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Cellulosic ethanol from algae – facts and status

September 9th, 2010 | No Comments | Posted in Algae-Biodiesel-Ethanol

Cellulosic ethanol has been in the news for a while, and I’ll be surprised if you have not heard about it. Essentially, cellulosic ethanol refers to the ethanol derived from the cellulosic component of plants. A lot of woody parts of the plants, stems, leaves etc. – are rich in cellulose.
Thus, cellulosic ethanol provides a unique opportunity in which ethanol is produced not from corn that otherwise is used as food, but from a range of waste biomass, which are normally wasted anyway.

In theory, cellulosic ethanol sounds great. In practice however, cellulosic ethanol has not entered large scale commercial production owing to the high cost of ethanol thus produced. It is hoped that the cellulosic ethanol companies will soon escape from the “valley of death” phase they are currently in and start producing ethanol from cellulose in a large scale.

Ethanol from cellulose raises the interesting question of whether algae could be used as the biomass for ethanol production from cellulose? It appears that some species of algae do have the potential to be considered as a cellulosic feedstock for ethanol production. However, we have not seen many efforts taken in this area of research.

In algae, the storage component is starch and the cell wall component is cellulose. Many strains of algae are so rich in cellulose (7-30%, see table below), that one would expect a lot of exploratory activity in algae-based cellulosic ethanol. Still, no major commercial projects are currently underway to explore algae as a feedstock for cellulosic ethanol production as of June 2010. The feedstock that are mostly used for cellulosic ethanol are grasses (such as switchgrass), wood and non-edible parts of plants. The most likely reason is cost. Feedstock for cellulosic ethanol cost anywhere between $30 to $60 per dry ton (most of these are waste biomass, the cost is primarily collection and transport cost). There is no way that microalgae could be competitive at this price. Based on a rigorous economic modeling we have done, the lowest theoretical cost of producing microalgae biomass is $400 per T. On the other hand, macroalgae could start fitting the bill. While there are no confirmed estimates, macroalgae biomass could be produced at a cost of less than $100 per dry ton, under certain circumstances.

Macroalgae relatively contain a higher amount of cellulose when compared to microalgae and, some efforts have been done to produce cellulosic ethanol from macroalgae. For instance, ethanol production technology from cellulose of seaweed called Euchema denticulatur has been established in Korea. Similarily, in Vietnam, ethanol production from cellulose of Caulerpar racemosa and Ulva sp. is being extensively studied. In the big biofuels picture, however, these are miniscule efforts!

Adapted from Oilgae Newsletter

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