Monday, September 20. 2010
LOS BANOS,LAGUNA – Research on a new and exciting type of biofuel could very well result to the production of “Mircoalgae,” or Third Generation” biodiesel that is expected to become the ultimate source of energy in the years to come, particularly for the transport sector.
Scientists of the University of the Philippines (UPLB) are gearing up for host researches on “microalgae, commonly known by most people as “pond scum,” which has a lot of potential from an seemingly unlikely energy source.
Prof. Rex B. Demapelis of UPLB’s College of Engineering and Agro-industrial (CEAT) and Agro-industrial (CEAT) and the Institute of Biological Science (IBS) of the College of Arts and Sciences, said this third generation biofuel is synonymous with algal fuel or oilgae, derived from algae considered superior to other fuel feedstocks. Algae grows rapidly and are rich in vegetable oil, and can be cultivated in ponds of seawater, minimizing the use of fertile land and fresh water, Demapelis said.
He said other feedstock possesses the high oil yield as algae that grow rapidly and can double their mass several times a day and produce at least 15 times more oil per hectare than alternatives such as grape seed, palm soya or jatropha. Algae are biodegradable and the oil is relatively harmless to the environment, UPLB scientists said, .
The UPLB, well known for its works on first generation biofuels like the bio-ethanol from sugarcane and sweet sorghum, and biodiesel from coconut and other food crops, including second generation biofuels from non-food energy crops such as jatropha, including its ongoing research on cellulosic ethanol, is determine to succeed in this research such that scientists could move towards the mass production of microalgae in the years to come.
UPLB experts said that research into the mass production of algae is focused mainly on the microalgae, which comprise a vast group of photosynthetic, hetero-trophic organisms that are typically less than 0.4 millimeter seaweed (also a source of bioethanol in which the university has also a pioneering research.)
Scientists said that preference for microalgae is largely due to its less complex structure, fast growth rate, and high oil content. Their small size allows for a range of cost-effective processing options. Moreover, they are easily studied under laboratory conditions and, once grown, the harvesting and transportation costs are lower than those of conventional crops.
”Even if a number of bio-feedstocks are currently being experimented on for biodiesel production, microalgae appear to be the only feasible future solution for replacing petro diesel completely, according to Prof. Demapelis.
He said that finding more suitable fuel feedstocks has always been a central agenda of UPLB scientists. Through the efforts CEAT and IBS, the University has taken the first steps towards tapping into the vast potentials of algal fuel.
Demapelis said that Algal fuel, as promising as it is, has some serious downside. While algae are typically easy to propagate, obtaining the algal oil is a tedious, difficult, and often expensive an process. Creating the proper mixture for algal fuel is also a major challenge, he added.
He revealed that when their team was still doing research work on Jatropha back in 2007, they were already training their sights on algae as a third generation biofuel feedstock. They knew that the high oil yields of algae would amount to something big. With the help of the IBS, they were able to select the ideal microalgae species.
”Chlorella vulgaris, is microalgae of choice, which was recommended by Prof. Owen Nacorda of IBS. Although there are a number of microalgae species capable of producing oils and lipids necessary for biodiesel processing, Chlorella vulgaris was selected because it is readily available and abundant in our country’s natural environment.
Dr. Demapelis said that research has shown that the potential oil yield of this microalgae species could range from 58,700 lipid per hectare (L/ha) to 136,900 L/ha for microalgae with 30 and 70 percent oil by weight in biomass, respectively.Lipid content, on the other hand, could be as high as 50 percent, said Prof. Nacorda who is handling the purification process and media formulation for Chlorella. vulgaris.
UPLB scientists admit the prospects of research into the large scale production of algal fuel is compelling and almost imperative. But will the technology trickle down to the commercial users? The prospect remains uncertain and hard to project because the present national transport sector is very stringent. “For now our modest goal is to use the (algae) oil in stationary and small engines of farm equipment. The Agricultural Machinery Testing and Evaluation Center (MTEC) is already testing it in power tools and slow moving machines.”
Another goal is to put UPLB in the biofuels map as pioneers and viable producers of biodiesel from microalgae. “Ethanol malakas na tayo eh. (With BIOTECH at UPLB we have secured our foothold in the ethanol industry.) When you say Jatropha you just go to UPLB. We also want the same thing to happen to biodiesels from microalgae,”Dr. Nacorda said.
Dr. Demafelis acknowledges the full support of the University in this initiative. “UPLB has always been supportive of biofuel research, notably on biodiesels. As long as you can assure the potential of the technology, the University is very much willing to extend its support with some seed money,” he says. But said he is aware that modest seed money can only take research initiatives such as this so far. But with enough funding he is confident that they can further fast track the process.
”That is why he and his research team are constantly exploring more opportunities including collaboration with private organizations to ensure that the technology will be fully developed and used in the country soon,” Demapelis said.
Third generation biofuels – or just the idea of obtaining diesel from algae – may still sound novel and having no place in the real world where the average motorist remains ambivalent or even indifferent to biofuels.
Prof. Demapelis, however, seems resolute in his vision; he can only see an exponential growth for this initiative. “In three years we’ll probably have at least one pilot plant in Los Banos,” he said. Just like an algal culture thriving inside a closed vessel, the growth and development of a third generation biofuels industry in the country will progress given the right conditions and orientation.