How algae could be transformed into jet fuel, or food, for export

Western Australia has one of the best climates for mass algae production and could become a mass biofuel and food source for export worldwide, according to the Director of Murdoch’s Algae Research and Development Centre.

Dr Navid Moheimani told The Layman’s Podcast that biofuel companies had shown interest in research into extracting oil from algae and using it to power vehicles, or even planes.

Dr Moheimani, who is an applied phycologist studying the practical future uses for algae, said most West Australians would be surprised to learn that the largest algal farm in the world is based at Hutt Lagoon in Port Gregory, just four hours north of Perth.

However, despite five years of studying how to extract oil from algae, making the process of biofuel production from microalgae cost-efficient was the biggest hurdle researchers faced.

“Biofuel from algae costs around $4/litre to produce, but if we can find a way to make the process more efficient, we could reduce the price to around $1/litre,” Dr Moheimani said.

“There’s a possibility that we could process jet fuel from algae, and most of the interest comes from that industry. But if the economics don’t work, you can’t take it to the industry. You have to make it economical to make it viable.

“If we can make the price low enough, algae could easily replace most of the fossil fuels we are using. I think we need to be sustainable for the future generations.”

Finding an economical way to grow algae on non-agricultural land in Western Australia could provide future solutions to a number of issues facing the world, but any viable extraction methods were at least a decade away, he said.

“If you want to mass produce fuel, you need to grow the algae on a big scale,” he said. “Then you need to harvest the algae – get them out of the water. The oil is inside the algae. We need to crush them and open them up for that oil.

Algae has the potential to compete with the current fossil fuel industry.

Dr Navid Moheimani

“Western Australia is one of the best places in the world for the mass cultivation of algae,” Dr Moheimani said. “We have access to an unlimited source of water – being the Indian Ocean – and we have plenty of non-agricultural land. We can potentially produce food for a lot of places in the world. Algae has the potential to compete with the current fossil fuel industry.”

Researchers were also studying how algae by-products can be used to treat wastewater, while using it as a food source and exporting products to Africa could help feed populations. There was also scope for algae to be used as a fertiliser, he said.

“In places like the Barrier Reef, there are a lot of effluents finding their way there,” Dr Moheimani said. “We don’t want to see that, and algae can help break down the waste. Algae can also be used as animal feed, or it can be used as a fertiliser.

“In the Asian culture, if you go to south-east Asia especially, algae is present in just about every meal you have. We call it macro-algae or seaweed. Vegans also use algae as a replacement for fish oil. I’m hoping that in the western culture we will have a lot more algae in our food.”

Posted on:

16 Aug 2018

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