Queensland Government boost for clean fuels research

7 May 2010

Queensland Premier Anna Bligh today announced nearly $1.5 million in funding for the development of low-cost, high-productivity microalgal photo-bioreactors.

"These clean energy bioreactors are designed for the production of green algae from which a range of biofuels, such as biodiesel, methane and hydrogen, can be produced," Associate Professor Ben Hankamer of the Institute for Molecular Bioscience at The University of Queensland (UQ) said.

The project builds on research by Dr Hankamer and his colleagues who have successfully increased the solar energy conversion efficiency of green algae and refined the design of photo-bioreactors and growth conditions to make production more efficient. A photo-bioreactor is basically a sealed aquaculture system that brings in sunlight to provide the energy the algae need to grow.

The Queensland Government's investment will enable the researchers to test the economic feasibility of scaled-up new-generation algal energy systems and will attract a further $2 million in industry and UQ support, facilitating a $3.5 million project. Partners include Kellogg Brown & Root Inc, Neste Oil Corp, Cement Australia Pty Ltd, North Queensland and Pacific Biodiesel Pty Ltd, the University of Karlsruhe, University of Bielefeld and UQ.

One of the big problems with many algal bioreactors is their efficiency in solar energy capture has not been optimised. Dr Hankamer and his colleagues have used advanced genomic technology to understand the way each strain of algae works best, and adjust the production conditions and the design of bioreactors to improve the efficiency of the overall system.

"The algae can be used to produce a range of feedstocks for clean fuel production, including biomass for the production of methane, oil for the synthesis of biodiesel and sugars for ethanol or hydrogen," Dr Hankamer said. "As the algae grow they also capture CO2, so this process offers the potential for offsetting CO2 emissions. Consequently, future algal biofuel systems could assist Queensland in meeting its renewable energy and CO2 emissions reduction targets.

"In addition, the deployment of algae-based systems eliminates competition with agricultural crops. One of the big concerns about traditional biofuel crops is that arable land and fresh water are limited, and must be used for food crops. With global population growth increasing, the pressure on these resources will limit the expansion of traditional biofuel crops.

"In contrast, algal bioreactors can be located on non-arable land, essentially eliminating competition with food production. The fact that many strains of energy-producing algae can be grown in saline or waste water is an added benefit."

Another big problem with current bioreactors is their high capital costs and less-than-optimal yields. This project will improve bioreactor design and improve the breeding of high-performance algae to minimise system costs and increase yields. These improvements are designed to assist a rapidly expanding 'green jobs'-based industry which can contribute to the production of clean fuels for the future, likely on the 5-10 year timescale.

Dr Hankamer said with its abundance of sunshine, concentrated CO2 and land, Queensland is an ideal location to develop a biofuel and bio-commodity industry based on algae.

Media contacts:

Associate Professor Ben Hankamer - 07 3346 2012

IMB Communications - 07 3346 2134 or 0418 575 247