Biorefinery model for algal biofuel

South Australian production of biodiesel from microalgae is a step closer with the grant of $1.2 million to Flinders University and South Australian Research and Development Institute (SARDI) from the Premier’s Science and Research Fund.

The joint project, with a total investment of $4.1m and led by Flinders biotechnologist Associate Professor Wei Zhang [pictured], will develop a proof-of-concept facility.

Two hundred square metres of cultivation systems will be used to produce microalgae biomass, from which natural oils and other biomaterials will be extracted for conversion into biodiesel and other high value products.

Dr Sasi Nayar from SARDI will lead the development of microalgae production system.

While the search for alternative sources of fuel is the driving force of the project, Associate Professor Zhang said that the commercial viability of a microalgal feedstock industry will initially hinge on the higher value by-products.

“The are two aspects to the project: one is to produce a microalgae biomass, preferably with high oil content of 30 to 40 per cent. When the oil is extracted, it can be used for biofuel production,” Associate Professor Zhang said.

“The second component is to produce high-value products from the residue.”

He said the project takes its model from the petrochemical industry, which produces profitable value-added chemicals as well as petroleum fuels, its basic product.

“For this reason, we are calling it a bio-refinery,” Associate Professor Zhang said.

Flinders will be involved in production of the value-added products from the biomass.

One example is development of methods to fractionate Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids from the algal oil.

“Biodiesel is worth around one dollar a litre: pharmaceutical grade Omega-3 fatty acids can fetch up to $100 a litre,” Associate Professor Zhang said.

Glycerol, which can be processed into high-value chemicals widely used in the production of paint and plastics, is another potentially profitable by-product: every 10 litres of biodiesel production yields one litre of glycerol. This area of research is conducted by Dr Stephen Clarke of the Flinders Materials and Bioenergy Group.

Key personnel involved in the project include Professor Chris Franco, Mr Raymond Tham and Dr David Kehoe.

Associate Professor Zhang said the first generation of biofuel companies had not only relied on food sources that proved too expensive and unsustainable, but also followed a model that ignored commercial realities.

“At current prices, producing fuel can only cover basic costs – profits will have to come from the value-added products,” he said.

“The Flinders-SARDI project is championing the bio-refinery concept, and it is an approach that is crucial to the future viability of a biofuel industry in Australia.

“It makes economic sense to develop a biochemical industry in parallel with the biofuel capability. From one sustainable source material it is possible to produce a lot of environmentally friendly products for many industry sectors.”

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0 thoughts on “Biorefinery model for algal biofuel

  1. Excellent news and a worthy result for all the hard work put in by all those named in the article. Good to see some astute commercial analysis underpinning the research project. I understand there are issues in the efficient cultivation of microalage biomass for oil production, hopefully the collaboration can address these. One question, who is supplying the other $2.9m of (presumably cash) investment?

  2. @John Goslino: According to the SARDI press release the $1.2 million has been matched by resource recovery company SANCON, the South Australian Research and Development Institute (SARDI) and Flinders University to total $4 million.

  3. Thanks Luke for clarifying things, I wonder why the info you’ve gleaned from the SARDI release was not in the Flinders article? I think it is interesting to know all the parties involved and the monies they are putting in. Would be good to learn something about SANCON, presumably a new-ish research partner for Flinders.

  4. A recent article told that you have commercialized algae based diesel and your algae selection
    is Botryococcus Braunii. We plan to produce algae based diesel fuel in order to assure a supply of motor fuels for emergency vehicles. We plan to use animal or human waste methane digesters as a
    source of heat and electricity. The primary goal is to solve environmental issues associated with
    large animal agriculture. Selecting the proper strain is a difficult task.

    Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

  5. I must admit I find the business model confusing if they can’t make money from the biofuels but only make money on the “by-products” should not the fuel be considered the by-product because it is the unprofitable part to concentrate on?

    I would imagine it would be difficult to achieve economies of scale producing the high value chemicals.

    What the price elasticity of these chemicals is I have no idea

    I hope the technology can be scaled up to commercial size and made profitable.

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