May 7, 2008

B.C. scientists look into microalgae for fuel

Bruce Constantineau, Vancouver Sun

B.C. scientists are investigating the concept of harvesting microalgae for fuel -- a process with the potential to supply 100 per cent of B.C.'s diesel needs.

BC Innovation Council life sciences director Richard Hallman stressed that it is still early days, but noted field trials in other regions show microalgae can produce 70 times more oil than canola -- at least 7,500 litres a year per hectare.

"People are promoting this because it really helps in the food-versus-fuel land conflict," he said in an interview. "It doesn't have to take place on prime agricultural land."

Certain oil-producing algae strains have been tested in containers, while others have been nurtured in wastewater systems and in open ponds. Hallman said much of the research around the world involves open-pond systems.

Theoretically, B.C.'s demand for about three billion litres of diesel a year could be produced by microalgae farms on less than 40,000 hectares of land.

The B.C. agriculture ministry has contributed $55,000 toward microalgae research, along with $10,000 each from the innovation council and BC Hydro, and $5,000 from Canadian Bioenergy.

Hallman said there hasn't been a lot of B.C. research on the subject, so the first priority is to assess different techologies that have been developed throughout the world and determine what would work best in B.C.

"There are hundreds of thousands of strains of algae, so you have to sift through them and figure out what's suitable here," he said. "You also have to determine what kinds of systems and processes can be used that would work with British Columbia landowners."

While microalgae systems have the advantage of fast growth rates and fewer demands on agricultural land, high costs remain an issue -- especially when it comes to extracting oil from algae.

"How do you suck the algae up and filter them out, and then extract the oil from them?" Hallman said. "A lot depends on the economics. You may be able to produce a lot on an acre, but it may cost you more than it's worth."

No comments: