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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.

  • I’ve averred for years now that algal oil will be the silver bullet that will kill the fossil vampire and provide us with all of the liquid fuels that we need. I’ve been poo pood by most. Looks like I’ll live long enough to get the last laugh. Beats a daily affirmation. It’s a life affirmation for me. ;-}

  • luc bas

    Did you get any support from the Western Australia government?

  • Pingback: The Stream, October 4: Vivid Fall Foliage a Hidden Drought Benefit | Circle of Blue WaterNews()

  • rkt9

    Can anyone tell me approximately how many barrels of oil one metric ton of algae can produce? Would the algae oil need to be refined for use in an diesel engine?

    • Protkoyf

      I think you need to re-read the article

      • Where exactly in the article above does it give the figure required to do the calculation??? It does not mention how much oil/tonne is produced, so I think you are unnecessarily rude.

    • mk1313

      Let’s see. 13.5T/6acre/mo = 2.25T/acre/mo. Soybean = 1 crop per year (most of the world) =48 USgal/acre. Algae = 10x soybean oil = 480 gal/acre/yr. Thus at 27T/acre/yr that produces 480gal therefor it is 17.8USgal/T. Based on how it is written. If it is based on a tonne pr Tonne basis the calculation is different.

      • Bob_Wallace

        Plus algae can be grown on land that would not support soybeans or other food crop.

        That ruined cotton land in the South and the abandoned salted-up farmland in the southern CA Central Valley come to mind.

        • mk1313

          or rooftops and can use water from treatment plants etc….

          • T Adkins

            I do like the enthusiasm for using of unused space but rooftops can host many things including solar. Algae could be located near coal power or near concrete making to help make use of the CO2 sources.

          • mk1313

            yep, coal plants and concrete plants usually have flat rooftops ideal for doing this.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Kill coal. Drive a stake through that monster’s heart.

            We do not need coal. Do nothing to extend the life of coal plants.

            Using CO2 from concrete plants would be a help. It would cut the overall release of CO2 to the extent it cut the use of fossil fuels.

            It needn’t be made on concrete plant rooftops (I’m not sure they have a lot of flat building tops). The CO2 could be piped to an adjacent property. You also have to ask how the algae might be impacted by the dust from concrete plants.

          • mk1313

            agree coal needs to die but it will be a slow death unfortunately so may as well make the best of a bad thing! As for the rooftop thing, not necessary to use them just pointing out this can be done anywhere there is a flat surface even if there is no land available, such as in the middle of a city.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Coal may die quicker than you suspect.

            Just a few years back the US got over 50% of its electricity from coal. In 2011 that share had dropped to 42.2%. First half of 2012 it was down to 36%.

            We’ve got about 100 coal plants scheduled to close over the next few years. We’ve essentially quit building new coal plants. I think only one new plant has been approved in the last three years.

            It’s unlikely we’ll see any new coal built. While natural gas does bring problems of fracking it is so cheap that it, along with even cheaper wind power, simply price new coal (and nuclear) off the table. It’s very hard to compete with reliable electricity which can be produced for $0.05/kWh or less.

          • mk1313

            Might not be as fast as you think if Romney et al win the election.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Romney wouldn’t do anything to help coal. Coal is loosing on economics.

          • mk1313

            if you really believe that I have a bridge to sell you. Cheap!

          • Bob_Wallace

            Learn how to do arithmetic.

            You can’t compete in a market when you need to sell for >15 cents and your competitors are selling for <5 cents.

          • mk1313

            Yes you can if you have your hands in the public trough for >$3/unit when your competitors are being denied anything which is what the Romney crowd would be/is doing. Smack their fingers and level the playing field by getting their hands out of the cookie jar and I would be in total agreement with you.

      • rkt9

        Thank you!

      • The only important numbers are: algae produce = 10 x more oil than soybean; and soybeans produce 48USG/acre/year.
        That means one acre of algae produces 17.8USG/year. One barrel of oil = 42USG; therefore 1 acre of algae produces 2.34 barrels of oil/year.
        Global oil consumption is about 90 million barrels per day = 32.85 billion barrels per year. That means we need to harvest about 14.05 billion acres of algae per year.
        The total area of the continent of Australia is: 1.88 billion acres.
        Therefore, we would need approximately 7.5 continents the size of Australia, all with the same climatic condiions, to produce man’s current, 2012, demand for oil.

        • So you can tell me “You need to read the question”: agreed. None of us is perfect. 🙂

        • Bob_Wallace

          You lost me there…

          Soybeans yield 48USG/acre/year. 1.14 barrels.

          Algae is yielding 10x as much oil per acre. 11.4 barrels.

          The big solution is to drastically cut our use of liquid fuels. They are very inefficient in internal combustion engines. Replace as much as possible with electricity.

        • George,
          Your working with the wrong numbers. Algae can produce between 238 and 476 barrels/acre/annum. Your off by a factor of 10 approximately. Algae offers the best possibility to produce all the oil that we need especially as MPG’s are about to go to over 150mpg with the advent of diesel-electric hybrids. http://goo.gl/GTIl3

          • mk1313

            then the statement of 10x soybeans is a little off is what you are saying.

          • Exactly

          • mk1313

            Just shows that calculations are only as good as their inputs.

          • Accept: see corrected calculation. We would still require 1.5 Australias to produce the oil we currently use.

          • Maybe world wide. But I guess the bottom line is: things will change. For better or worse is on us.

        • Correction as per Bill Wallace:
          if algae produce 10 x soybean oil = 480USG/acre/year, => 480/42 = 11.43 barrels/acre/year. Global consumption = 32.85 billion barrels, => requires oil from 2.88 billion acres/year of algae. Area of Australia = 1.88 billion acres, => 2.88/1.88 = 1.53 contintents of Australia planted walll-to-wall with algae are required to produce current global oil requirement.

          • Bob_Wallace

            The other correction needed is to not assume we need to produce the current global oil requirement.

            Move 80% of our personal transportation to EVs and PHEVs.

            Move 50% of our flying to electrified high speed rail.

            Eliminate 50% of our bunker fuel with more efficient ships and local manufacturing.

            Eliminate heating oil with better insulation and ground effect electric heat pumps.

            Whittle away all the current oil uses possible, eliminate via conservation and efficiency and convert the others to electricity. Something like algae then become a reasonable solution for those places where we would continue to need liquid fuels.

      • And that calculation is only for the energy we use from oil – it doesn’t include all the other energy we use for generating electricity. Man has a problem…….

        • Bob_Wallace

          Perhaps we should take a look at how much liquid fuel we actually need.

          Airplanes(<10%), trans-ocean shipping (3%), some construction(<4.4%), and industry (<4%). A limited amount of on road traffic – remote areas where pubic charging is not likely to appear for a long time (0.01%)

          "<" indicates that we can cut the current percentage. We could move moderate length air travel to electrified high speed rail.

          The goal for 'created' liquid fuel should be to replace oil in those places where using electricity would be difficult or impossible, with today's technology. That goal might be as low as 15% of today's total.

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