Algae on the wall
There are many companies around the world able to convert algal oil into a green biofuel. However, it seems that much research and development remains before algae based fuels can compete commercially with fossil counterparts, exacerbated by current low prices. A headache for those battling to finance scale-up projects but the algal community is a resilient one as revealed during European Algae Biomass conference.
This year’s conference brought together several hundred senior executives from industry and academia to Berlin, Germany to discuss the latest commercial and technical developments, challenges and research discoveries throughout the entire algae value chain. Organised by Active Communication International (ACI), European Algae Biomass 2016 summit was held at the end of April and took place at the EUREF-Campus, a 55 000 square meter business and science park located in the heart of Berlin. The former, historic gas storage tower is right now undergoing installation of photo-bioreactors (PBR) for microalgae cultivation. The atmosphere among the conference participants can be described as carefully optimistic despite financial cuts for some algae projects recently. One of the speakers reminded of statement made recently by United States Department of Agriculture (USDA):
– There was a time when a green mat of algae was little more than pond scum, but no longer. Now, thanks to advances in science and technology, these microscopic plants are considered promising natural sources of oil that can be converted to biodiesel fuel.
Clean tech ventures
The conference was opened by Peter Van Den Dorpel, CEO of AlgaeLink, a cleantech investment company with ventures around the world. Based in the Netherlands, AlgaeLink is a global leader in algae cultivation technology and Van Den Dorpel is convinced that the algae based biofuel has the ability to satisfy the ever-increasing demand for oil and gas.
– This can be attained by perfecting processes and learning to consistently exceed customer expectations, said Van Den Dorpel. Discussions and scientific presentations covered everything from microalgae as a sustainable way to treat wastewater, cultivation systems productivity, optimisation of the biomass extraction, algae research and answers about the most successful algae products in Europe and worldwide.
Back to the lab
One day before the conference opening the participants had even the possibility to visit the algae research site of University of Applied Sciences in Wildau, south east of Berlin. The historic German manufacturer ERK Eckrohrkessel GmbH has, according to research site director Professor Franz Wildenauer, researched in cooperation with the Wildau University of Applied Sciences, the material and energetic use of algae in the Biophotonic Combined Energy System project (BCES).
The BCES is a closed cycle in which microalgae are produced, preferably in pipe systems. The mass of microalgae is further processed to finished products in follow-up processes. The direct energetic use of the mass of microalgae is basically possible, but it also needs to be converted into biogas or bioethanol. Preferably, however, only the energy generated from excess material from the respective follow-up processes is used, told Wildenauer.
Catherine Legrand, Professor of Marine Ecology at the Swedish Linnæus University spoke at the conference about the Algoland, which is a multi-stage project that combines marine ecology research with industry to find innovative, sustainable solutions for reducing emissions of CO2, nitrogen, and phosphorous, while at the same time yielding products such as animal fodder and biofuels.
– Cement production releases flue gas and with it vast amounts of CO2 to the atmosphere. Microalgae can use this flue gas as a CO2 source, and the algal biomass can be used as a resource for bioenergy or high value products. In this project, we examine the potential of using microalgae to capture CO2 from flue gas from the cement plant, explained Catherine Legrand.
Donato Aranda, Professor of Chemical Engineering Department at the Federal University of Rio De Janeiro discussed microalgae as a new trend amongst biodiesel producers on account of its lipid productivity. According to Aranda the Brazilian production of soybean oil per hectare and year is 450 litres whereas palm oil is 5 000 litres. For algal oil it is possible to produce 1 million litres oil per hectare every year and, according to Aranda, at a cost of less than US$0.50/litre in Brazil.
Photo bioreactor facade
CEO Gunnar Mühlstädt for German company Microalgae Integration, MINT, presented a very innovative Urban Farming segment which means designing and installing so called photo bioreactors (PBR) suitable for building façades.
– This allows combining the production of microalgae with your building concept for a reduction of the ecological footprint. Of particular interest are these economically meaningful business models for real estate owners, property managers and investors. This novel approach opens up for a more sustainable operation of buildings, explained Gunnar Mühlstädt. Assembly of the world’s first PBR on a building façade is going to be installed in EUREF Campus in Berlin, where this year’s European Algae Biomass Conference was arranged. The plants for urban algae cultivation are customized and manufactured to the building’s infrastructure.
– We work closely together with architects, test engineers and specialized manufacturing companies for this purpose. Because of the exposed position of the photo bioreactor, a very particular mode of operation is required that can be regulated adaptively and optimally with our intelligent controller, said Gunnar Mühlstädt.
MINT provides customer with a Full-Service Package including maintenance and support of the façade plant. Thanks to an online monitoring, a permanent control over all process relevant parameters is realisable. Mühlstädt underlined that in the case of critical operating conditions alarm messages will give a customer an advance warning. The mobile harvesting system is demand-controlled and brings the necessary harvesting equipment to customer’s location. In addition, an automatic system-compatible cleaning of the plant is carried out on a regular basis to secure high quality of the produced biomass. John Benemann, CEO of MicroBio Engineering, Inc. (MBE), a leading consulting and engineering firm specialising in the design and construction of algae ponds for wastewater reclamation and biofuel production, presented a large amount of different ponds and small raceways intended for initial inoculation culture development or for programmes just getting started in algae research. The culture area of this raceway is 0.5 m² and the volume is 100 litres at maximum depth of 20 cm. Stands elevate the ponds (0.6 m) to allow for easy draining to downstream processes. According to Benemann the smaller design allows the researcher to operate more raceways efficiently and enables duplicate and triplicate all experiments.
Today algae producers hope to make a profit by producing potable water as well as fuel, and by charging fees to municipalities for treating their wastewater. Another possible source of income is the substantial renewable fuel credits that for example the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the government of some European countries are offering for companies with small carbon footprints, which produce so called “advanced” biofuel.
Algae producers estimate that it will still cost US$80 million to US$100 million to move up from pilot plant to commercial-scale production. So far they have not taken that step, but if anything the Berlin conference indicated that algae scientists and proponents are very determined people.
Text & photos: Markku Björkman