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Strategic path for the development of microalgal bio-diesel in China 14

Preliminary draft paper for comment

Abstract: The use of liquid fossil fuel is limited by the declining petroleum reserves in the earth's crust and the need to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide level. To supply energy for development in a low-emission economy, bio-energy is required. Guangxi Province can be a leader for China in biofuel. Guangxi already has the largest ethanol production plants in China, but substitution of biofuel for diesel is stalled. We propose that investment in microalgae should be the main energy focus, aiming at producing 500 million tons of bio-diesel per year to replace China's current fossil fuel use for liquid energy supply. Algae biofuel is likely to be the best and only practical source for energy security and stability in many market segments. Algae biofuel also has spillover benefits for climate, environment, economic growth and food supply. The Government of China should support algae biodiesel research and development on industrial scale.
Fri August 06 2010 12:28:27 AM by RobertTulip climate  |  technology  |  energy  |  China  |  Algae biofuel 2441 views

Comments - 11

  • Shankar wrote:
    Fri August 06 2010 04:01:11 AM

    Hi Robert Tulip

    Very comprehensive write up/ report.
    I need to spend more time on the report.
    After a cursory read, I felt that
    the conclusion
    " (1) Yield is much higher than other biofuel crops for equal land area.
    (2) Algae biomass has a wide range of commercial uses including for diesel fuel, bio-kerosene, food production, fertilizer, carbon blocks, solid fuel and plastics.
    (3) Bio-fuel can sequester carbon dioxide from power stations and mines, providing rapid reduction of atmospheric carbon dioxide to stabilise global climate.
    (4) All outputs can be recycled to maximize product value and improve environmental health.
    (5) For molecular biology modifications the gene improvement cycle is short, the operation is simple compared with higher plants, and it is easier to apply.
    (6) Marine and land based locations and production methods can be considered."
    is something that is common for any part of the world . NOT just China? !

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  • Fri August 06 2010 10:19:40 PM

    Hi Shankar, thank you for your comments. You are correct that our conclusions are global. We focus on Guangxi Province in China as an optimal location for algae biofuel production, both in terms of physical conditions and because China is the 'can-do' country of the modern world. As noted on my website, shallow warm sheltered coastal waters in the Gulf of Mexico and Australia also provide optimal locations for marine algae production.

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  • Sat September 18 2010 12:20:04 PM

    comment received

    Sorry for the delay ? I have now read your interesting paper on Microalgal biodiesel in China . Here are some comments (below).

    Thanks for the opportunity to read through the paper. It raises, obviously, some very important issues.




    The paper is good and interesting. It certainly deals with an important topic. However, here I will mainly try to be critical with the aim of looking at ways in which the paper might perhaps be improved.

    Perhaps the main overall point to mention is that there is always the problem with suggestions of this kind that it is "another good idea." That is, it is inevitable that there will be scepticism because unfortunately, lots of "good ideas" don't work out very well in practice. The list of "key questions to be addressed" at the end (Section 4) is good because it shows that the authors are realistic. It might even be useful to flat these uncertainties right at the beginning? This would indicate, right from the start, that the authors take a realistic approach to the topic.

    A second overall point (discussed in more detail below) is that as an economist, I inevitably found myself wondering about the economics of the proposal. It would be good for a reader like me to say a bit more about the economics of the issues here and there (even to just flag the issues as important).

    Reference ? I found the book by David Mackay ( Oxford , physics professor), Sustainable energy?without the hot air very useful for a very reliable discussion of factual issues concerning energy. It can be seen here:


    And there is a brief discussion about issues concerning algae starting on p. 284 here:



    [NB ? I use the annotation "1.5" below to refer to page 1, 50% of the way down the page.]

    (2) 1.5 -- It would be useful to provide more details on the overall scope of the problem, and also to consider how to illustrate the problem with diagrams. For me, the details here are rather abbreviated. For example, it would be useful to have a diagram showing the level of both gasoline and diesel use (and also drawn with the horizontal axis a bit more elongated ? at present, Figure 1 looks rather uninteresting). It would also be useful to have a second diagram showing, in some form, the "gap" that is likely to emerge between domestic demand and domestic supply.

    I mention in passing that it is perhaps useful ? just as something important to consider ? what the next best solution to the problem of fuel in China is. What if this proposal here does not work, or is not accepted? What is likely to happen? China could surely import more fuel, no? What's wrong, for example, with the idea of China importing a lot more oil from the Middle East ?

    (3) 1.8 -- Crude oil consumption growth of 6% pa seems very low! It must surely be higher, no?

    (4) Table 2 ? I don't understand the wavy line under the headings for "Algae". What does "~ 3,000" mean?

