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Thai firms at forefront of microalgae research

A researcher tests marine algae at the CSIRO laboratory.

A researcher tests marine algae at the CSIRO laboratory.

PTT, Bangchak Petroleum among firms investing in promising field of marine algae as feedstock for biofuel production

Leading oil and gas companies around the globe are studying and investing in alternative and renewable energies such as biofuels as they seek to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and develop cleaner energy sources.

In recent years, science laboratories and agencies have been busy with a tremendous number of projects.

Among other things, they have been hired by petroleum firms in the United States, Australia and China - and also in Thailand - in connection with the research and development of commercialised microalgae-based biofuel.

Though the algae biofuels industry is still in its infancy, more than 100 companies are working on the initiatives.

In 2009, US-based ExxonMobil invested about US$600 million (Bt19 billion) for an algae-derived biofuels programme with the goal of developing algae-based fuel by 2019.

Meanwhile, Chevron, another American oil and gas giant, is conducting R&D projects on the third generation of alternative biofuels, such as algae-based oil.

Last year, Australia-based Algae Tec formed a 50:50 joint venture with a Chinese oil company, Shandong Kerui Group Holding. The JV is focused on algae for the production of transport fuels at a 250-module biofuels facility in Dongying, in Shandon province.

The company hopes to produce about 33 million litres of algae-derived transport oil, and to expand and roll out the project throughout China.

Thai initiatives

Thailand's oil and gas industry is also focusing on algae-oil innovation.

Ratchaburi Electricity Generating Holding, Loxley and Bangchak Petroleum last year signed a memorandum of understanding with the Alternative Energy Development and Efficiency Department to conduct R&D in this area.

Under this joint project, Loxely has set aside about Bt1 billion to invest in the production of algae-based biodiesel. The initial stage of the project is taking place at a demonstration plant on a 6-rai (nearly 1 hectare) plot located close to the Ratchaburi power plant.

If the demonstration project proves successful, it will commence construction of a pilot plant on 400 rai of land close to the power plant within the next year.

The plan is to have the capacity to cultivate about 90,000 kilograms of algae per day, for the daily production of about 30,000 litres of biofuel.

This level of production would consume about 180 tonnes of carbon dioxide per day, or about 10 per cent of the total CO2 produced by the power plant, which means the project would reduce CO2 emission in the near future.

Ambitious goal

Meanwhile, PTT appears to be going further with an ambitious goal to introduce commercial algae-based energy in the next four years.

Under the plan, the national oil and gas company is also interested in setting up production facilities in Australia in the future, having already entered into a partnership with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), Australia's national science agency, to select and develop algae-oil extraction for biofuel.

PTT chief executive Pailin Chuchotta-worn said oil extracted from microalgae was considered the third generation of biofuel.

This new innovative energy is also one of the company's key milestones to maintain the country's energy security, he said.

Thanks to the partnership with the CSIRO, PTT aims to transfer know-how and expertise about bioproducts from algae-based oil from the Australian science agency to the firm's research unit, and then to study potential strains of freshwater algae to serve domestic consumption.

The company might also set up a microalgae-based fuel plant in Australia, said the CEO.

Australia offers considerable potential in this regard, he said, as many venture-capital firms are keen on and ready to invest in this alternative energy.

Moreover, Australia has geographical advantages such as a long coastline and large, flat lands in the interior under year-around sunshine and stable atmospheric conditions.

Apart from collaboration with the overseas science agency, PTT also supports the "Think Algae" project to commercialise algae-oil extraction.

The project is an algae research network involving the Thailand Institute of Scientific and Technological Research, Chulalongkorn University, Mahidol University, King Mongkut's Institute of Technology Thon Buri, the Petroleum Institute of Thailand, and the National Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology.

But why exactly is microalgae considered to be such a promising future alternative fuel? Among the answers is that microalgae can be grown on non-arable land with non-potable water, and it can also be used to produce multiple products.

For example, after extracting oil, algae waste can be used for the production of fertiliser, animal feed and health supplements.

Importantly, microalgae is also seen as having high potential compared with currently known biomass feedstock sources, due to the impressive yield in can generate.

Algae can produce a high yield of 1,000 to 6,500 gallons per acre (11,350 to 77,775 litres per hectare) per year, while other crops provide lower results, such as soybean - 48 gallons/acre/year - and oil palm, which can yield 635 gallons/acre/year.

However, the big challenge in microalgae technology is that the R&D of fuel extracted from marine algae costs about three to four times as much as for palm-oil-based biodiesel, according to research by PTT Group.

Though the practical commercialisation of algae-based biofuel is a long way off, if it does prove a success, not only will energy security be ensured, but also food security.

Algae-based biofuel would help maintain national energy security by reducing reliance on fossil fuels, besides potentially replacing widely used renewable energy sources such as palm oil and sugar-cane-based ethanol.



Algae tops yield table

Biomass crop/Yield* (gallons per acre per year**)

Algae/1,000-6,500

Oil palm/635

Jetropha/202

Sunflower/102

Soybean/ 48

*Estimated

** One gallon per acre = 11.35 litres per hectare

Source: PTT Group






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