News, opinions and activism regarding our energy future, and local solutions for Perth, Western Australia.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

The Week in Algae

Ahh, algae! Where would we be without them? Certainly not living on a planet with a breathable atmosphere of 20% oxygen at least. Considering that they produce at least one-third to one-half of the Earth's oxygen they are not much talked about. However I noticed algae in the news in four different areas this week...

Biodiesel from Algae

Biodiesel from algae has long been seen as a potential solution to our liquid transport fuel needs, with the US Department of Energy (under the forward thinking, but politically inept Carter adminstration) establishing an aquatic species program to research biodiesel from algae. The program was cancelled in the 80's however currently research is ongoing with one research group at UNH promoting that "just" 200,000 hectares (780 sq miles) of desert salt-water algae ponds could meet the entire US demand... provided certain practical problems are solved, of course.

So it was very encouraging to read this week that New Zealand has become the first nation in the world to commercially produce biodiesel from algae. NZ company Aquaflow Bionomic Corporation formed an agreement with the Marlborugh District Council to extract oils from excess algae coming from a municipal sewerage pond discharge.

Production is estimated at 1,000,000 litres per year, which in oil-field speak is only 6,300 bbls/year, as much as some productive wells would produce in a day. However this production is from a small town, and there are many other sources of nutrient rich waters to grow algae in, such as dairy farm run-off, so if this system were established widely it would provide significant volumes of biofuels.

Hydrogen from Algae

Suprisingly, some algea can photosynthesise hydrogen gas, but they only do so when under certain stressed environmental conditions and at very low yields. However, a join German-Australian research team has had some success genetically modifying algae to produce more hydrogen gas.

Economic feasibility with regard to algae sets in only when the energy efficiency - the conversion of sunlight into hydrogen - reaches 7-10 percent. But alga in its natural form achieves at most a meagre 0.1 percent. The new "turbo-alga" has now come up to 1.6-2.0 percent.

"We have not reached our goal yet," says [microbiologist] Kruse, calmly announcing: "We want to reach it in five years."

Apparently, when the goal is reached "a reactor shaped like a cube measuring three metres per side and filled with algae could supply a two-person household with their energy needs." I am somewhat skeptical of this claim, however this does appear to be a promising area of research.

And now for the bad news...

Ocean warming set to devastate coral

Corals live in a mutually beneficial relationship with photosynthetic algae. But when sea surface temperatures at a given location rise above summer limits, the corals expel their single-celled bedfellows (possibly because the algae start producing toxins).

Algae provide corals with most of their energy and their colour - hence the term bleaching. If the high temperatures are prolonged, the corals start to die off en masse.

I don't really have much to say. Except considering that the global temperature response to system forcings (e.g. green house gases, carbon dioxide et al) is delayed by many years take the opportunity to dive on some living coral reefs now.

And finally, something


The latest in the long line [of supplements] is a type of marine algae called Dunaliella salina. It grows in only a few places around the world, including Australia, Israel and India, and it's getting researchers excited on several counts.

Marc Cohen is the founding professor of Complementary Medicine at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) University and president of the Australasian Integrative Medicine Association. He says that Dunaliella salina isn't new - in fact, it's been around for over 500 million years.

"Microbiologists have known for a long time about the benefits of Dunaliella salina," says Professor Cohen. "It's the world's richest source of beta-carotene and has, gram for gram, more than 350 times more beta-carotene than carrots."

I bet my carrots taste nicer though, stir-fried with some soy, honey, garlic and sesame seeds... oh joy.


Anonymous paul said...

I have read with interest recent government ministers suggestions that portions of Western Australians gas reserves should be retained and priced (low) for other local industry development within the state. I find it interesting that gobal LNG prices are making export of local gas (with its capital costs) more attractive than use domestically. Can Australia afford to use its own energy sources? Should local industries be subsidised by cheap energy or be forced to become more energy efficient by competing with other end users of our gas?

19/5/06 01:19

Anonymous liberabit said...

I hadn't heard about using algae for biodiesel, interesting. I'm still wanting to compare the various biodiesel options.
And thought you might be inteested in this page from the ABC.

19/5/06 01:54

Blogger mike said...

Thats a very interesting development. I am away from WA till the end of the year so don't get much local press. I will be following this one up though... I can see pros and cons.

However on balance my view is always that more expensive fossil fuel energy is a good thing as it forces consumption and alternatives.

What I do think we should be doing though, is earmarking some reserves ore exploration acreage of oil & gas for no-development, i.e. saving them for the future. Oil & gas are so valuable in terms of the products that can be made for them by the petrochemical & pharmacuetical industry that its just plain stupid to burn them. One day we will realise this, it would be nice if Australia had some oil & gas left when that day comes!

19/5/06 10:31

Blogger mike said...

Cheers mate thats a great link, I agree with most of the answers there! I'll be adding that to my links section when I finally get it organised.

Re: biodiesel sources, any analysis needs to consider fertilisers and other energy/hydrocarbon inputs, and the opportunity cost of the lost agricultural production. That why utilising sewerage plants and other liquid waste streams is so brilliant - there are no fertilisers or opportunity cost involved.

Something you may be intrested in is the Jatropha tree, which has suscessfully been used for biodiesel in India as it can grow on degraded land unsuitable for agricultural production.

19/5/06 10:36

Blogger mike said...

Just found another reference to bio-hydrogen, this time produced by bacteria:

"Research funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) has shown bacteria that can metabolise confectionery could be a valuable source of clean hydrogen energy in the future.

Bioscientists at the University of Birmingham have demonstrated in a feasibility study that these bacteria give off hydrogen gas as they consume high-sugar waste produced by the confectionery industry."

24/5/06 09:33

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Found another link for biodiesel from algae - - Biodiesel from Algae - Info, Links

This area seems to be fast growing as an area of research...let's hope it finally proves to be a practical solution to derive biodiesel from algae in a sustainable way

Ec @

12/6/06 18:58


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