DR DAVID LEWIS, School of Chemical Engineering, University of Adelaide : These current commercial enterprises process the algae to produce the product which sells for a thousand dollars a kilogram. We're trying to do the same but our product's worth a dollar a kilogram.
DESLEY BLANCH : Muradel is a new Australian company with plans to make the nation the "Saudi of the biofuels industry" by producing commercial quantities of clean, green fuels from algae. Already they are achieving the world's best production rates of oil from algae grown in open saline ponds.
Australia's conditions of hot weather, flat land, brackish water and access to carbon dioxide are ideal for algae production.
Muradel is a joint venture with Western Australia's Murdoch University, South Australia's University of Adelaide and commercial development company, SQC. The consortium funded by the Australian federal government has built a 3.3 million-dollar algae pilot plant at Karratha, in the Pilbara region of northwest Australia to test third generation biofuels production.
Increasingly in the spotlight is the discussion around the potential of a commercial production of algae, be it for pharmaceuticals, food, fuel or other products. Here's Dr David Lewis from Adelaide University.
DR DAVID LEWIS : The algae we are growing have what we call a high lipid content and the lipids are oils and they're highly variable in micro-algae. There are many types of lipids and these lipids can be used for pharmaceutical as you indicate and food additives, however, they also can be converted into liquid transportation fuels, that is, biodiesel and aviation fuel. So what we're after is to maximise the total lipid content of our algae to make them more efficient to produce the biofuels.
Algae are very productive, so they have a higher photosynthetic rate than land-based plants, but they can be grown on marginal land, so therefore we can grow these aquatic plants in very poor quality land and not compete with food for fuel. Another advantage with the algae is you can use saline water as opposed to fresh water. There are many, many species of algae.
DESLEY BLANCH : That's my next question, because I read somewhere that microalgae is effectively pond scum, but I don't think that's what you're talking about is it?
DR DAVID LEWIS : Calling microalgae 'pond scum' is not very fair, so basically microalgae are ubiquitous. They are everywhere. They are definitely in all aquatic systems, but they also live on surfaces of buildings, so you see some black buildings around the world. In actual fact some of that is a black alga. They live in the desert in what we call cryptogram and that's the hard surface of a desert and there are tens-of-thousands of species of algae around the world and commercially we only exploit ten species and this is because most algae are very difficult to grow in a controlled system.
DESLEY BLANCH : And you've got to get the algae to come together so you can harvest it. So how do you do that?
DR DAVID LEWIS : Well, that's correct. So I suppose if we go back to the pond scum, what we've got there is clumped algae and aquatic plants, so when we see these pond scums, they do consist of algae, but also consist of bacteria, aquatic plants, fungi etc.
What we're trying to do by commercially exploiting individual species is grow what we call a monoculture, so we only want to produce one species of algae in our system and we select the species that we want when we target specific products and to date, most of the commercially grown algae is used for either pharmaceutical products, which is very high value or for aquaculture feed. For example in Australia, there are many aquaculture facilities growing oyster spat and these spat require algae for their growth.
But both these pharmaceutical applications and aquaculture applications have to grow specific types of algae, so with the biofuel challenge, we want to grow specific strains of algae which have high lipid content, but the challenge is that the price of fuel is quite low. It's about, for example, a $1 per litre of oil -- that's a very rough estimate, and most products commercially produced from algae at the moment sell for about $1,000 per kilogram and a kilogram is the weight of one litre of oil.
So basically these current commercial enterprises process the algae to produce the product which sells for $1,000 a kilogram. We're trying to do the same, but our product is worth $1 a kilogram.
DESLEY BLANCH : And you've actually reduced your cost, you've been able to get it out for $12 and you've got it down to $4 per kilogram. So what price would you need to get your oil down to, to make it viable? You've said $1, can you do that? What do you have to do to get those costs down?
DR DAVID LEWIS : With processes we get economies of scale. So the bigger we make the plant the overheads reduce. As you've mentioned, we've been able to bring the cost down from $12 to $4, so most of the work done to date has been laboratory scale on the bench in shake flasks. So we've gone the shake flask scale which was $12 a litre to a very small pilot plant which is around $4 a litre and now we've scaled that up to our pilot plant at Karratha in northwest Australia which is one acre of pond system and we can harvest up to sixty tonnes of culture per day. However, that scale is still very small and a long way from a commercial process.
Australia consumes around about six million barrels of oil per day, so one plant isn't going to make a whole lot of difference to our overall usage of crude. However, due to the size of Australia we can build many, many, many of these plants and potentially start servicing local communities with renewable fuels. So, one of our aims is to locate our plants around mining activities which use a lot of diesel; we can also locate our plants around rural air fields, so our quickest route to market is some niche markets.
We don't think we're going to replace our fossil fuels with renewable fuels but we can definitely help reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.
DESLEY BLANCH : David, do you go to bed at night dreaming about little algae plants?
DR DAVID LEWIS : I do. I've been researching microalgae for about ten years. It was the topic of my PhD where I was interested in stopping algae growing in water supply reservoirs and as a PhD student I was trying to stop it growing, as an academic I am trying to grow it.
But it's interesting. I learnt a lot by learning how to not grow algae, which I am putting into practice now to help grow the algae. But yes, I think with any research activities, you have to be passionate about what you do and algae are so interesting.
Not only can they produce fuels as you've alluded to before, they can be used for food, pharmaceuticals, carbon sequestration, etc. They have many, many applications, so it's a very exciting field to be in.
DESLEY BLANCH : David Lewis is one of the leading authorities on the development of biofuels from microalgae. He's senior lecturer in the School of Chemical Engineering at the University of Adelaide, South Australia.
Next: more power to the battery for electric cars.
Dr David Lewis, Senior Lecturer
School of Chemical Engineering The University of Adelaide, SA 5000