Dr. José Olivares is an analytical chemist at the Los Alamos National Laboratories (LANL) in New Mexico. Biofuels Digest sat down with him recently to pick his brain about where various countries were in the race to produce algae biofuels. What follows is some of his thoughts on the subject.
India boasts a lengthy reputation for utilizing algae, but largely as a nutritional resource or for wastewater treatment. They’re attempting to build up those aspects into a biofuels market to a degree. Actually, India and the United States have cooperated in the creation of a financing venture for the advancement of biofuels generally, be it algae or cellulosic or another energy plant which has not yet been decided. That financing venture is in formation process and plans to put almost a million and a half to two million dollars per year for study and continuing development of biofuels in each country.
I believe India is a power to cope with due to their lengthy track record with algae, but at this time they’re wanting to figure out out the best way to enter the biofuels industry. We’re extremely privileged, from a NAABB point of view, to be working with Reliance Industries Limited, which is one of the biggest petrochemical businesses on earth and is located in India.
Japan has experienced an even longer background than nearly all nations in producing algae for business applications, largely macroalgae, for dietary sources and food options. They also have had a top phycological community and therefore are extremely proactive in prospecting for new species of algae. The Japanese possibly possess a number of the best scientists on earth examining species such as Botryococcus braunii.
A lot of this research is focused at the University of Tsukuba. There, they’ve in fact determined a brand-new type of algae that grows very, quickly and possesses relatively good oil productivity. It’s extremely regular and very fast growing in signifigant amounts, so its overall efficiency appears encouraging for the biofuels industry.
Inside China, I went to check out the Qingdao Institute for Bioenergy and Biotechnology. The institute was launched to assist the area around Qingdao produce a bioenergy infrastructure and they’re effectively enroute to doing that. During the last 36 months, they’ve assembled an institution with approximately 200 experts. It’s kind of remarkable to view the research power that they’ve managed to collect in that very limited time.
The Chinese possess a couple of projects in algae and we are, once more, extremely blessed within the NAABB to be partners. We’re collaborating with Dr. Jian Xu in the sequencing and the annotation and analysis of Nannochloropsis salina strain 1776 which we’re likewise sequencing here at Los Alamos. This cooperation also involves NMSU and Solix Biosystems which performed an important part in creating our collaboration.
Taiwan is quite comparable to China. There exists a huge steel plant in southern Taiwan, the Chinese Steel Corporation in Tungkang. Among the biggest steel plants on earth with considerable CO2 emissions. This factory is participating with the National Cheng Kung University to create a photobioreactor sequestration system for CO2.
Overall, this is a considerable undertaking for a very small country.
Australia has been in the news for quite a while and has recently been creating quite a commercial concern in algae. Muradel, small businesses forming in Adelaide and in Karratha (from a joint venture between Murdoch U., Adelaide Research and Innovation Pty Ltd and SQC Pty Ltd) is building a small 10 acre facility and presently possesses about two acres under production. In addition, Aurora Algae has begun building a few facilities in Karratha, and MBD Energy is active in Queensland.
The University of Sydney is creating a variety of systems for the conversion of biomass into oils, in particular their hydrothermal liquefaction abilities seem extremely encouraging for algae.
Of course, we have all seen the interest from airlines such as Qantas and Virgin Air, and airplane manufacturer Boeing, in the Australian bioenergy initiatives. All of this is a very, very nice level of development from Australia.
There are four new algae projects being funded by the European Union. Three of them are located in Spain.
Specifically, I visited the Repsol Innovation Center in Madrid and University of Alicante. Repsol is a large Spanish petrochemical interested in the development of biofuels. Repsol has a number of algae projects developing around Spain, including at the Univeristy of Alicante. Their research is looking at plastics for photobioreactors, greenhouse containment systems, strain selection, photobioreactor design, and fuel conversion. At the U. of Alicante I was particularly interested in their work with hydrothermal liquefaction technologies.
Of course, there has also been great work by Rene Wijffels at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, in understanding different types of photobiorector systems and cultivation systems for the European-type environment. There are also some efforts in other countries like Greece and Italy, but overall, Spain seems to be the one leading the development of the algae industry in Europe.
A nice, new technology just emerged out of a company called Evodos looking at a new centrifugal technology that is very low energy and fairly well developed. They are already being looked at very heavily by a lot of commercial entities and some research institutions. They have three different sized systems, from a research and development system to systems that can be taken out into the field for harvesting algae very, very quickly up to twenty thousand liters per hour flow rates for their largest systems.
Israel and Korea
We’ve heard quite a bit from Israel who has had a long history in developing nutraceuticals and now are using their photobioreactor systems mostly for biofuels. This development has come primarily out of Ben-Gurion University. In fact, Ami Ben-Amotz and his company Seambiotic are just starting to develop a new facility in China for algal biofuels, from technology they developed in Israel.
So when I look at all of the research and development that is taking place worldwide, I think the algae biofuels industry is starting to take off. In it, I also see that the U.S. continues to be a major force in helping drive that development. In many cases, the U.S. is involved in major collaborations in some way or U.S. industries are going into these countries because of their favorable environmental conditions for algae production (e.g., Australia).
We can see that the U.S is a major, major driver in those efforts. And since about two years ago with the stimulus funds coming into algal biofuels from a research and development aspect and biorefinery development, the U.S. is probably still the largest funding source for algal development from a public standpoint. Even from a private standpoint there are many more industrial and commercial efforts developing in the U.S. as compared to the rest of the world.
That’s not to say that the rest of the world is not catching up, and it’s great to see that all of these efforts are going on both in the U.S. and across the globe. As you well know, biofuels development is probably going to be very specific to regional conditions. Therefore, regional solutions are going to need to be developed in order to have economically and environmentally feasible biofuels efforts in each country.
Even within each country, I think we are going to see differences in the way we cultivate. For example, the way we cultivate in the southwest of the United States is going to be very different from Hawaii and from Florida, and much different than in the northern parts of the United States.