EABA: Promises and challenges of algae biofuels

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Algae could hold the key to solving the sustainability conundrum in biofuel production, its promoters say. But Raffaello Garofalo, executive director of the European Algae Biomass Association (EABA), says many challenges remain before consumers can start filling up. He spoke to EurActiv in an interview.

Raffaello Garofalo is secretary-general of the European Biodiesel Board (EBB) and executive director of the European Algae Biomass Association (EABA).

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here

Algae are often cited as being part of so-called 'third-generation' biofuels. But what are third-generation biofuels? Can you help with the definition?

There is no official definition. It has been adopted in mainstream language but it is not mentioned in European directives, which refer to second-generation biofuels such as ligno-cellulosic ethanol or biomass-to-liquid for diesel.

In that frame, algae can be described as a sort of 'third generation', since it came after biomass-to-liquid or the Fischer-Tropsch process. 

But in reality this is a formal box. What really matters is what biomass like algae can bring in terms of improved sustainability of biofuels, improved efficiency in production and improvements in the relationship between food and fuel and all kinds of advantages that can be linked to that.

What are the main advantages of algae?

One of the current limitations of biofuels is that they need to be produced using land. And this applies to present versions, but also to biomass-to-liquids for instance, which are second-generation. Because you still need to have a forest, you still need to harvest biomass somewhere on land. 

The first interesting advantage of algae is that it can grow in the water, and seawater in particular. Three-quarters of the planet is covered by water, as you know, so the potential is huge because the raw material – algae to be grown on seawater – is almost unlimited from an economic point of view. 

Second point, the environmental impact could be positive because we can even use polluted seawater and algae can purify it because they eat the pollutants as nutrients. So the immediate impact on the environment is that the water is cleaned up. 

What sort of polluted sea water are you talking about?

Unfortunately, looking for polluted seawater is not that difficult nowadays. If you go around in the Mediterranean Sea, in the North Sea or any kind of sea around big cities, you have polluted seawater. 

And in all polluted sea places, there is a phenomenon which happens naturally called eutrophication, which means there is an over-growth of algae in the polluted water, naturally, because of a lack of oxygen. Precisely because pollution brings excess nutrients to the algae and therefore they grow exponentially. So the idea is to use this polluted water in a bioreactor, feed the nutrients to algae which absorbs the polluted part of the water, which can then be put back into the sea cleaner than when it entered. In the meantime, the algae have grown into biomass which can be used for biofuels. 

So these bio-reactors could be installed on the sea shore, next to big cities, where oceans are suffering from eutrophisation?

This can be an idea. But the advantage of a bioreactor is that, unlike an agricultural crop, it does not need at all productive land or good land that is normally used for food. 

A bioreactor can be installed over stones or completely unproductive land: desert or wherever. It is not difficult to build a pipe and bring the sea water several kilometres inland to find an unproductive piece of land. 

How big are bio-reactors? What do they look like?

You have different kinds. Probably the most well-known are plastic pipes that allow circulation of the seawater inside where the algae are grown. They are closed, which means there is no contamination from the inside to the outside and vice-versa. Inside the pipe, photosynthesis takes place because the pipe is transparent. 

Algae being microscopic bodies, they are able to do photosynthesis in a much more efficient way than any other kind of vegetable on earth. Just try to imaging a plant that can double its weight every day. Some micro-algae can do that. And this process can be re-created in a bioreactor to produce biomass in a very efficient way.

Except that this process has to be created on a scale large enough to make it commercially viable. Is that feasible with the current technology? 

Scientifically speaking, everything is feasible. It is the economic feasibility which is at stake. Today, to produce micro-algae oil or biomass is much more expensive than to produce normal biomass. 

This is because the bio-reactor technology did not specialise in economies of scale. For most algae applications, we are still in fundamental research. There is still research in order to identify the algae kinds or families which are most appropriate in order to produce biofuels. There is still research on what is the best bioreactor shape or plastic that is best to do this.

