Biorefinery plans aim to make algae biofuel profitable

British researchers are to help design what could be the world’s largest commercial-scale farm and refinery for turning algae into useful products.

An international team led by Greenwich University has received €10m (£8m) from the EU to build a “D-Factory” that would convert the bright orange microalgae Dunaliella into a range of food, pharmaceuticals, plastics and fuels.

The scientists hope that using a combination of technologies to make a variety of products from algae will make its use as a renewable fuel source more economic, as only up to 80 per cent of its mass can currently be used for fuel.

‘Most people have been focusing on algae to make biofuel,’ project leader Prof Patricia Harvey told The Engineer. ‘But this isn’t cost-effective. Many of the companies that started going down a biofuel route have switched to make food additives.

‘This strategy says “let’s try and get everything so we can realise a much bigger portfolio from the algae than just food or fuel”. 

The project will explore a number of technologies for growing and processing the algae, including cultivation in photobioreactors and using super-critical CO2 to extract lipid compounds from the algae.

One option is to build the biorefinery alongside a 10-hectare development of algal raceway ponds in Israel, which the researchers claim would become the world’s largest site for the commercial cultivation of the organisms for multiple uses.

Harvey said that, as well as ensuring the technology can cope with the salt water in which the algae are grown, the main engineering challenge will be putting the separate technologies together like a Lego kit.

‘It’s very easy to have the individual isolated bits but how do you do you integrate them to get a low-cost sustainable output and find out where the pinch points in terms of water and energy?’ she said.

The project will focus on the Dunaliella alga because it can cope with extreme conditions and produces a wide range of compounds. Harvey said processing it in such large quantities may even yield compounds that have previously been unusable or unknown because they constitute such a small proportion of the algae’s mass.

The 13-partner consortium behind the D-Factory project is funded by the EU’s FP7 programme and aims to draw up plans for the biorefinery within three years, with construction to take place shortly afterwards.

Greenwich University has also recently received funds to examine the possibility of producing biofuel from seaweed and developing new medical compounds from Dunaliella.