    (5) 1.5 ? You say "we estimate ? " What does this mean? An "estimate" seems to suggest that you have done some calculations. More likely, I assume, what you actually mean is "We think it likely that ? " or that "We think it not unreasonable to hope that ? "

    (6) 1.5 ? You say "sufficient resources" are needed. This is very open-ended for an economist like me. This could mean anything from $1 million to $ 1 billion. I realise it's difficult but it would be good to at least mention some estimate of costs along with some very brief explanation of the estimate.

    (7) 2.8 ? The assumption here seems to be that China must be self-sufficient in fuel? Is this the assumption? What's wrong with imports?

    (8) 3.2 ? The practical problems are surely important? It may be that in practice, these will prove very hard to overcome?

    (9) 3.3 ? A little more information on relative prices would be interesting. What, for example, was the cost gap in the US research that is mentioned? And why is it reasonable to say that "the situation has now changed"? A little data in a table of relative costs would be useful.

    (10) 3.4 ? "Microalgae lipids can now be converted to crude oil in a matter of weeks." Yes ? but what is the cost? (It is technically possible, for example, to grow bananas at the south pole. It is very expensive, however. Thus technical possibilities need to weighted against the cost.)

    (11) 3.7 ? "Capital investment for building algae production plants ? " Again, I wonder how much this will cost? Will an industrial scale plant cost $10 million, or $100 million, or $1 billion?

    (12) 4.3 ? For a non-specialist like me some of the technical discussion is hard to follow. I don't know what in silico is, for example, nor "quorum sensing mechanism." Maybe it doesn't matter. However, if this can be simplified a little for the layman it would be useful.

    (13) 5.2 ? The discussion about carbon sequestration is interesting. Best to talk of 3,650 TWh of power I think rather than 3650 billion kilowatt hours (and perhaps, to note as a relative measure, that total global electricity output is around 20,000 TWh ? needs checking for current data, however).

    (14) 5.5 ? "Cost of producing bio-diesel from algae will be low once production is scaled up ? " How do we know? Do we have any estimates of costs of production?

    (15) 6.3 ? I found the discussion of use of fresh water bladders interesting ? but also worrying. Innovative technology often runs into unexpected problems. How confident can we be that this will work? Also ? the problems of working in the ocean environment seem difficult, no? Think of the problems that BP has got into with the oil spill ? and that is using technology which is a good deal more certain than the technology we are discussing here.

    (16) 7.1 Both Sections (4) and (5) are good.

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  • Arden wrote:
    Sat September 18 2010 02:02:57 PM

    George and Peter

    Thanks for the book Sustainability without the hot air. I have heard so much about it.

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  • Pengpu wrote:
    Tue September 21 2010 08:03:49 AM

    I think the target of producing 500 million tons of bio-diesel per year to replace China's current fossil fuel use for liquid energy supply as autor mentioed is very far from us due to the much less productivity of biomass and much less content of fatty acid obtained from biomass using algae now. So my only one question is which kind of algae you should use to realize your target to produce 500 million tons of bio-diesel per year?

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  • Manohar wrote:
    Tue September 21 2010 09:21:33 AM

    I dont think there is one answer right now for your question. Species that grow locally well which have high lipid content and the ones that grow fast are what needs to be identified.
    This is where I think, GM could play an important role.

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  • Tue September 21 2010 01:04:07 PM

    500 million tons is a target to be gradually approached, beginning by proving the concept of waterbag algae production in pilot projects. We estimate this target could be met using a tiny proportion of the available world ocean, with major environmental and energy benefits. The design described in our paper and associated drawings has not yet been tested. We are looking for investors to share in the intellectual property. By using wave and tidal energy to move nutrient and CO2 through large plastic bags at the ocean surface, and also using ocean energy for de-watering of produced algae, our paper claims to have identified potentially the most cost-effective method for large scale biofuel production. Continuous re-seeding with highest yielding outputs from a high CO2 production chamber could breed optimal strains, although GM methods should also be considered if safety concerns can be met.

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  • Mahesh wrote:
    Tue September 21 2010 04:23:36 PM

    I totally agree with the concept, but please make sure that you have a proper cost effective technology in hand when it comes to biodiesel from algae...

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  • Jacintha wrote:
    Tue September 21 2010 10:54:30 PM

    Isnt it somewhat similar to NASA's OMEGA project of floating plastic tubs in the ocean and expect the movement in the ocean to act as a mixer and enable algae to clean waste water, being done off the coast of Florida ?

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  • Wed September 22 2010 09:46:30 AM

    Jacintha, yes it is somewhat similar to the Omega project, but with a number of ingenious simple refinements that massively increase yield. These include primarily the use of bags of fresh water for buoyancy and propulsion, serving to use wave and tide power to move nutrient and CO2 through a salt water production chamber and to de-water produced algae. I would welcome interest from NASA in these ideas.

