Laurent FourageCO2 Bioconversion Program Manager at Total’s Refining & Chemicals business segment
"The use of microalgae has numerous environmental advantages."
The Future of Algae Fuels
The biofuelA fuel produced from plant or animal matter. There are currently two types of biofuel... industry is looking beyond conventional approaches to a new generation of fuels based on microalgae biomassIn the energy sector, biomass is defined as all organic matter of plant or animal origin... . These new fuels could be ready for the commercial market before the end of the next decade. Laurent Fourage, CO2See Carbon Dioxid Bioconversion Program Manager at Total’s Refining All industrial processes used to obtain various petroleum products, such as gas, gasoline, heating oil and asphalt, from crude oil. & Chemicals business segment, offers his analysis.
Microalgae biomass is the subject of extensive research and tests around the world. It is already used commercially in the production of high-value-added products in the biochemistry, cosmetics and food industries, generally by innovative start-ups that have found their markets.
A Long Chain of Research
The conversion of microalgae biomass into biofuel – or algae fuelFuel is any solid, liquid or gaseous substance or material that can be combined with an oxidant... , as it is sometimes known – is still in the development phase. Huge volumes must be processed and produced, which raises questions about technology choices and profitability. That is why research is today undertaken by large industrial companies (particularly energy groups), supported by the world of academia.
Identifying the species that will produce the largest quantity of convertible oil is the first challenge. In addition to finding the best natural microalgae strains, researchers may attempt to genetically modify existing strains to improve their yield. However, they face restrictions here because E.U. standards prohibit the cultivation of genetically modified microorganisms (GMMs) in open spaces. BiodiversityRefers to the natural diversity of living organisms. It can be measured through the study of species, genes and ecosystems. “screening” – which consists in reviewing hundreds of thousands of algae species – is therefore the way forward. We are a long way from having explored every option.
The next step is to develop the best cultivation method. Bioreactors (such as the glass tubes that we have all seen) are currently best adapted to the production of high-value-added products in low volumes. For biofuels, the most mature solution today still seems to be open ponds, as they require less investment and best meet the need to produce in large quantities. Prototype facilities (hectare-sized in Europe) have already been installed, alongside laboratory research.
The main objective of current research is to increase the yield per unit area. Researchers face a myriad of technical issues here, but there are solutions for each one. The process of harvesting the algae biomass from its cultivation environment is one of the main energy-intensiveDescribes a building, mode of transportation or industrial process that uses large amounts of energy. operations that requires further work and optimization. Extracting the oil is also a delicate step, as it involves removing an extremely hydrophobic product from a highly hydrophilic environment. Oil and water are not a good mix! Once this has been done, the standard processes for converting vegetable oils (e.g., rapeseed and palm oil) can be used to turn the algae oil into biofuel.
Researchers are also working on a different approach known as hydrothermal liquefactionConversion of a gas to a liquid. In industrial applications, gas is liquefied by cooling and/or pressurization... , where the oil is not extracted but instead the algae biomass is used directly. After being harvested, the algae is converted under temperature and high pressure into a crude-like bio-oil that can be refined. The advantages here are that non-oil-producing strains can be used and that the biomass is harnessed in full. The process recreates what nature does over millions of years to produce oil.
Advantages and Disadvantages
The use of microalgae has numerous environmental advantages. The strains used can be cultivated in seawater, and therefore have no impact on freshwater supplies. Extensive areas are certainly required to install basins, but there is no need to use arable land. What is also very interesting is that microalgae cultivation requires CO2. Around two metric tons of CO2 are needed to produce one metric ton of biomass, meaning that biomass production represents a potential means of utilizing CO2 and can contribute to the fight to cut emissions.
As in all emerging industries, the main obstacle is cost. Primarily because facilities are limited to pilot scale, the cost of producing algae-based fuel is today estimated at between €5 and €10 per liter, which rules out commercial production.
But the opportunities are real, as evidenced by the huge amount of research being conducted around the world. The United States is particularly active in the field, supported by significant public funding. India has made major progress and China has a vast network of academic labs.
There is also a good academic network in France. Thanks to the commitment of industrial groups (including Total) working in partnership, we should see the launch of an industrial and commercial biofuel project by 2025.
Laurent Fourage is CO2 Bioconversion Program Manager at Total’s Refining & Chemicals business segment. He previously worked for Protéus, an industrial biotechnology specialist. Laurent is a graduate of Nantes University. Before joining Protéus, he completed post-doctoral studies at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, United Kingdom.