Fuel from algae comes closer to commercialisation

A pilot plant in western Brisbane has successfully produced alternative fuels for aircraft and automobiles from algae.

Algal bioreactors at the Solar Biofuels Research Centre

The Solar Biofuels Research Centre at Pinjarra Hills, on the outskirts of Brisbane, unveiled its latest research harnessing algae to produce fuel today.

The centre was developed by The University of Queensland's Institute for Molecular Bioscience (IMB) in partnership with the Queensland Government, KBR Inc., Neste Oil Corp, Cement Australia Pty Ltd, Siemens, Bielefeld University and the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany.

According to experts, once a commercial grade was produced, the algae could provide a multimillion-dollar source of energy for cars and aircraft.

Algae is essentially protein, carbohydrates and oils, and with the extraction of moisture and the oils it was possible to make algae cakes to feed grazing stock, fish and poultry, while the oils yielded alternative fuels.

Queensland Premier Campbell Newman, who was invited to visit the facility ,  said the A$3.5-million project had potential to benefit regional and rural communities through developing economically viable methods of producing biofuels and other commodities including animal feeds.

''A biofuels industry would create new jobs in the biotechnology sector in Queensland, which already employs almost 10,000 people and generates an estimated combined revenue of $2.2 billion,'' he said.

''With plenty of sunshine and open spaces, rural Queensland has the climatic qualities required to become a major hub for biofuels in the Asia Pacific region, boosting exports as well as the domestic market.

''The Queensland government applauds projects such as the IMB's solar biofuels plant that use science, technology and innovation to help us realise the full potential of our state,'' Newman emphasised.

The director of the Solar Biofuels Research Centre, professor Ben Hankamer, said the pilot plant was an important step in advancing research into the efficiency of microalgae in converting solar energy and CO2 into fuels.

He said, ''Most clean energy technologies produce electricity but over 80 per cent of world energy demand is for fuels, making the development of clean fuels one of the most urgent challenges facing our society. Microalgae offer one of the most promising ways to do this.

''This facility combines biology, engineering and economics to allow us to determine the strains of algae and bioreactor designs that are the most effective in producing affordable biofuels for the future. .

Newman said the technology could help secure Australia's future fuel supplies, especially as Australia's oil refineries slowed down. He pointed out that 20 per cent of Australia's petrol came from overseas, mainly Singapore.

"In times of war and conflict, which have nothing to do with us, those sea lanes may not be the open and free sea lanes they are today," he said.

"So it is a good thing for Australia, which is running low on reserves of fuel at the moment to be looking at alternatives."

Vice president of investor KBR's technology branch Tom Connor said Australia was a leader in the field in the technology. 

"We recognise that we are not the only horse in this international race," he said. "But just like Black Caviar we will, in the future, be regarded as the start of the field."