Biofuel Production with Algae

Biofuels are a global growth area and are likely to have an important role to play in helping to lower our carbon emissions in the future. But what are they?

Simply, biofuels are liquid fuels, made from the residue (or left overs) of commercial crops, such as sugarcane, vegetable oils and wheat.

The residue is collected and processed to produce liquid fuel, which reduces waste and also offers the transport industry a low-carbon alternative to fossil fuels. 

There are two main types of biofuels used in Australia: 

  1. Bioethanol or ethanol: an alcohol made from fermenting sugarcane or starchy plant materials. Ethanol is blended with petrol (commonly known as E10 at petrol stations); to create a fuel that’s 10 percent ethanol and 90 percent petrol. There is also E85 petrol, containing 75 to 85 percent ethanol, but it’s only used in a limited number of specially built cars and V8 Supercars
  2. Biodiesel: a fuel made from products containing fatty acids, such as vegetable oils, animal fats and recycled greases like cooking oil. Biodiesel can be used as an alternative to fossil fuels in cars, trucks, ships and machinery. It can be used as a pure alternative, but it’s more commonly blended with traditional diesel, contributing up to 20 per cent of the fuel. 

Interestingly, research is being conducted into the future possibility of using algae, which is a microscopic aquatic organism, to produce biofuel. The early research suggests algae could produce more biofuel per hectare than current methods using commercial crop residue. 

Check out this video to find out more:

Algae to fuels

How does algae produce biofuel?

It’s a fairly simple process:

  1. Algae are cultivated in large pools or farms.
  2. The micro-organisms convert sunlight to energy, and store the energy as oil.
  3. The oil is extracted using a mechanical process such as pressing or using sound waves, or with chemical solvents that break down the cell walls and release the oil. 
  4. Further processing and refining produces a biofuel suitable for use as an alternative to traditional fuels. 

It’s even thought that algal biofuel could be processed in existing traditional oil refineries in the future.  

Why algae biofuel is exciting

At this stage, it seems ‘algae biofuel’ has quite a few benefits: 

  • It’s carbon neutral as the marine organisms consume carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as they grow.
  • Algae ponds can be built on relatively small parcels of land that are otherwise unsuitable for crops.
  • Algae flourish in all sorts of habitats, including waste water. 
  • Algae biofuel is biodegradable. 
  • In the US, researchers have developed a process that can turn algae into crude oil in less than an hour, so it can be quick to produce too.1

  In Australia, the CSIRO is looking into the best algal strains for producing biofuels, and assessing our algae resources. While commercialisation is still a way off, the CSIRO is working to improve the feasibility and efficiency of algae production, harvesting and processing.Stay tuned!

References

  1. Smithsonian 2014, ‘Scientists turn algae into crude oil in less than an hour’ Tuan C Nguyen, December 2013. 
  2. Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation 2014, Australian National Algae Culture Collection.

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