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  • Wed September 22 2010 08:23:08 PM

    Info on NASA Omega:
    http://lunarscience.arc.nasa.gov/articles/omega OFFSHORE MEMBRANE ENCLOSURE FOR GROWING ALGAE (OMEGA)
    NLSI talks with Jonathan Trent about the OMEGA project as it relates to NASA and the moon

    NASA scientists have proposed an ingenious and remarkably resourceful process to produce ?clean energy? biofuels, that cleans waste water, removes carbon dioxide from the air, retains important nutrients, and does not compete with agriculture for land or freshwater. As a clean energy alternative, NASA invented a bioreactor that is an Offshore Membrane Enclosure for Growing Algae (OMEGA), an algae photo-bioreactor that grows algae in municipal wastewater to produce biofuel and a variety of other products.

    NASA plans to refine and integrate the technology into biorefineries to produce renewable energy products, including diesel and jet fuel.

    OMEGA Project Overview Video: The NLSI recorded this video of PI Jonathan Trent presenting the OMEGA project at NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field California. You can view the video by double clicking on the image above or you can download the file directly to your computer here. [324.2 MB .mp4 file; 0:58:10 run time]

    The OMEGA system consists of large plastic bags with inserts of forward-osmosis membranes that grow freshwater algae in processed wastewater by photosynthesis. Using energy from the sun, the algae absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and nutrients from the wastewater to produce biomass and oxygen. As the algae grow, the nutrients are contained in the enclosures, while the cleansed freshwater is released into the surrounding ocean through the forward-osmosis membranes.

    ?The OMEGA technology has transformational powers. It can convert sewage and carbon dioxide into abundant and inexpensive fuels,? said Matthew Atwood, president and founder of Algae Systems. ?The technology is simple and scalable enough to create an inexpensive, local energy supply that also creates jobs to sustain it.?

    When deployed in contaminated and ?dead zone? coastal areas, this system may help remediate these zones by removing and utilizing the nutrients that cause them. The forward-osmosis membranes use relatively small amounts of external energy compared to the conventional methods of harvesting algae, which have an energy intensive de-watering process.

    Potential benefits include oil production from the harvested algae, and conversion of municipal wastewater into clean water before it is released into the ocean. After the oil is extracted from the algae, the algal remains can be used to make fertilizer, animal feed, cosmetics, or other valuable products. This successful spinoff of NASA-derived technology will help support the commercial development of a new algae-based biofuels industry and wastewater treatment.

    ?The reason why algae are so interesting is because some of them produce lots of oil,? said Jonathan Trent, the lead research scientist at NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif. ?In fact, most of the oil we are now getting out of the ground comes from algae that lived millions of years ago. Algae are still the best source of oil we know.?

    Algae are similar to other plants in that they remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, produce oxygen as a by-product of photosynthesis, and use phosphates, nitrogen, and trace elements to grow and flourish. Unlike many plants, they produce fatty, lipid cells loaded with oil that can be used as fuel.

    ?The inspiration I had was to use offshore membrane enclosures to grow algae. We?re going to deploy a large plastic bag in the ocean, and fill it with sewage. The algae use sewage to grow, and in the process of growing they clean up the sewage,? said Trent.

    It is a simple, but elegant concept. The bag will be made of semi-permeable membranes that allow fresh water to flow out into the ocean, while retaining the algae and nutrients. The membranes are called ?forward-osmosis membranes.? NASA is testing these membranes for recycling dirty water on future long-duration space missions. They are normal membranes that allow the water to run one way. With salt water on the outside and fresh water on the inside, the membrane prevents the salt from diluting the fresh water. It?s a natural process, where large amounts of fresh water flow into the sea.

    Floating on the ocean?s surface, the inexpensive plastic bags will be collecting solar energy as the algae inside produce oxygen by photosynthesis. The algae will feed on the nutrients in the sewage, growing rich, fatty cells. Through osmosis, the bag will absorb carbon dioxide from the air, and release oxygen and fresh water. The temperature will be controlled by the heat capacity of the ocean, and the ocean?s waves will keep the system mixed and active.

    When the process is completed, biofuels will be made and sewage will be processed. For the first time, harmful sewage will no longer be dumped into the ocean. The algae and nutrients will be contained and collected in a bag. Not only will oil be produced, but nutrients will no longer be lost to the sea. According to Trent, the system ideally is fail proof. Even if the bag leaks, it won?t contaminate the local environment. The enclosed fresh water algae will die in the ocean.

    The bags are expected to last two years, and will be recycled afterwards. The plastic material may be used as plastic mulch, or possibly as a solid amendment in fields to retain moisture.

    When astronauts go into space, they must bring everything they need to survive. Living quarters on a spaceship require careful planning and management of limited resources.
    ?We have to remember,? Trent said, quoting Marshall McLuhan: ?we are not passengers on spaceship Earth, we are the crew.?

    Teague Soderman of the NASA Lunar Science Institute had the opportunity to talk with Trent about the OMEGA project in the context of NASA space exploration. Listen to a short audio podcast here [11:53 min? 120 MB .wav file].

    For more information about OMEGA, visit:

    Posted by: Soderman/NLSI Staff
    Source: NASA

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