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Algae, cyanobacteria and microbiological production of biofuels

The Algae Task Force (ATF) of the EBTP is currently assessing recent algal biofuel reports and activites, as well producing a new section on algae for the updated EBTP SRA/SDD. Background information on the use of algae to produce biofuels is included below. See also information and links on algae biofuels R&D and industrial demonstration activities in Europe.


European Projects on Algae Production and Algal Biofuels

INTERREG IVB EnAlgae Project

EnAlgae brings together 19 partners and 14 observers across seven EU Member States. The project is developing sustainable technologies for algal biomass production, bioenergy and greenhouse gas (GHG) mitigation, taking them from pilot facilities through to market-place products and services. By developing and sharing nine pilot-scale facilities across Europe, cost and access barriers can be overcome. The facilities will also give plant operators the ability to experience the full range of physical parameters (ranging from rural countryside to industrialised areas) that are present within the region.

FP7 Algae Cluster - BIOFAT, ALL Gas, and InteSusAl

Following the 2010 FP7 call on demonstration at industrial scale of algae and its subsequent use in biofuel production, a total EC contribution of €20.5 M was announced in support of three projects - BIOFAT, ALL Gas, and InteSusAl - which form the FP7 Algae Cluster.

The BIOFAT demonstration project aims to integrate the entire value chain in the production of ethanol and biodiesel. The process begins with strain selection and proceeds to biological optimization of the culture media, monitored algae cultivation, low-energy harvesting and technology integration. The project will be implemented in two phases: 1) Process optimization in two pilot scale facilities, each of 0.5 ha size, located in Italy and Portugal; and 2) Economical modeling and scale-up to a 10-hectare demo facility.

The raw material wil be industrial CO2 derived from fermentation. Production will be based on low-energy consuming photobioreactors. Algal oils will be transformed into FAME biodiesel and ethanol through fermentation. The project will also demonstrate the algorefinery concept with production of added value products in addition to biofuel.

BIOFAT is coordinated by A4F-AlgaFuel (Portugal). Partners include: Abengoa Bioenergia Nuevas Tecnologias (ABNT), University of Florence, Ben-Gurion University (Israel), Fotosintetica & Microbiologica (Italy), Evodos (Neherlands), AlgoSource Technologies (France), IN SRL (Italy) and Hart Energy (Belgium).

The ALL Gas project (Industrial scale Demonstration of Sustainable Algae Culture for Biofuels Production) will use wastewater, and will introduce a patented ' Light Enhancement Factor (LEF)', to increase the biomass yield of raceway ponds. The residual algae will be digested with wastewater solids to produce biogas, which will be purified and used as fuel for at least 200 vehicles. Additional CO2 will be generated via thermal conversion of agricultural residues and digestate from algal residues.

InteSusAl (Demonstration of Integrated & Sustainable enclosed raceway and photobioreactor microalgae cultivation with biodiesel production and validation) aims to cultivate 1,500 dry tonnes from 10 ha over 18 months, which will be used to produce 580 tonnes of FAME biodiesel. Glycerine, will be used to enhance alagal growth rates. The production site will be be developed near the site of the existing E-BIO biodiesel production plant.

Other FP7 projects on biofuels production from algae (and associated techniques for producing value-added bioproducts)

BioAlgaeSorb - focuses on enabling European SMEs to remediate wastes, reduce Green House Gas emissions and produce biofuels via microalgae cultivation.

D-Factory A 4-year €10 million project develop the microalga Dunaliella as a sustainable raw material. The project will build a biorefinery called the 'D-Factory'.

GIAVAP (Genetic Improvement of Algae for Value Added Product) is a large scale integrating project involving twelve partners from five European and one associated country. The consortium will adapt genetic engineering techniques to various algal strains of economic interest focusing on carotenoid and PUFA production and the overexpression of peptides of commercial value. In parallel the project will develop cultivation technologies, harvesting and extraction methods using model algae strains and suitable improved strains. Techniques developed could potentially also have applications in the energy field.

