Al­gae biore­ac­tors show an­other way to fuel cars

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Investments - Re­becca Weisser

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.’’

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