The Vertigro Bio Reactor System. Algae is grown within plastic bubbles hanging from racks in a greenhouse. [pictured] "Once algae starts growing, light only penetrates one inch. By going vertical, we can increase the surface area and the volume that gets exposed to sunlight. We also try to use every drop of water we can. There's no evaporation, we only lose what's bound up in the algae oil and the plant.
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Microalgae have the potential to become a major source for biofuel, and an international group of experts have formed the Solar Bio-Fuel Consortium in order to drive forward research in the highly competitive area. Fiona Collins reports.
Microalgae could feed into the biofuels spectrum on a number of levels. Their lipids can be used to produce biodiesel and under controlled conditions, they can also be used to generate hydrogen and methane. Global research efforts are now focused on developing cost-competitive, commercial-scale algal biofuel.
With this in mind, Associate Professor Ben Hankamer at the University of Queensland has been instrumental in establishing an international consortium of experts, who are pooling resources and knowledge in order to develop economic clean fuels for the future.
“The Solar Biofuels Consortium is a consortium consisting of seven international groups at the moment, but it is expanding,” says Prof Hankamer. “We set up in 2007 and the idea was really to develop large-scale micro algal biofuel systems.”
The Solar Biofuels Consortium is not alone in this quest, but Hankamer says that the consortium is unusual in the breadth of expertise and knowledge it has aggregated.
“It’s a very competitive area at the moment,” Prof Hankamer says. “What we’ve tried to do is to set up a consortium that is collaborative across a number of different research disciplines. So we do everything from the biochemistry right through to large scale bioreactor design. As far as I know, with the breadth that we have, we’re one of few groups doing that kind of work.”
Associate Professor Hankamer says that microalgae have many advantages over traditional crop-based biofuel sources.
“One of the big advantages of using microalgae is that you can site them in bioreactors which are not on arable land, and so you essentially eliminate the competition between food and fuel production” says Prof Hankamer.
“The other major advantage is that algae can be harvested every few days rather than on a seasonal basis and so the production levels are actually a lot higher. The third reason is that you can use a salt-tolerant algae so therefore you can deal with reducing water use.”
In addition, algae are also vastly more space-efficient that other biofuel sources.
“The efficiencies have been calculated by other people,” says Prof Hankamer.
“For example if you are looking in the biodiesel area which is probably the one that is closest to market at the moment, perhaps the best crop that there is, is palm oil. The efficiencies that are being produced there are around the 6000 litres per hectare per year mark. And at 1 per cent conversion efficiency from algae, you’re talking about 45,000 litres per hectare per year, so efficiency levels are quite considerable higher.”
These figures are based on a one per cent efficiency rate of algae converting sunlight to biofuel. However Associate Professor Hankamer and his consortium are engaged in increasing the efficiencies of this conversion process, as well as reducing bioreactor costs, and optimizing algae harvesting methods.
“Theoretically we should be able to achieve light-to-biofuel conversion efficiencies of 10 per cent; that’s about the maximum level that one can achieve,” he says.
“Another aspect is, for example, the cost of bioreactors; bringing those down. The closed bioreactor systems on the market at the moment are in the area of about €100 per square metre and we’re trying to get those costs down to €10 per square metre. People have already demonstrated plants at about €15 per square metre.
“Another limitation is harvesting the algae for example, and I guess just optimizing the whole process.”
Associate Professor Hankamer says that the member institutions are largely responsible for funding their own research, although the project has already attracted four industry partners, a number which is likely to grow in the near future.
Hankamer says that the Solar Bio-Fuel Consortium has deliberately recruited its diverse members in order to be able to run multiple research streams in parallel, in an effort to reduce the research timeframe.
“Our labs have been looking at developing salt-tolerant algae and optimizing the light capture efficiency of algae, patenting high hydrogen producing mutants, looking for an oil producing strain, and all these things have to be brought together to deal with those difficulties,” says Prof Hankamer.
“My colleague Olaf Kruse from University of Bielefeld is working particularly on the molecular biology and engineering algae.
“My colleague Peer Schenk who is here, works both on the biodiesel and the selection of different types of wild strains of algae.
“Ute Marx works on metabolomics, where we look at metabolite flows through the cells.
“Professor Clemens at the University of Karlsruhe; he’s designed a 700,000 litre system, and one of his major aims is really trying to reduce costs and develop new designs for closed systems.
“If funding were there right now,” says Prof Hankamer, “one could possible do this within a five year timeframe. That’s certainly the kind of timeframe that we’re working to, to scale it up to about a one million litre facility.”