Brazil researchers studying use of microalgae to make biofuels

28 October 2013 19:25  [Source: ICIS news]

(Clarifies paragraphs 2 and 14)

CAMPINAS, Brazil (ICIS)--Scientists at Embrapa Agroenergy and other Brazilian institutions are studying the possibility of using residues from sugar and ethanol plants to cultivate microalgae, which could produce biodiesel and feedstock for ethanol, the company said on Monday.

With current technology to cultivate microalgae, one hectare of algae could yield 70 tonnes/year of biomass and 20,000 litres/year (5,300 gal/year) of biodiesel by using open tanks, said Bruno Brasil, a researcher at Embrapa Agroenergia.

"Considering the country’s biodiesel production in 2012 corresponded to about to 2.8bn litres, 140,000 hectares would be necessary to cultivate microalgae in order to meet the domestic demand for this biofuel,” Brasil said.

"Just to make a comparison: Brazil's soy planted area reaches 24.2m of hectares [59.7m acres], and [one hectare of] this grain may yield about 540 litres/year of biodiesel. So it’s clear the great efficiency of the use of land by microalgae," he said, adding that microalgae cultivation may use non-agriculture land such as deserts and beaches.

Within the 2012-2013 harvest, Brazil has produced 240bn litres of vinasse – a sugar by-product that can be used with microalgae, Brasil said.

"We believe that, if all this volume was used to cultivate microalgae, then there would be the potential to produce 5bn litres of biodiesel” – almost double of the country's production in 2012, he said.

Similarly, microalgae species producing starch could also be used in this model to replace the oilseed microalgae, which could provide feedstock for ethanol production in similar quantities, he said.

However, using microalgae to make biofuels is not cost-competitive at present.

"A beta-carotene kilo weight may cost $2,000 [€1,440], so it is possible to have [the beta-carotene] from microalgae with the technology we have today. But in order to produce biofuels, we still need to reduce its price a lot," Brasil said.

The production of biofuels from microalgae also faces many technological challenges in order to become a commercial reality, Brasil said.

"[Some] efforts are needed to structure commercial plants within the concept of biorefineries," said the Embrapa researcher. 

"Also, more researchers are needed for the selection and genetic improvement of microalgae species with a focus on high growth rates and compound interest, as well as the improvement of methods of harvesting, dewatering and the extraction of oils and other bio-products of commercial value,” he said.

According to Brasil, the sustainability of large-scale commercial production of microalgae also depends of the use of alternative water sources such as brackish saltwater, agro-industrial and domestic effluents, as well as the use of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions of commercial plants.

According to Embrapa, production and commercialisation of microalgae are a reality in the US and China, where it is used in the animal feed, cosmetics and functional foods sectors.

In order to develop more efficient microalgae, the Embrapa project is searching for high performance microalgae within the country's biodiversity, mainly in the Amazon and in the Pantanal regions.

The research is expected to be complete within the next three years, Embrapa said.

($1 = €0.72)

By: Leo Siqueira
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