PHOTO.COMM - includes close collaboration with three European companies, AlgaFuel, Novagreen and Algae Biotech, who will test strains under full production conditions in state-of-the-art photobioreactors. The aim is the development of novel, carbon-neutral production platforms and the ultimate establishment of state of the art photobioreactor technology in Denmark. The project will fund a consortium of 9 groups and provide trans-European training for a network of PhD students.

Third generation biofuels from algae - an overview

"Algae and aquatic biomass has the potential to provide a new range of third generation biofuels, including jet fuels. Their high oil and biomass yields, widespread availability, absent (or very reduced) competition with agricultural land, high quality and versatility of the by-products, their efficient use as a mean to capture CO2 and their suitability for wastewater treatments and other industrial plants make algae and aquatic biomass one of the most promising and attractive renewable sources for a fully sustainable and low-carbon economy portfolio." (Source: European Algae Biomass Association - EABA).

Photomicrograph of Botryococcus species with oil droplets

Photomicrograph of Botryococcus species, with oil droplets being released.

Cultivation of algae

Algae have the potential to produce considerably greater amounts of biomass and lipids per hectare than terrestial biomass, and can be cultivated on marginal lands, so do n not compete with food or other crops. Algae can be cultivated photosynthetically using sunlight for energy and CO2 as a carbon source. They may be grown in Shallow lagoons or raceway ponds on marginal land (e.g. Sapphire Energy, Aurora BioFuels, Live fuels) or closed ponds (e.g. Green Star). Green Star also produces a micronutrient formula to greatly increase the rate of algal growth.

Plastic tubes in ponds developed by Solix Biofuels offer "up to 7 times the productivity" of open ponds.

A number of closed photobioreactors are being investigated, including: Horizontal tubes (e.g. AlgaeLink NV), Vertical (e.g. NOVAgreen Projektmanagement GmbH, BioFuel Systems SL), Thin film, Open/Closed systems (e.g. Petro Algae, HR Biopetroleum). See also Subitec, Germany.

Productivity is higher in the controlled, contained environment of a photobioreactor, but capex and opex are also both substantially higher than for open systems. Significant investment in research is required before high levels of productivity can be guaranteed on a commercial scale.

Algae to biofuels plants may be developed on land adjacent to power stations, for converting the carbon dioxide from exhausts into fuel.

Commercial scale green-crude production from algae

In August 2013 Sapphire Energy Inc. announced it had repaid in full the $54.5m loan guarantee it was awarded in 2009 through the Biorefinery Assistance Program. The "Green Crude Farm" demonstrates the entire value chain of algae crude oil production, from cultivation to extraction.  Sapphire aims to produce ~35,000 barrels of green crude per year by 2015, and reach commercial-scale production in 2018.

Genifuel Corp in Utah is also developing a process for rapidly converting algal slurry into bio-crude, and announced plans for a pilot plant inDecember 2013.

Use of algae for microbial biofuel production via 'dark fermentation'

Algae may also be grown heterotrophically (in the absense of light) using sugar or cellulosic biomass for energy and carbon (e.g. Solazyme closed bioreactor).

In April 2012, Solazyme announced a joint venture with Bunge (Solazyme Bunge Produtos Renovaveis Ltda.) to develop a commercial-scale (100,000 t.p.a.) oil production facility in Brazil, using Solazymes technology to convert sugar (from cane) to 'tailored oils'. In January 2013, Solazyme Bunge Renewable Oils received approval for a loan of $120 million from the Brazilian Development Bank.

Solazyme Bunge Renewable Oils broke ground in June 2012 and is scheduled to be operational in the fourth quarter of 2013. It will service the renewable chemical and fuel industries within the Brazilian marketplace and will initially target 100,000 metric tons per year of renewable oil production. In November 2012, Solazyme and Bunge announced in a framework agreement that they intend to expand production capacity from 100,000 metric tons to 300,000 metric tons globally by 2016, and that the portfolio of oils will broaden to include a range of healthy and nutritious edible food oils for sale in Brazil [Source: Solazyme website].