Also, it is still an open question whether it is better to grow algae in bio-reactors or in open ponds. 

What are the pros and cons of each method?

The pros of open ponds are that it is easier and more feasible because it is less technology-intensive. In terms of surface and productivity, however, they have lower yields. Still, it is more interesting than normal cultures but in a reactor, the yields are more interesting. 

The other advantage of an open pond is also that it seems more economically feasible: the costs seem to be low. But then you have some shortfalls. For example, you might decide to grow a certain type of algae but after some time – maybe one week - you may end up with a different type in the pond because there has been contamination from the outside. And it works both ways, meaning there can also be contamination from the open pond to the outside world. 

On the other hand, the advantage of bioreactors is that they are closed, meaning you don't have contamination and you can select precisely what type of algae you want to grow. You can also control and manage all the conditions. It is much more technologically-intensive, so you can have higher yields for the same surface. But on the other hand it is much more expensive, and it is so far not at all guaranteed that a bio-reactor can provide an economic price for biomass.

Plastic tubes don't sound very technology-intensive. What makes those bio-reactors so expensive?

One of the problems is that algae tends to accumulate on the walls of the plastic pipes as they grow, blocking the light which is needed for photosynthesis. So one of the problems, which seems close to being solved, is to find a material which avoids the deposits on the walls. 

Another problem is that you need to have the water constantly flowing through the bio-reactor. It is a problem for pipes but also for another technique which involves plastic bags, which are put into the sea and harvested after a period of time. 

All this material has a fixed cost, and maintenance costs and pumps, which are much higher than open fields where there is less to do. 

Then there is another technical obstacle, which is how to harvest. Because algae are micro-organisms of a size ten times smaller than hair, you cannot harvest them with a net for example. Options for harvesting include centrifugation or chemical flocculation, which pushes all the microalgae together, but again, there is a cost associated with it. 

So there are a lot of technical challenges for both bio-reactors and open ponds.

What leads industry players to believe that these challenges are worth tackling?

There is a lot of investment in research, and this research is driven by the conviction that economies of scale, improvement in yields and output are achievable. It is a matter of time.

Is there a target date by which time industry believes a sufficient scale can be achieved?

It would not be responsible to give you dates. The main reason why we created the European Algae Biomass Association was to communicate responsibly on research and development. Until research is conclusive, it is impossible to say when things will happen. 

But what we know for sure is that things do not happen by themselves. Things happen because people believe in this technology and move in order to make it happen. This is our objective.

What are the association's objectives in terms of policy?

They are twofold. On the one hand, we want to support fundamental research in the field of algae biomass, which means investment in research, support for research programmes and support for dialogue between scientists. 

We also want to build a dialogue between scientists and future industrial stakeholders and players. For example, there is no use in developing a particular algae if it is unsuitable for transformation into a biofuel. So it is important that, from the beginning, the biofuels industry, the car manufacturers, the engine manufacturers, are able to talk with the scientists to make sure that what they are working on will be suitable one day for an engine. Otherwise, there is a risk of science going in a direction which is completely useless for industry.   

The second objective is to prepare the field for algae biomass and biofuels to enter the market having already identified and solved most of the legal, technical and political obstacles. 

If somebody today was able to make algae biofuels, it would be impossible to market. Because algae biomass is today, legally speaking, an unknown flying object. There is no legislation, no definition, no permits, nothing. So the other aim of the association is to prepare this, so that in due time, the legal and normative framework will be ready.

Are you seeking amendments to the new Renewables Directive for example, or specific standards to be endorsed at EU level?

The EABA group has been working on it for some time. Algae is already cited in the Renewable Energy Directive. The funny thing is, it is cited in the first part - the 'whereas' part - but it forgotten in the articles part. So one of the first objectives of the EABA will be to seek clarity about the status of algae under the directive.

