equity implications. How do you justify using food for fuel when people are starving or suffering malnutrition? But algae doesn’t compete for land or water suitable for food crops.’’
Edwards points out another benefit. Residual protein left over after the oil has been extracted can be converted into fishmeal or other feed for livestock.
Fishmeal sells for $ 1200 a tonne,’’ says Edwards. That’s even more than the price of biodiesel. Algae doesn’t compete with food sources, it creates them.’’