Solazyme has partnerships with Chevron, and has a contract to provide 450000 gallons of algal biofuels for the US Navy trials. Solazyme microalgae produce linear fatty acids and esters that can be readily be converted into fuels and other added value bioproducts. Solazyme technology has been deployed succesfully at commercial manufacturing scale. The company has received a $21.8m grant from the DoE for a demonstration plant. Soladiesel™ has exceeded the requirements of ASTM D6751 for jet fuel, EN 14214, D-975 and Military Specifications. In 2012 Solazyme tested its fuel with VW TDI Clean Diesel technology.

Conversion of algae to biofuels

Algae may be used to produce biofuels in several ways:

Following extraction, algal oils will need to be further refined (e.g. by hydrocracking and hydrogenation) to produce gasoline or jet fuels.

Sapphire Technology Algaeus - first hybrid to cross country using a belnd of algae-based renewable gasoline

© Copyright Sapphire Energy
Above is the world’s first plug-in hybrid vehicle to cross the US on fuel containing a blend of algae-based renewable gasoline. Sapphire Energy has constructed a 300-acre integrated algae-to-biofuel demonstration facility, (Green Crude Farm) in Luna County. The First Phase became operational in August 2012, and the facility is now on schedule to reach commercial-scale production by 2018.

Conversion of algae to biogas for use as transport fuel

The FP7 project BioWALK4Biofuels aims to develop an innovative system for the treatment of biowaste and use of GHG emissions to produce biofuels, where macroalgae is used as a catalyser.


Modified Cyanobacteria

Proterro has developed a patented method using modified cyanobateria in bioreactors to produce sugars, which could be used as feedstock for advanced biofuels. Proterro says that the system potentially offers higher productivity (per acre of land used) and costs less than producing sugar from corn, cellulose or sugar cane.

Researchers at the Biodesign Institute, Arizona State University have modified cyanobacteria (photosynthetic bacteria) to excrete oil, which can be collected without killing the cells. The technique could be used to optimise microbial oil production for conversion into biofuels. The Biodesign Institute is also carrying out research to optimise Photobiorectors (e.g. phosphorous, CO2 light irradience) for cyanobacetria.

Researchers at J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Md. and Waseda University in Tokyo have modified the circadian clock of cyanobacteria to remain in its daytime state and hence increase productivity. Researchers on the project include Professor Carl H. Johnson, Vanderbilt University.


Algal Biorefineries

In addition to producing oils, algae are rich sources of vitamins, protein and carbohydrates. The following steps have been identified for development of microalgae biorefineries.

  • Development of mild and efficient cell disruption, extraction and fractionation technologies
  • Effective technologies for separation of carbohydrates, proteins and lipids
  • Lipid /oil refining technologies
  • Improvement of energy consumption and environmental performance, decrease of capital costs
  • Integrate knowledge & facilities for oil, food and fine chemical industry
  • Biomass provision (quantity and quality)

Source: Wageningen University, Netherlands

Within the Dutch AlgiCoat initiative (supported via SenterNovem EOS programme) an integral marine biorefinery is being developed for potential production of biodiesel, CHP and chemicals. A small pilot plant has been constructed by AkzoNobel and Essent to demonstrate co-production in principle. Research by WUR-AFSG and Ingrepro is now being carried out to facilitate potential full-scale operation.


EABA - European Algae Biomass Association aims to act as a catalyst for fostering synergies among scientists, industrialists and decision makers in order to promote the development of research, technology and industrial capacities in the field of algae.

Algal Biomass Association (US) - promotes the development of viable commercial markets for renewable and sustainable commodities derived from algae.

Photomicrograph of Botryococcus species with oil droplets

Copyright BFS Biofuel System SL
"Blue petroleum" algae biofuels industrial pilot plant in Alicante.
View at larger size

Algal Biofuels R&D and demonstration in Europe and Globally

Algae-based biofuels form one of the value chains proposed in the European Bioenergy Industrial Initiative (EIBI)

Companies and universities involved in algal biofuels R&D&D are listed on the EABA website.

