Published on August 19th, 2013 | by April Streeter0
Green Goo Goes Gold
Most Scandinavians hear the word algae and might think ‘blooms’ – conjuring up the noxious, fast-growing coverings of brownish-greenish phytoplankton that plague brackish Baltic waters in warm spring and summer conditions.
Fredrika Gullfot looks at algae in an entirely different way. At Gullfot’s company Simris Algae AB in Sweden’s Österlen district, a 2,000 square meter greenhouse stretching out to the line of sight is partially filled intricate with tubing growing as much of the green stuff as possible. To Gullfot, algae are a fast-blooming resource to help the world move to more sustainable food and fuel production.
What makes algae so tantalizing for fuel is what makes it horrid during blooms: i.e. algae grows amazingly fast, and can store half of its body weight as fat – perfect for rendering into oil. Algae have a third advantage: propagation can require less physical space than first-generation biofuel ingredients such as corn or wheat, and be done on land with no agricultural value.
Simris is one of Sweden’s first commercial algae producers, and while her first product will be Omega-3 rich algae oil capsules for human consumption – reducing the need for straining the seas’ capability to give us fish oil – she sees algae’s potential as vast and promising.
At Simris, algae are produced in photobioreactors that attempt to capture as much of the sun’s warmth as possible to speed the plant’s growth. With a little help from greenhouse lighting the algae reaches maturity, the water is squeezed out and then oil is pressed out. The leftover greens can be animal fodder.
Clever process technology
Scandinavia has not been groundbreaking in its pursuit of algae research, but there’s now a new uptick in projects and as excellent research nations, the Nordics may be able to catch up by way of “clever process technology,” as Gullfot puts it.
For while Simris is harvesting algae now and using it in high-revenue medicinal and food products – like algae pasta – others are trying to zero in on algae’s fuel potential.
Sweden’s innovation investment arm Vinnova is betting on a micro-algae production plant being erected at the Bäckhammar paper plant outside Kristinehamn. At Bäckhammar it isn’t sun that will grow the algae but waste heat from the paper process. In addition, nutrient salts in the mill’s waste water and CO2 from the flue gases will help grow the algae, which will eventually be made into bio-oil. Lead by SP Technical Research Institute, the microalgae plant at Bäckhammar will eventually yield fuel that pulp and paper mills in the region can hopefully use to generate bio-diesel and lubrication oils.
“Algae can be grown on unproductive land, and they don’t compete with food production,” said project manager Susanne Ekendahl. “They grow quickly, effectively absorb CO2 from industrial emissions, purify water from phosphorus and nitrogen and form the feedstock for biodiesel and biogas – it can be an industrial cycle with great potential.”
The Bäckhammar pilot project’s 3-year goal, Ekendahl said, it to “make sure that the energy input is less than the energy we get out.”
This is critical for algae’s success as a fuel feedstock, and by no means assured. Fossil fuel prices must climb significantly to make algae biofuel prices competitive. And scientists from the University of Virginia Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering recently concluded that how algae is produced is critical in making it less footprint- and energy-intensive than other fuel feedstock.
Thus first generation algae projects will be searching for the key to producing algae economically. Finland’s Neste Oil is co-financing a project in Australia where at a pilot plant at the University of Queensland algae are being cultivated in a variety of ways to find the most cost-effective large-scale growing methods. Neste is also working together with the Marine Research Centre at the Finnish Environmental Institute (SKYE) to find which types of algae and which growing conditions produce the most oil, and has its own field trials on algae growing under the hot sun of Andalusia, Spain.
Algae’s potential for biofuels is at least a decade into the future, when peak oil and climbing fossil fuel prices change the equation of what is economical. By then algae might even be the feedstock for hydrogen fuels – Uppsala University in April 2013 published their study showing efficient photosynthesis of algae can biologically split water into hydrogen ions, which can then be turned into gas by way of special enzymes called hydrogenases.
One day algae might help solve one of the biggest problems in the Baltic region that algae overgrowth creates – eutrophication.
At least, that’s what researchers of the Wetlands Algae Biogas (WAB) project, funded by the Trelleborg Municipality, are hoping. WAB researchers began creating a closed-loop system that establishes wetlands to catch agricultural runoff and algae, gathers algae from beaches and waters, and then turns it back into useful byproducts.
For the last three years in pilot phase the WAB group harvested algae near Trelleborg, Sweden, as well as along Poland’s northern coast. They processed algae into biogas and made phosphorus for agricultural use. Now its time for Nordic innovation to kick in, helping WAB find the best cost-effective combination of algae and other biomass (they’ll first try wetland plants and mussels) as they build a bigger biogas plant, add the best bioreactors available to produce biomass from sewage water, and basically expand their closed loop.
Researcher Matilda Gradin is excited about the project’s growth, though also realistic. “The system would of course be more attractive if we decided to phase out fossil energy sources since today it still is really difficult to compete with oil prices with this kind of energy.”
Seaweed for energy production
Though many algae-to-biogas projects involve microalgae, Denmark’s Seaweed Energy Solutions (SES) is pursuing the use of ocean-grown seaweed for renewable energy production. Funded in part by Statoil, SES has a patent for what is called a Seaweed Carrier, a large sail-shaped structure that grows seaweed in ocean environments. SES has a ‘breeding’ center for its seaweed in Norway as well as cultivation units in Portugal. SES predicts seaweed-based biofuel production will debut around 2020.
Algae – autotrophic organisms ranging from single cells to multicellular forms.
Microalgae – microscopic algae that in single-celled from require a microscope to see but that chain themselves together to be visible to the human eye.
Macroalgae – large aquatic photosynthetic plants that can be seen with the human eye (including seaweed).