Could Japan become a major oil-producing nation? That's the dream of researchers at IHI NeoG Algae LLC, which is working on extracting oil not from new holes in the ground, but from algae.
The company -- a joint venture between heavy machinery and shipbuilding giant IHI Corp. and two biotech companies -- was formed this past summer as research and investment from major firms began to pour into algae-based biofuels.
"This is the oil we extracted," says IHI NeoG President Tomohiro Fujita, holding out a test tube containing a few drops of scentless yellow liquid at the company's lab in Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture. The yellow oil -- apparently equivalent to the A-grade heavy oil used to fuel fishing boats -- was produced by single-cell algae called "botryococcus braunii," which grow in lakes and estuaries. The algae absorb carbon dioxide during photosynthesis and convert it into hydrocarbons that cluster around the algae cells' nuclei. However, it takes 1.5 liters of liquid algae culture to produce just 2 to 3 milliliters of oil.
IHI NeoG uses a type of botryococcus braunii created at Kobe University through selective breeding and called Enomoto Algae, which multiplies 1,000 times faster than regular types. The company is focusing its research on developing technology to mass produce oil from the fast-growing Enomoto, setting its sights on making high-priced jet fuel, among other applications. IHI Corp. appears to believe there's real potential in the venture, promising to pump 400 million yen into the startup over two years.
The current leader in testing algae-based fuels for commercial use, however, is the United States, where research is being backed by the likes of Exxon Mobil Corp. The oil giant began investing in algae research in a major way in 2009, and will eventually pump $600 million into the technology. Last year, it joined forces with a biotech venture founded by Craig Venter -- famous for his work on sequencing the human genome and, later, for creating the first cell with a synthetic genome -- with the aim of getting algae-based fuels into practical use within 10 years.
One reason algae is attracting so much attention (and money) as a biofuel source is its high yield-to-surface-area ration. Simply speaking, you get a lot of oil from a small space compared to other vegetation. Algae produces between five and several dozen times more oil than an equivalent area planted with oil palms, the current king of vegetable-based fuel oil.
It's also attractive as, unlike the palms, it would not compete for land with food production -- especially important in a persistent global food crisis. Meanwhile, increased demand for biofuels sparked by spikes in oil prices in the mid-2000s has also meant higher prices for corn and sugarcane -- the primary ingredients in today's biofuels -- making algae an even more tempting alternative.
"There are no impurities, and from a quality perspective this oil is unassailable," emphasizes IHI NeoG's Fujita. The problem is not quality, but price. At present, it costs an estimated 1,000 yen and up to make 1 liter of algae oil. To make it competitive, researchers have to bring that down to the 100 yen per liter level. To that end, algae oil producers must secure the facilities and reduced electricity costs to run an industrial-scale cultivation and oil extraction operation, including possibly locating some production overseas. IHI NeoG plans to start selling sample fuels within three years, and has an eye to getting the per liter price down to the magic 100 yen level in 10 years.
Meanwhile, algae oil pioneer and University of Tsukuba professor Makoto Watanabe is partnering with the Sendai Municipal Government and Tohoku University to start an experimental fuel production operation at a sewage processing plant in tsunami-hit Sendai. For his experiment, Watanabe has picked the algae "aurantiochytrium," which produce oil by using organic matter in water as nutrition without photosynthesis, providing not just oil but also a way to purify waste water.
"I hope to support the reconstruction of the disaster area by creating a new industry and new jobs here," Watanabe tells the Mainichi. "It's possible that all sewage processing plants across the country could put this technique into practice."
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