In August 2013 Sapphire Energy Inc. announced it had repaid in full the $54.5m loan guarantee it was awarded in 2009 through the Biorefinery Assistance Program. The "Green Crude Farm" demonstrates the entire value chain of algae crude oil production, from cultivation to extraction.  Sapphire aims to produce ~35,000 barrels of green crude per year by 2015, and reach commercial-scale production in 2018.

In February 2014, the University of Greenwich, UK, announced it is leading a 4-year €10 million project supported by EC FP7 to develop the microalga Dunaliella as a sustainable raw material that captures carbon dioxide and can grow in some of the world’s harshest environments. The project will build a biorefinery called the 'D-Factory'. The 13 D-Factory partners include:
Universities and research institutes: University of Greenwich, UK; National Technical University of Athens, Greece; Institute for Energy and Environmental Research Heidelberg, Germany; Marine Biological Association, UK.
Small and medium enterprises (SMEs): A4F AlgaFuel S.A., Portugal; Nature Beta Technologies, Israel; SPTechnical Research Institute of Sweden; Dynamic Extractions, UK; NateCO2, Germany; Instituto de Biologia Experimental e Tecnologica, Portugal; Evodos, Netherlands; Hafren Investments, UK; IN, Italy.

The University of Greenwich is also part of a UK initiative led by Durham University on biofuels production from macroalgae via conversion of wet seaweed to gas. The MacroBioCrude project, supported by a £1.6m grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, will establish an integrated supply and processing pipeline for the sustainable manufacture of liquid hydrocarbon fuels from seaweed. The consortium includes 6 UK universities: Greenwich, Durham, Aberystwyth, Swansea, Harper Adams, and Highlands and Islands, and 6 industrial partners: Johnson Matthey Catalysts, Johnson Matthey Davy Technologies, Silage Solutions Ltd, Shell, and the Centre for Process Innovation (CPI).

In August 2013, Aurora Algae announced it had constructed a demonstration algae cultivation site in Western Australia.

In May 2013, a new $19m demonstration algae biorefinery on Alberta Canada was announced. The Algal Carbon Conversion Pilot Project will use carbon dioxide from oil sands facilities and is a partnership between the National Research Council, Canadian Natural Resources Limited and Pond Biofuels

In the US, ATP3 - a sustainable network of regional test beds - is funded through a $15 million grant from the US Department of Energy. Funding helps support a range of outdoor algae cultivation systems in Arizona, Hawaii, California, Ohio and Georgia, including those for production of advanced biofuels. Partners work both independently and in cooperation with the wider ATP3 network. The PPP is coordinated by Arizona State University - see AzCATI Arizona Centre for Algae Technology and Innovation.

In July 2012, Subitec, Germany, announced an investment of €4.5m for manufacturer of algae photobioreactors.

See Algae Technology (SAT), Austria is to construct a $9.8m biofuels plant using seaweed (macroalgae) for the Brazilian state of Pernambuco (pending approval). The plant will produce up to 1.2m litres of biofuels a year, using carbon dioxide from an adjacent sugar cane to ethanol plant.

In 2011, Abengoa started construction work at the ECOALGA project plant in Cartagena. The 5000m2 experimental plant will be supplied with CO2 generated by the neighbouring bioethanol facility. The project will evaluate strains of microalgae and cyanobacteria, harvesting technique, optimum CO2 concentrations etc, for the production of biofuels and animal feed.

The ECOALGA Project has received funding from the Ministry of Science and Innovation, under the National Plan for Scientific Research, Development and Technological Innovation 2008-2011, managed by the Spanish Institute of Oceanography, within the scope of the Special State Fund For Stimulating the Economy and Employment, Plan E. For the project’s execution, ABNT receives technical support from the National Centre for Renewable Energies (CENER), the University of Murcia, the Polytechnic University of Cartagena and Ecocarburantes Españoles. [Source; Abengoa].

