Algae Biofuels Making Headway

Sounding like a virtual re-run of everything we've ever written on biofuels on Celsias, Time recently posted an excellent overview on the topic, appropriately titled The Clean Energy Scam. It's great to see this subject getting some mainstream exposure -- may it continue, and may policy-makers begin to take notice and recognise that crop-based biofuels do not benefit the environment -- quite the opposite in fact -- or mankind, but just a minority elite in farming and agribusiness industries, who under a green guise are further promoting and embedding the destructive monocrop farming systems that have been the largest contributor to global warming and environmental degradation to date. But, there is a type of biofuel that may actually have a sustainable future. Over a year ago I made mention of the potential for algae biofuels in a post titled As Corn Ethanol Threatens, Algae Makes Promises. Biofuels produced from algae do not have the enormous land use requirements of crop-based biofuels, so resting land and rainforests do not need to go under the plough to produce them, and they don't put human mouths into competition with vehicles for food (I mean, when did you last have an algae salad?). In addition, the technology has the potential to help deal with municipal waste. The algae-to-biofuel company I highlighted, New Zealand based Aquaflow Bionomic Corporation (ABC) has now issued an enthusiastic release on the latest developments of their project. Working in Blenheim, a small town in the north of New Zealand's South Island, Aquaflow has been developing systems to harvest fuel from the town's sewerage ponds. They now anticipate being able to produce commercial scale quantities of biofuels within a few months.

Founding Directors, Barrie Leay & Nick Gerritsen
Aquaflow makes crucial algae biofuel breakthroughs Two further major breakthroughs have been achieved by Blenheim-based Aquaflow Bionomic Corporation which has been working on world-leading technology to convert wild algae to biofuel. “We have now achieved commercial scale continuous harvesting of tonnes of wild algae at the Marlborough oxidation ponds so we can take the step up to commercial scale production of biocrude,” says Aquaflow chairman, Barrie Leay. “We have also commissioned our newly built proprietary biorefinery and made our first machine run. We expect to make further announcements in that regard in the next few months. These are major steps forward for us and we expect to be able to produce commercial quantities of biocrude within the next few months,” he explains. -- Scoop

Readers may be able to correct me, but to date I'm not aware of any actual in-production algae biofuels, so this company may well accomplish their ambition "to be the first company in the world to economically produce biofuel from wild algae harvested from open-air environments." One point of difference with the Aquaflow system, is that rather than focusing their attention on just a few strains of algae, like some other algae research teams, they are attempting to create fuel from 'wild' algae -- in the Blenheim sewerage ponds this translates to around 6,000 different species. If they can make this work at commercial scale, it opens the door for the technology to be applied in other areas of industrial waste. The technology, significantly, may also help with water issues, as algae begins the process of cleaning water; removing the algae removes impurities. Meanwhile, there may be growing industry pressure in New Zealand to send the nation down the same path that has made Europe and the U.S. contributors to environmental disasters worldwide.

New Zealand shouldn’t delay bringing in biofuel sales obligations and miss out on cutting greenhouse gas emissions by reducing the use of fossil fuels says a major potential investor. Dickon Posnett, Managing Director of Argent Energy NZ, says if New Zealand wants a sustainable biofuel manufacturing sector, it is going to have to become a ‘quick follower’ of the United Kingdom and Europe. -- Scoop
Blenheim oxidation ponds

Argent Energy is a Scotland-based biodiesel company, that primarily seeks to produce biodiesel from tallow (animal fat) and used cooking oil, which, like algae, is a great recycling of industrial waste, but "The plant is capable of using many different types of raw materials, including virgin oils such as rapeseed oil." (ArgentEnergy.com). This is where alarm bells begin to ring. Although New Zealanders eat a fairly high fat western diet, I'm confident they'd have to significantly escalate artery clogging consumption if supplies of used cooking oil were to make any kind of a dent in the nation's fuel footprint. As far as tallow goes, I'm loathe to see a fuel industry become reliant on yet another industry (animal production) that is in itself an inefficient use of land and resources. And, if demand for biodiesel exceeds supply of these raw industrial by-products, then won't the company be incentivised to make use of "virgin oils"? With admirable prudence, David Parker, New Zealand's Climate Change Minister, is delaying the implementation of proposed legislation that could see New Zealand drivers being forced to purchase environmentally destructive crop-based biofuels. I hope the final legislation completely blocks all crop-based biofuels -- and doesn't allow arbitrarily legislated targets to jeapardise that determination. Comparing crop-based biofuels with fossil fuels, we'd honestly do better for the environment to just keep drilling. We look forward to more news from Aquaflow in due course.

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James (anonymous)

The directors of Aquaflow are known for making outrageous statements about their companies successes . To date they have not produced anything that is remotely viable as a fuel.
The company is basically defunct and has got rid of most of its technical staff or they have left in disgust. It has found out the hard way that there are no easy ways to achieve a viable fuel or any other production from sewage algae. They have chewed through about $3 million in investors money learning this lesson. The directors should be ashamed of themselves.
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Written in January 2010

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