Algae for Biofuels?

One of my favorite noodle menus in my campus cafeteria is what is called kishimen, a flat and wide noodle thicker than udon, served with some katsuo bushi (dried, fermented, and smoked skipjack tuna), some agetoufu and seaweed. Among those ingredients I don’t really like the seaweed thing, even though it’s said that seaweed is the secret why Japanese people don’t get fat 🙂 Anyway, eating what I don’t want to eat somehow make me think, how we can use this seaweed not for eating.

What first came into my mind is the fact that seaweed and its family what so called Algae constitutes roughly half of the Earth’s photosynthetic activity. There are more than 100,000 strains of algae ranging from microscopic single cellular organisms to seaweed species miles in length. There is plenty of it on Earth. The second fact about Algae is what geologists said, that most oil and natural gas was derived from prehistoric deposits of zooplankton and algae which trapped in a huge mass by layer of sediment which good enough to change those organisms into hydrocarbons.

Seaweed in Japan

After that, an idea about producing algae-based biofuels came into my mind. I googled some facts about algae-based biofuels and its potential. As part of the photosynthesis process algae produce oil and can generate 15 times more oil per acre than other plants used for biofuels, such as corn and switch grass. Structured plants are very inefficient converters of sunlight to biomass. Much less than 1% of the incident solar energy is released even if the entire plant is used. However, algae, which are much simpler organisms, display greater efficiency. Their faster growth rates, and the fact that their production can be essentially continuous rather than seasonal, could make relatively low efficiencies of hydrocarbon production acceptable. Above all of those advantages, Algae can grow in salt water, freshwater or even contaminated water, at sea or in ponds, and on land not suitable for food production.

It doesn’t make any sense if we are thinking only about its potential. This January, In Japan, Japan Airlines (JAL) became the first airline to conduct a demonstration flight using a sustainable biofuel primarily refined from the energy crop, camelina. And Exxon just announced a partnership with biotech company Synthetic Genomics to develop transportation fuels from algae, and build a huge photobioreactors producing algae-based biofuels.

An artist's conception of a massive alage biofuel farm. (image: claytonbodiecornell.greenoptions.com)

Then why don’t we use Algae instead of corn for producing biofuels? I thought about Asian countries, especially my home country Indonesia. We have a large territory, even not all of it is fertile, we can grow algae there without destroying rainforests. Moreover, unlike subtropical countries which have small number of sunny days which suitable for algae growth, our country is tropical, so the production can be done in the entire year. However, according to the latest news, some foreign and domestic firms signed agreements totalling 12.4 billion dollars to develop biofuel projects to turn crops such as palm oil and sugar cane into biodiesel and bioethanol. That means they would encourage farmers to destroy rain forest to grow palm oil or sugar cane. I’m pretty sure that the oilseed produced would be exported to developed countries. You know, The EU has imposed an obligation upon EU member states to produce 5% of vehicle fuels from biological sources by 2010. Just like the other commodities, my country rainforests would be sacrificed for developed nations necessary.

Voting algae for the next generation biofuel!!

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About chemieingenieur

Let me introduce myself. My fullname is Baharuddin Maghfuri. I was born in 1988 in the city of Magelang, Indonesia. I spent my early childhood until my highschool in that peaceful small city. After that I study in Bandung Institute of Technology for just one semester. I hope you don’t think I dropped out. Ministry of Education, Culture, Sport and Technology of Japan gave me a big opportunity to study in undergraduate program in japan. And now, I live in Japan, studying Chemical Engineering in Tokyo Institute of Technology. I hope everything will be alright and I’ll complete the undergraduate degree in 2011, then just continue onto Master Degree with qualification Chemical Engineering. Most of my interests are related with my study, photography, pop music and computers: - Chemical engineering in undergraduate level, such as Stoichiometry, Thermodynamics, Transport Phenomena etc. - Studying languages – I am able to communicate in English, Japanese, Indonesian. Now I’m trying to learn Germany. - I love to spend my free time hang out with my friends from Indonesia and taking pictures. - The C Programming and other codings also makes me happy and of course blogging at time to time. But nowdays, beside doing my interests, Indonesian community here asked me to work with them in some volunteer activities. The followings are some of them. You might find my name in their sites. 1. Kammi Jepang 2. PMIJ 3. PPI Tokodai 4. KMII Jepang and so on.
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8 Responses to Algae for Biofuels?