In Senftenberg, Germany, Vattenfall Group operates a closed algae-breeding facility (photobioreactor) supplied by ecoduna, Austria. The facility uses carbon dioxide from a neighbouring power plant.

Enalg S.p.A. holds the exclusive rights in Italy for the production of bio-fuel from algae granted by Spanish BFS Biofuel System SL (since 2010 Enalg has been a shareholder of BFS SL). A first industrial pilot plant has been operating in Alicante (Spain) since 2010 for the continuous-cycle production of Blue Petroleum. Construction work has started on the Island of Madeira for the first industrial plant to be implemented in collaboration with the local Government and the Electric Power Supply Agency. CO2 captured from the Cemex cement works will be used to produce biopetrol via microalgae, which are multiplied and transformed through daily treatment cycles. During the first phase of processing high-value nutrients like EPA and omega fatty acids can also be extracted from the biomass.

AlgaeLink N.V. and KLM Royal Dutch Airlines are currently cooperating on a pilot project for the development of alternative aviation fuels from algae.

In October 2012, Genesis Biofuel Inc. signed a M.o.U. with Abundant Energy Solutions for a joint venture to develop Algal Biofuel Refineries.

In June 2010, the first flight by an airplane using 100% algal biofuels was demonstrated by EADS at the Berlin Air Show. The microalgae oil was produced by Biocombustibles del Chubut S.A. at its plant in Puerto Madryn, Argentina, and then refined and converted into biofuel by VTS Verfahrenstechnik Schwedt in Germany.

EADS has also partnered with IGV GmbH on the use of algae-based biofuels in aviation. An IGV photobioreactor, which multiplies microalgae, was also exhibited at the Berlin Air Show. In 2012, IGV GmbH signed a contract with Bioalgostral SAS (BAO) for the delivery and establishment of an industrial plant for the production of biofuels from microalgae with a total volume of 82000 L [Source: IGV].

FeyeCon D&I BV, Netherlands specialises in the commercialisation of innovative CO2 technology. The company has created two business ventures within the algae sector. Algae Biotech SA creates innovative products and processes in the field of micro-algae, and aims to improve all aspects realating to growing, harvesting, extraction and other downstream processes. It works closely with a sister company Clean Algae SA which specializes in the growing of microalgae at competitive cost, and maintains growing facilities on Grand Canaria.

Spanish biotech company, BioSerentia, is developing modified microalgae strains able to produce larger volumes of biomass for biofuels production.

As part of its System Research programs, ENEL is examining the possibility of producing algae using carbon dioxide emitted by its coal-fired plants.

ENI has operated a small scale algae pilot plant at the Gela Refinery.

Othe companies developing photo bioreactors include Fotosintetica & Microbiologica S.r.l., IGV GmbH, BISANTECH NUOVA GmbH & Co KG, and B. Braun Biotech International GmbH (BBI).

Based on research carried out at the University of Alicante, Bio Fuel Systems in Spain has developed a pilot plant for bio-petroleum production.

The AQUAFUELs project, supported under FP7, started in January 2010. AquaFUELS will establish the state of the art on research, technological development and demonstration activities regarding the exploitation of various algal and other suitable non-food aquatic biomasses for 2nd generation biofuels production.

Other FP7 projects include SUNBIOPATH towards a better sunlight to biomass conversion efficiency in microalgae (FP7 245070)

In July 2009, a paper on Life-Cycle Assessment of Biodiesel Production from Microalgae by Laurent Lardon et al, INRA, UR50 Laboratoire de Biotechnologie de l’Environnement, France was published in Environmental Science and Technology.

A Review of the Potential of Marine Algae as a Source of Biofuel in Ireland (2.5 Mb PDF) was commissioned by Sustainable Energy Ireland in order to provide an overview of marine algae as an energy resource, from either macroalgae or microalgae. Tentative roadmaps based on high, medium and low scenarios are included for development of these resources by 2020.

The Sustainable Fuels from Marine Biomass project, Biomara, is a UK and Irish joint project that aims to demonstrate the feasibility and viability of producing third generation biofuels from marine biomass. It will investigate the potential use of both macroalgae and microalgae as alternatives to terrestrial agri-fuel production.

