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Published on October 4th, 2012 | by Andrew


The Water-Food-Energy Nexus: Algae Biomass Production Moves toward Commercial Scale in Western Australia

October 4th, 2012 by  

Cleantech entrepreneurs worldwide are searching for methods and technologies that address sustainable development challenges at the food–water–energy nexus. Working toward commercializing research and development work begun at the University of California, Berkeley in 2006, Aurora Algae last week reached a milestone in its quest to develop a commercial-scale, algae-based biomass production facility at a pilot demonstration site in Karratha, Western Australia.

Cultivating a genetically-enhanced strain of common algae in six 1-acre (4,000-square meter) saltwater ponds, Aurora is consistently producing between 12-15 metric tons of algal biomass per month. The results are good enough for Aurora to meet the requirements for a AUD 2 million (US$1.96 million) Low Emissions Energy Development (LEED) grant, capital that’s being invested to further advance commercial-scale development.

Harnessing Algal Photosynthesis to Sustainably Produce Food, Fuel, Fertilizer and Bio-pharmaceuticals

How to produce food and fuel while minimizing water and natural resource use, greenhouse gas emissions, as well as other ecological and environmental degradation is a global challenge of magnitude sufficient enough to be included among the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), goals that all 193 UN member nations have pledged to achieve. It’s especially significant for those living in developing countries; who can’t rely on cheap, abundant water supplies, cheap fossil fuel energy, and increasingly expensive fertilizers and pesticides to produce the increasing amounts of food and materials required to meet the needs of growing and increasingly urban populations.

Aurora Algae’s team appears to be on track to developing a scalable, sustainable means of food, nutrition, bio-pharmaceutic, fuel, and fertilizer production that makes use of a minimal amount of freshwater. Moreover, Aurora is actually using carbon dioxide (CO2) as a feedstock to promote algal growth. Adding yet further to the potential benefits and attractions, the process and system is particularly well suited for use in arid and semi-arid desert and dryland areas where water, food, and natural resource availability tends to be lowest. These areas are also among the most sensitive and vulnerable to the negative consequences of climate change.

Aurora Algae’s pilot demonstration facility essentially works along the lines of a giant-sized photsynthetic organism. Algae in the saltwater ponds take up the abundant sunlight available in the region, along with carbon dioxide (CO2), to biologically manufacture a wide range of useful products.

The demonstration algae biomass production facility yields essential protein and Omega-3 fatty acids for food products, nutraceuticals, pharmaceuticals, and aquaculture, as well as fertilizer and biodiesel fuel that can be used for transport, power generation, and heating and cooling.

Results to date seem spectacular. Aurora’s pilot algae biomass production system yields 38 times as much usable protein and 10 times as much oil while using less than 1% of the freshwater required per unit land area to produce the equivalent amount of soybeans, VP of business development Leslie van der Meulen and director of corporate marketing Paul Brunato were quoted as saying in a recent Global Warming is Real interview.

Having reached the stage where it has qualified for the Australian government LEED grant, Aurora management is now set on taking the next step to proving that the method and technology is capable of being expanded to commercial scale.

“Aurora Algae plans to break ground in Maitland in 2014 for an expanded commercial facility consisting of 100 hectares (250 acres) of algae ponds, capable of producing up to 600 metric tons of biomass per month, and scalable to 2,000 hectares (5,000 acres),” managing director Matthew Caspari, stated in a press release. “LEED funding for the pilot program has been critical to the success of the project and our ability to expand in Western Australia.” 


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About the Author

I've been reporting and writing on a wide range of topics at the nexus of economics, technology, ecology/environment and society for some five years now. Whether in Asia-Pacific, Europe, the Americas, Africa or the Middle East, issues related to these broad topical areas pose tremendous opportunities, as well as challenges, and define the quality of our lives, as well as our relationship to the natural environment.

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