  1. fakhria says:

    Hmm… if the seewed-thing will disappear in the next cafeteria menu because of this, I don’t agree..!! haha, you know it taste really good with udon!!

    I is sounds good in Japan, but not in Indonesia I think. Japan was greatly researching and developing other alternative energy source because they didn’t have petroleum, natural gas, or other natural energy source. Despite Japan was concerning so much about global warming issues.

    Those all of bio-green things project need much fund for developed in Indonesia, those biotech-things nowadays still quiet expensive for Indonesia. Maybe with the almost same project fund, the geothermal as new friendly environment-local abundant sites-energy sources is now have higher priority to be followed-up.

    Anyway, Nice post!
    “like this” desu

    • chemieingenieur says:

      Thanks for your critical comment. Japan is researching many kinds of new source of energy not for producing by itself, but to transfer its technology to other Asian countries. Through that cooperation, as a compensation, raw products produced by asian countries would enter japan with low price. If Indonesia doesn’t intend to follow japan’s strategy, we should make our own source of energy, and the one of the most feasible one is biofuel. It’s already started right now, as you can see HERE. But I regret that the source of biofuel is our precious rainforest. And I hope, if this article is seen by some investors, they would think about algae-based biofuel.

      Save our rainforest!!!

  2. meongijo says:

    hah? nori wont make you fat?
    i’ll eat nori!!!

    • chemieingenieur says:

      No one said you’re fat… おもいこみにすぎませんよ :-D
      Not only nori, laras…I’m talking about general sea weed sold in japan…

      Ganbare!!

  3. ashray says:

    naruhodo..

    今後の課題として、Algaから得られるエネルギーの評価と具体的な応用法が考えられる。

    keep writing 後輩!

    アスリ先輩

  4. David says:

    Algae for Biofuels seems to be a great idea! And like i was expecting, Japanese people strike again with this brilliant idea. You are genious ! I don’t want to make you sad but , i have to share my condolences for your lost in the earthquake.

  5. You might be interested in JAPAN’S TIPPING POINT: CRUCIAL CHOICES IN THE POST-FUKUSHIMA WORLD, by Mark Pendergrast, which I just published as a short ebook. See Amazon Kindle or http://www.markpendergrast.com. Here is a description:

    Japan is at a crucial tipping point. A developed country that must import all of its fossil fuel, it can no longer rely on nuclear power, following the massive earthquake/tsunami/nuclear disaster of March 11, 2011. Critically acclaimed nonfiction writer Mark Pendergrast went to Japan to investigate Japan’s renewable energy, Eco-Model Cities, food policy, recycling, and energy conservation, expecting to find innovative, cutting edge programs.

    He discovered that he had been naive. The Japanese boast of their eco-services for eco-products in eco-cities. Yet they rely primarily on imported fossil fuel and nuclear power, live in energy-wasteful homes, and import 60% of their food. That may be changing in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Maybe. But as Pendergrast documents, Japan lags far behind Europe, the United States, and even (in some respects) China in terms of renewable energy efforts. And Japan is mired in bureaucracy, political in-fighting, indecision, puffery, public apathy, and cultural attitudes that make rapid change difficult.

    Yet Japan is also one of the most beautiful countries in the world, with friendly, resilient people who can, when motivated, pull together to accomplish incredible things.

    As an island nation, Japan offers a microcosmic look at the problems facing the rest of the globe. And as Japan tips, so may the world.

    Mark Pendergrast, the author of books such as For God, Country and Coca-Cola, Uncommon Grounds, and Inside the Outbreaks, entertains as he enlightens. As he wrote in Japan’s Tipping Point: “The rest of this account might seem a strange combination of critical analysis, travelogue, absurdist non-fiction, and call to action. It might be called ‘Mark’s Adventures in Japanland: Or, Apocalyptic Visions in a Noodle Shop.'”

  6. hello mas bahar, this is Nur Akmalia (I thought you’ve been known me from sumone ;P). I found your article here, after I get bored with my thesis and found your english was damned really good. and you know, my next graduted research is about algae biofuel. someday I’m gonna make my own engineered algae which produce high yield of oil, and bring them back to Indonesia. I hope I could build my own algae pond in the next few years. very good article then, thx for inspiring.

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