Perspectives: End Point

Algae Cultivation Technologies Begin to Bloom

U.S. and European efforts aim to bolster role as feedstock

By Seán Ottewell, Editor at Large

With their high oil and sugar content, fast growth rate, suitability for marginal land and low demands on freshwater compared with food crops, algae are increasingly being promoted as a suitable feedstock for a wide range of products.

According to the Algae Biomass Organization (ABO), Preston, Minn., 23 projects currently are underway around the world highlighting the multi-faceted promise of algae.

In February, Cereplast, El Segundo, Calif., set up a subsidiary called Algaeplast to focus on the development and manufacture of algae-based bioplastics. Cereplast also commercialized biopropylene 109D last December.

And Dordan, Woodstock, Ill., has introduced the first-ever thermoformed sample of a bioresin that uses Algae-Plastic created by AlGIX, Bogart, Ga. Dordan says that production at large enough scale could make this material a viable option for those looking for a cost-competitive, bio-based and thermoformable resin.   

On a national scale, the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (OEERE) recently announced a funding opportunity focused on supporting research to improve the yield of algae-based biofuel feedstock to 2,500 gallons per acre by 2018 and 5,000 gallons per acre by 2022 — a level the DOE believes will be cost-competitive with other fuel sources.

To achieve this, the OEERE is focused on three main areas. The first is improving algal biomass productivity. Here, research aims to accelerate the development of promising algal strains and cultivation techniques that will increase algal biomass productivity in outdoor cultivation environments.

Second, is improving pre-processing technologies. This involves research and engineering to build and operate innovative harvesting, dewatering, and intermediate processing unit operations that can be integrated at scale, operate in an energy-efficient manner, and are low cost.

The final topic focuses on technical advances that enable integration of algal biomass unit operations. This research aims to ensure that the integrated biofuel system is capable of meeting target yields and can be scaled and operated to produce cost-competitive fuels and products.

Meanwhile in Europe, preparations are underway for an "Algae Day" session at the European Union's upcoming 21st European Biomass Conference and Exhibition in Copenhagen, Denmark, from June 3–7. The session will include an update on progress being made within two European-funded projects focused on advancing the algal biotechnology marketplace.

The first, called EnAlgae, is a four-year strategic initiative to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and dependency on unsustainable energy sources in Northwest Europe.

The project is developing sustainable technologies for algal biomass production, bioenergy and greenhouse-gas mitigation, taking them from pilot facilities through to market-place products and services. Nine pilot-scale facilities will be developed and shared across the territory to potentially help overcome cost and access barriers.

In fact, cost issues took center stage at a key EnAlgae stakeholders' meeting on January 21. Delegates were urged to experiment with the open source Excel economic model the project is using to better compare data outputs from different companies.

"The model supports the theory that an integrated biorefinery approach is key to creating a viable algal bioenergy market. Scale is a crucial factor in reducing cost-per-kilo and finding ways to improve energy efficiency will make the greatest impact on the overall cost of algal biomass. A good example of an area where improvements might be possible is the cost of electricity for pumping and mixing; at present, according to the EnAlgae model, this can add almost €3 ($4) per kilo to the price," notes Dr. Brenda Parker, algal technology and biorefining expert with InCrops, a non-profit company based at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, U.K. InCrops focuses on developing and commercializing new biorenewable feedstocks.

Now that the model's foundation has been built, work has begun on the economic modeling of closed growth systems. There will be more on this at the June meeting.

The second project, called ALGADISK, will develop a modular, scalable and automatic biofilm reactor for algae biomass production, with low operational and installation costs.

The reactor will capture carbon from industrial emissions to produce high-value organic products. In this system, algae will be grown both in an aqueous environment and on biocompatible surfaces, allowing for carbon absorption from either the gas or liquid phase. The laboratory-scale reactor needed to test the control system and the harvesting options already have been constructed.



Seán Ottewell is Chemical Processing's Editor at Large. You can e-mail him at sottewell@putman.net.

More from this perspective...

Title

Productivity and Skills Get Thorough Exam

Blueprint identifies improvements for U.K. engineering construction sector.

12/09/2009

REACH Expands Its Range

Study shows cost of animal testing will significantly increase.

09/09/2009

Regulation Isn’t Smart Enough

Debate reveals chemical engineers desire for more innovation.

11/25/2008

Renewable Energy Movement Grows in Europe

Projects for a variety of technologies land $1.36 billion in funding.

07/24/2014

Report Spotlights Low-Dose Effects of EDCs

Debate on the impact of endocrine-disrupting chemicals could prompt more testing.

04/19/2012

Researchers Assess Mixture Toxicology

Study shows chemical cocktails pose greater levels of toxicity.

04/15/2010

Researchers Focus on Biofuel Pre-Treatment

Efforts could lead to improved manufacturing and reduced biofuel production costs

12/19/2013

Researchers burst a bubble

The mechanism of homogeneous nucleation accepted for generations is wrong.

01/28/2008

Roadmap Aims to Catalyze Better Energy Efficiency

International initiative foresees catalytic processes playing a key role in cutting consumption and emissions

10/02/2013

Robots Work on Reactor Removal

Decommissioning proves just as daunting as constructing nuclear facilities.

06/11/2009

Scientists Shine Spotlight on Algae and Seaweed

Research aims to address challenges of developing sustainable biomass production

06/17/2014

Scotland Vies for Oil and Gas Rights

Independence could affect the future of North Sea oil and gas assets.

02/20/2012

Scots Take Apt Approach to Biofuel

Scottish process uses the two main waste products of whisky production.

08/19/2010

Spinning Disk Reactor Reveals Potential

Smaller reactor could increase the safety of chemical production processes

05/13/2011

Sweden Targets Biofuel Developments

Engineers focus on obtaining synthesis gas from forest waste materials.

06/18/2012

Technology whittles wooden barrier

Process promises less-energy-intensive fibril extraction.

02/13/2008

The economic sky turns cloudy

Experts forecast modest economic growth at best. The global economy is slowing, led by a pronounced weakness in the United States resulting from the housing downturn and the credit crunch. And this, of course, will significantly impact the chemical industry.

01/24/2008

Tiny Particles Spark Big Debate

New report focuses on social and ethical issues of nanotechnology

02/18/2009

Transboundary Emissions Battle Looms

Refurbishing Czech power plant could potentially sink Micronesia.

02/11/2010

U.K. Carbon Capture Project Gets Big Boost

Major government funding could spur construction of unit at coal-fired power plant

05/14/2014