Let's return to the economic aspects: do you have any idea how much current research represents in terms of investment? Is it mainly driven by the private sector or is the public sector involved too?

In the member states there is a lot of investment, mainly driven by the private sector. In France, for instance, there is a big research project carried out by 'Roquette', which is a nutrition company thinking mainly about the co-products of micro-algae in the field of nutrition and health, not just biofuels. 

The public sector is also lining up at European level. There was recently a €4m programme funded in Ireland by the INTERREG programme. There was also a call for proposals on algae that came out last November under the European Commission's seventh framework programme for research (FP7). This is a €1m project, roughly, called 'Aquafuels'. As the AEBA, together with our partners, we have submitted the project and are waiting now for final approval.

It is still relatively small but there are projects – for example the one developed by Roquette - which are at least 10 to 20 times larger than that one. The aim is to build up a large or medium-scale bioreactor. The project was funded with public funds from the French government, but most of the money was private. 

So there is a lot going on. But what we want to avoid is a kind of Internet bubble where people speculate about the quantities and prices of microalgae in the future. The risk is that people get disappointed and stop trusting the serious research which is being made. 

Can you make any comparison between the research that is being done in the United States and what is being done in Europe, in terms of scale?

No comparison is possible because research today is not really organised. There are initiatives mushrooming here and there, but there is a lack of coordination. And this is the third reason for which we are building up a European Algae Biomass Association (EABA) - to understand what is going on and to give a coherent approach to the allocation of research funds and industrial development in the field. 

There is a supplementary interest of algae, which is to lower the CO2 emissions from bioenergy, especially in bioreactors. This is because the algae need CO2 in order to grow. So to increase the pace of growth, you can inject CO2 inside the bio-reactor. The more CO2 you put in, the more algae you produce. This means that there is an opportunity to do carbon sequestration. 

You could for example put algae next to a cement plant or a thermo-electric plant and you inject the carbon coming out of the plant into the bio-reactor. This means that the CO2, instead of coming out of the chimney, goes into the bio-reactor to produce algae, which is burnt a second time as a fuel and only then goes into the atmosphere. So the same CO2 can be re-used twice.

To conclude, what do you see as the next major milestones in the development of algae biomass in the coming years?

The first milestone will be to create the first large-scale pilot plant. We will then be able to realise the potential and [work out] how much time we will need before we can reach economic feasibility. 

Second will be to increase knowledge of how to obtain biomass and biofuels from algae. Bioreactors and open ponds are not necessarily the only ways. For instance, NASA in the US is thinking about putting some kind of plastic bags in the sea where the algae can grow. There is no contamination because the algae remain inside, the water can come in but not out. And then you can harvest the bags once they're filled up with algae. 

Another way is to feed algae with sugar. This can be done without light. This is a completely different path. So this could be another milestone. There are many innovative ways which can be tested and could provide additional solutions.

Another thing is to encourage researchers and industrialists to think about algae biomass, not as biodiesl or bioebnergy – which is always a mistake – but to algae biomass as part of a wider production chain. 

It will never be economically viable to produce biodiesel or bioethanol from algae biomass if we don't think about the co-products. For instance, when you produce biodiesel, the lipid or the oil part of the algae represents about 25-30% of the product. But what do you do with the remaining 70%? We call it a by-product, but actually it is the same product in terms of weight. 

So, if you are able to give an added value to this co-product, then the final price of the biofuel will be as low as the added value of the co-product. This is why an initiative like the one of Roquette, which is looking at ways of using the algae for nutrients and pharmaceuticals or animal feed, is the way forward. Algae is extremely rich in protein and is very digestible. In animal feed, it is even better than soy beans. So the potential is great. 

This is the main challenge: how to give an added value to the other parts of the algae. This is the other milestone and the other main challenge and the reason why we set up the EABA – to bring together the stakeholders of the animal feeding industry together with the people who are thinking about the fuels. It needs to be a shared approach. If everybody thinks in their own corner, they are always going to be losers.

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