A first step towards having algae as a new source of transport fuel was launched today at Manildra’s Shoalhaven ethanol plant at Nowra, NSW.
The algae-to-biofuels “showcase” plant will draw carbon dioxide from ethanol fermentation and run it through an enclosed system developed by Australian company Algae-Tec to feed algae growth at an industrial scale.
The Algae-Tec system uses shipping containers as an algae production module, with one shipping container - the initial size of the Shoalhaven showcase system - capable of producing 250 tonnes of algae a year.
“The rest is plumbing,” said Algae-Tec’s executive chairman, Roger Stroud.
Mr Stroud said a commercial operation would start at around 400 containers, and from there could be built up to an optimum size at 2000 containers.
At that scale, Mr Stroud estimates that an Algae-Tec plant would be capable of producing 500,000 tonnes of feedstock, or 3.5 million barrels of refinable oil a year.
The aim of the Shoalhaven showcase is to have a working system available for third-party verification of the technology.
Mr Stroud hopes that verification will lead to some big investment, enabling Algae-Tec to build a plant on a commercial scale, and establish contracts with downstream processors.
Manildra got in touch with Algae-Tec after the company’s chairman, Dick Honan, hear Mr Stroud talk about algae technology in an ABC interview two years ago.
At present, the focus of the Algae-Tec-Manildra alliance is on producing biodiesel, but Mr Stroud said changing output from the plant in response to new markets is as easy as changing the algae species used.
Some of the tens of thousands of known algae species are high in oil content; others, like spirulina, are high in protein, and others are high in sugars.
“You look at the right algae for the right products,” Mr Stroud said.
“If we use a high oil content algae, we can use it to make biodiesel or hydrogenate it into an excellent jet fuel. The biomass we can pelletise into a high protein, high sugar stockfeed, or ferment the sugar part and turn it into ethanol.”
“But the aim of our business is to produce transport fuels. Once Shell and Caltex close their NSW refineries, transport fuel will be an imported product.”
An Algae-Tec video on the algae-to-biofuel process claims that algae-based biodiesel can be made at about half the cost of conventional diesel.
Combined with the technology’s ability to cut carbon dioxide emissions, and create rural jobs, algae-based fuels should be an attractive package Mr Stroud argues.
He isn’t concerned that the new energy boom will wipe out algae’s potential as a new green energy source.
“I think it’s emerging in the US that you can’t do these things (fracking) in underground water systems, with the chemicals they are using, without there being a diabolical outcome.”
And, he said, gas exraction will make little impact on transport fuels. “Most of the gas will be used for electrical energy. Transport fuels have a character of their own, and that’s what we’re on about.”