Aussie algae fuel green oil hope

Despite the claims of some, commercially viable fuels from algae have not yet been developed. But newly trialled native algae species provide real hope, a Queensland scientist has found.

SBRC - pond measurements_LRDr Evan Stephens and the team at the University of Queensland’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience, in collaboration with Germany’s Bielefeld University and Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, have identified fast-growing and hardy microscopic algae that could prove the key to cheaper and more efficient production of the alternative fuel.

With the help of these native species, Australia could potentially become an oil exporter like Middle East by devoting just 1% of its land to algae farms.

“Previously, the main focus has been looking for oil-rich algae, but usually these are not fast-growing and they are tastier to predators – like microscopic scoops of icecream,” said Evan, manager of the Solar Biofuels Research Centre at the University of Queensland.

“The integration of new technologies means we can turn a broad range of algae into bio-crude oil that can be processed in existing oil refineries, so now the success of the industry comes down to rapid growth and low production costs,” he said. “A major new frontier is in the biology and developing new strains – and we’ve already made significant advances through the identification of high efficiency strains that have really stable growth, as well as being resistant to predators and temperature fluctuations.”

Evan and the team identified hundreds of native species of microscopic algae from freshwater and saltwater environments around Australia. They then tested these strains against thousands of environmental conditions in the laboratory, creating a shortlist of top performers.  The researchers are currently putting the algae through their paces at a pilot processing plant at Pinjarra Hills, Queensland, which was opened in April by Premier Campbell Newman.

The project has garnered international and domestic investment, including Finland’s Neste Oil, global engineering company KBR, Siemens, the Queensland Government and Cement Australia.

Traditionally, algae have been grown for health foods, aquaculture and waste-water treatment. In recent years, algae oil has become the focus of an emerging biofuel industry. Its production is still expensive however, and viable commercial production has not yet been achieved in Australia or overseas.

“While we know that we can produce algae oil that is even higher quality than standard petroleum sources, we are working to increase the efficiency of production with the ultimate aim being to compete with fossil fuels dollar for dollar,” Evan said.

He said it was important to get the economies of scale right before commercialising algae biofuels.  “There are unfortunately a few people out there making ostentatious claims, but it is important to be realistic and the industry is clearly maturing. There are still important challenges in science and engineering to be overcome to achieve the high efficiency needed to compete with conventional petroleum.”

According to Evan, the algae biofuel industry holds great promise for Australia, whose climate and land are well suited to algae farming.

“If we devoted just 1% of our land mass to algae farming, we could theoretically produce five times more oil than we currently consume and potentially become an oil exporter, rather than an importer – we could be like the Middle East,” he said.

Evan Stephens is one of 12 early-career scientists unveiling their research to the public for the first time thanks to Fresh Science, a national program sponsored by the Australian Government through the Inspiring Australia initiative.

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