Conference - algal biofuels

I am in Singapore the next 2 days, at the "Biofuel 2012 - alternative aviation fuel in Asia conference and Asean algae biofuel initiative conference."

Khor Reports notes and comment:

Why are we attending? Every senior scientist we've met (from lipid technologists to energy specialists) is excited about the prospect of algal oils - microalgae are the most productive 'plants' on earth (oil yield potential could be 5 x that of palm oil on a per hectare basis), a wide range of metabolites, and its genetic engineering possibilities.

Right now, we're seated with microbiologists and transport energy consultants. We are hearing about:
o R. opacus is high in palmitic and oleic acids and there are odd chain fatty acids.
o A 2.5ha demonstration plot with USD80 million investment at Kona, Hawaii with photobioreactors.

How does this touch on palm oil? First, a positive. There's a potential use for POME in the cultivation process. Second, a competitive concern: the likes of global giant Unilever says it hopes to replace palm oil in its Dove soap and some other skin care products with algal oils, with a target date 2017.

There are significant scientific and engineering challenges to overcome. They include the selection and optimizing the best strains (development of GM strains), choice of feedstock for sugars (issues in availability and performance) for fermentation, and extraction (the cost of drying the algae or wet extraction - the separation of oil from an aqueous solution), and large scale cultivation technology issues (biological contaminants, lipid enhancement - optimization to enhance productivity and yield, Co2 sources).

How about the economics of production? The demonstration plot at Kona shows that it's not commercially viable for biofuels - capex and opex is too high for lipid output alone (28% of the algae biomass). There is need for production of co-products - protein and carbohydrate and omega-3 fatty acids (PUFAs). With all products, revenue USd4818/MT and production cost USD1389/MT, and gross margin USD2792. From this study, the biofuel is a co-product! But costs could be lower in Asia versus this demonstration plot feasibility study (Hawaii has high costs).