Australia investigates algae oil production

By Erin Voegele | March 09, 2009
According to information recently released by global research and consulting company Frost & Sullivan, biodiesel producers in Australia are operating at well-below capacity.

Research conducted by the organization found that only 60,000 metric tons (19 million gallons) of biodiesel were produced in Australia during 2008, although the continent has the capacity to produce 485,000 metric tons (152 million gallons) annually.

The data was included in a new report, titled "Strategic Analysis for the Australian Biodiesel Industry," offered by Frost & Sullivan's Chemical and Materials Growth Partnership Service program.

The research concluded that an unfavorable tax regime and rising feedstock prices have dissolved the Australian industry's potential, and direct government intervention is needed in order to spur expansion. According to Frost & Sullivan, this intervention could be accomplished through the formation of biofuel mandates or tax breaks.

Although traditional biodiesel production in Australia may be stalled, entities are working to commercialize second-generation, algae-based production technologies. In southern Australia, the Algal Fuels Consortium's Microalgal Research Alliance-formed by members of the South Australian Research and Development Institute, Flinders University, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, Flinders Partners, and Sancon Recycling Pty Ltd.-is constructing a pilot-scale algae-oil production facility on Torrens Island.

The project received a $1.2 million Premier's Science and Research Fund grant in late December, with co-investment from industry partners Sancon and United Water International.

According to Grace Taylor, marketing and communication manager for the South Australian Research and Development Institute, the Algal Fuels Consortium, with SARDI as the lead agency, applied for an additional biofuels grant in January.

The Torrens Island facility will span approximately 10 hectares (24.7 acres) and include several raceway ponds. Smaller ponds will be used for inoculation and initial species screening. Water for the facility will come from the Port River estuary, and carbon dioxide will be obtained from the flue gas of a diesel generator. Taylor said the algal production systems will be designed by SARDI and utilize the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization's computation fluid dynamic for hydrodynamic modeling. The biorefinery components of the facility will be designed by Flinders University.

Taylor said the project will be developed in three phases. A proof-of-concept facility will be operational by late 2009. A pilot plant will be built in two stages, with the smaller ponds being operational by mid-2010 and the larger ponds being operational by the end of that year.

In addition to producing algae oil and biodiesel, the project will also seek to develop certain coproducts. "The biorefinery component of the project will develop high-value biological and chemical coproducts," Taylor confirmed. Bioprocessing technologies will be developed to optimize a purification system for separating the biofuels, or saturated triglycerides, from target coproducts such as omega-3 fatty acids and carotenoids. The residual protein and carbohydrate components of the algae will also be investigated for possible use as an animal feed, or for other coproducts such as bioactive peptides, natural antibiotics, cosmeceuticals, or food and feed supplements.

The project will also seek to develop acrylic acid esters from the glycerin left over after biodiesel production. "This project aims to demonstrate advanced chemical processes to improve the efficiency of dehydrating glycerol to acrolein by using a variety of new inorganic acid catalysts," Taylor said. "Acrolein can be converted to acrylic acid and then to acrylic acid ester, used in various industries such as paint, textile, plastics, etc." This biorefinery approach to fuel production will diversify and significantly improve revenue streams to provide a sustainable business model in achieving economic biofuel production, he said.
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