Research grant boosts environment gains

wei-zhang1The potential to simultaneously produce environmentally friendly renewable fuels and high value products has been boosted by a $2.724 million Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism research grant to the Algal Fuels Consortium announced by the Federal Minister Hon. Martin Ferguson under the Department of Resources Energy and Tourism’s 2nd Generation Biofuels program.

The grant recipient, the Algal Fuels Consortium (AFC), comprises the South Australian Research & Development Institute (SARDI), Flinders University, the CSIRO Energy Transformed Flagship, Sancon Recycling Pty Ltd and Flinders Partners. AFC is developing a pilot-scale second generation biorefinery for sustainable production of microalgal biofuels and value added products.  Sancon Recycling Australia (a division of Sancon Resource Recovery) has committed to at least matching the funding for the pilot project. Flinders Partners is the commercialisation agent for the AFC.

The Chair of the Algal Fuels Consortium, Associate Professor Rob Thomas says “This truly collaborative research project will produce biomass from native strains of microalgae, from which biodiesel will be produced on a scale that is commercially viable. At the same time, the project will produce high value by-products including Omega-3 fatty acids, bioactive peptides and carotenoids used by the nutraceutical industry”.

The Australian Government funding will support the construction of 0.4 ha of raceway ponds on Torrens Island adjacent to the gas fired power stations. This will be one of the largest research biorefineries in Australia with the potential to be scaled up to 15 ha. This is a complex project and needs access to a range of skilled researchers. The AFC has access to 70 researchers with expertise in algal culture, post combustion carbon capture, harvesting and dewatering, extraction and bioprocessing. The project will enable AFC to showcase this national capability to international investors for commercial uptake.

Microalgae have the potential to produce up to 10 times the volume of biofuels in comparison to traditional oilseed crops grown on the same land footprint. But unlike oilseed crops, microalgae use non-arable land, saline water, carbon dioxide, nutrients and sunlight. This would result in major economic and social benefits. Most importantly, carbon dioxide is fixed by the microalgae as it grows, thus helping Australia recycle its carbon emissions. For instance, replacing just 10% of Australia’s mineral diesel with biodiesel produced from microalgae would generate a turnover of around $1.6 billion, create around 5,000 direct new jobs and bring about a reduction of nearly 4 million tones of fossil carbon dioxide emissions.

This innovative renewable energy project is a major step forward from the small scale research conducted to date by the AFC partners. Under this project, the consortium partners will improve native microalgal strains to be grown in ponds optimised for productivity, with carbon and nutrient delivery.  The AFC will also develop low cost and efficient harvesting, dewatering, and oil extraction technologies and perform subsequent bioprocessing to produce high value co-products alongside biodiesel. The AFC will also undertake economic and life cycle analysis during this project in order to support a full commercial venture. The AFC has already attracted interest from a number of major international companies looking to develop large scale renewable energy technologies from microalgae.

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