Fuel from Algae

By Aaron Small 05/08/2009

The other day I saw this article in Scientific American. Exxon Mobil, one of the largest petrochemical companies in the world, have recently announced they are putting US$600 million into research on new biofuels from algae.

For those that don’t know, biofuels are renewable fuels that are derived from natural sources such as plant biomass or, in this case, algae. They are made by fermenting sugar rich crops to produce bioethanol, or by chemically converting vegetable oils into biodiesel.

They fall into several categories. 1st generation biofuels, made from sugar, starch, or vegetable oil, have come under a lot of criticism because they are made from food crops, diverting food away from the human food chain which is quite controversial given the growth of the world’s population.

2nd generation biofuels, made from waste biomass, the stalks of wheat, corn, wood, and jatropha (the biofuel Air NZ used for its trial biofuel flight was made from jatropha) promise a more politically acceptable solution, because they are non-food crops and often grow successfully in infertile areas.

3rd generation biofuels are made from algae. Algae are an extremely efficient producer of biofuel, producing many times more energy per acre than other alternatives. The hard part about algae production however, is growing the algae in a controlled way and harvesting it efficiently.

A NZ company, Aquaflow Bionomic is active in this area. They produce biodiesel in the Nelson/Marlborough area. As the article points out, Exxon Mobil’s investment goes a long way to validating their choice of technology.

Exxon Mobil is conducting this research in conjunction with a company called Synthetic Genomics in the USA. My question is, why not in NZ? I froth at the mouth with the prospect of US$600 million being pumped into a technology like this. Especially one that NZ’ers are already successfully involved in! With the right amount of money, NZ could really turn itself into a hotbed of biofuel/CleanTech innovation. I’m not sure of the duration of the EM/SG research program, but when you consider that the NZ Government’s TOTAL research spending last year was about NZ$900 million, you can see that our commitment to advancing this type of science and technology is really quite laughable. Aquaflow are rumored to be involved with Boeing and a number of other big multinationals. Lets hope so, because the money obviously isn’t going to come from the NZ Government.