Aquatic plants with potential as biomass feedstocks

Other aquatic plants, such as Spirodela polyrhiza, commonly called Greater Duckweed, have low levels of cellulose and lignin and have the potential to be converted to biofuel at a cost competitive with fossil fuels. In 2014 the genome was being investigated by researchers at the Waksman Institute of Microbiology, with a view to optimising the pond plant as a future feedstock. Thermochemical Conversion of Duckweed to gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel - the 'duckweed biorefinery' concept - is also being studied by Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, Princeton University, and the Institute of Process Engineering, Chinese Academy of Sciences et al.

Recent Algal Biofuels Activities around the world

In August 2012, Algae.Tec Ltd. Australia opened its Shoalhaven production facility in Bomaderry, NSW - consisting of a series of photobioreactors, which will be fed with carbon dioxide from a neighbouring ethanol plant operated by the Manildra Group.

In September 2012 Algae.Tec Ltd. signed a collaboration agreement with Luthansa for an industrial-scale algae to aviation biofuels production facility in Europe.

BioProcess Algae LLC has constructed four commercial scale Grower Harvester™ platforms in Iowa. The facility will use the carbon dioxide from Green Plains’ ethanol plant to produce high quality algal feedstocks. In April 2013, BioProcess Algae received $6.4m funding from US DOE to further develop its platform to produce military biofuels, with a focus on faster lipid production and conversion of lipids to various hydrocarbons.

In June 2010, US D.o.E. announed up to $24M to three projects that aim to commercialize produciton of biofuels from algae:

The Sustainable Algal Biofuels Consortium, Mesa, Arizona will investigate biochemical conversion of algae

The University of California, San Diego will lead the Consortium for Algal Biofuels Commercialization - focusing on algal feedstocks

Cellana (see below) will research large-scale production of fuels and products from microalgae grown in seawater

In January 2010, US D.o.E. announced a $44 million investment in algal biofuels development and demonstration to be carried out by the National Alliance for Advanced Biofuels and Bioproducts (NAABB). Led by the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center (St. Louis, MO), NAABB will develop a systems approach for sustainable commercialization of algal biofuel (such as renewable gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel) and bioproducts. NAABB will integrate resources from companies, universities, and national laboratories to overcome the critical barriers of cost, resource use and efficiency, greenhouse gas emissions, and commercial viability. It will develop and demonstrate the science and technology necessary to significantly increase production of algal biomass and lipids, efficiently harvest and extract algae and algal products, and establish valuable certified co-products that scale with renewable fuel production. Co-products include animal feed, industrial feedstocks, and additional energy generation. Multiple test sites will cover diverse environmental regions to facilitate broad deployment.

In October 2009, the report Cultivating Clean Energy: The Promise of Algae Biofuels (2.8 Mb pdf) was produced by Terrapin Bright Green LLC and the Natural Resources Defence Council.

In July 2009, Exxon Mobil Corporation announced an alliance with leading biotech company, Synthetic Genomics Inc. (SGI), to research and develop next generation biofuels from photosynthetic algae. Under the program, if research and development milestones are successfully met, Exxon Mobil expects to spend more than $600 million, which includes $300 million in internal costs and potentially more than $300 million to SGI.

The Dow Chemical Company announced in June 2009 that it plans to work with Algenol Biofuels, Inc. to build and operate a pilot-scale algae-based integrated biorefinery that will convert CO2 into ethanol.

In December 2007, Royal Dutch Shell plc and HR Biopetroleum formed a joint venture Cellana for the construction of a pilot facility in Hawaii to grow marine algae and produce vegetable oil for conversion into biofuel.

In October 2007, it was announced that Chevron and NREL scientists would collaborate to identify and develop algae strains that can be economically harvested and processed into finished transportation fuels such as jet fuel. Chevron Technology Ventures, a division of Chevron U.S.A. Inc., was funding the initiative.