Biofuel down under

Australian scientists have proved that they can consistently grow large quantities of algae for biofuel in open ponds without contamination.

Their work has received $1.89m (£1.14m) funding from the Australian government as part of the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate.

‘This is the only biofuel project in Australia working simultaneously on all steps in the process of microalgal biofuels production, from microalgae culture, harvesting of the algae and extraction of oil suitable for biofuels production,’ said project leader Prof Michael Borowitzka, from Murdoch University.

Prof Borowitzka said that due to the project’s success, construction of a multi-million dollar pilot plant to test the whole process on a larger scale will now begin in Karratha in the north west of Australia in January and is expected to be operational by July.

‘We have achieved production rates of 50 tonnes per hectare per year, over half of which is converted to oil.

‘These high production rates are expected to increase at the new pilot plant due to the even better climatic conditions in Karratha,’ said Prof Borowitzka.

Prof Borowitzka said the cost of producing biofuel from algae has already dropped from $12 a kilo to below $4 in the past year, but the aim is to get it down to less than $1 a kilo.

Dr David Lewis from the University of Adelaide‘s School of Chemical Engineering said a key aspect of the project is to show that commercial levels of algae can be grown without competing for resources with food crops.

‘The algae will grow on non-arable ­- even arid – land without any need for freshwater in cultivation,’ Dr Lewis said.

‘By contrast, crops such as canola need a lot of freshwater and good-quality farming land.

‘Growing algae at an industrial scale also takes up significantly less land than that required by canola crops to produce the same amount of biofuel.’

In addition to producing clean fuel, Prof Borowitzka said that during the growth of the algae, 60 tonnes of CO2 are fixed per hectare of algae each year.

One of the project’s international partners, major algae producer Parry Nutraceuticals in India, has also achieved high rates of carbon fixation.

South China University of Technology is the project’s other international partner.

Murdoch University Prof Michael Borowitzka and the clean biofuel produced from algae