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Mar 20, 2009

Marine algae biofuel pilot project launched in the Eastern Cape

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The Eastern Cape has been selected as the site for a pilot project where marine algae will be used to convert carbon dioxide into biofuels and other products.

This 'green technology' could ultimately be rolled out across the country and into other parts of Africa.

The use of algae as one of the next-generation sources of biofuel has long been a subject of controversy, with past schemes both locally and abroad giving rise to dramatic claims – but with no hard proof.

However, research being carried out by Jacobs University, in Germany, using marine microalgae to capture, through photosynthesis, the carbon dioxide in flue gases at two major power stations, is yielding impressive results. A low-cost, custom-built 800-m² photobioreactor – set up at a lignite coal-based power plant – has been converting carbon dioxide into biomass since August last year.

Jacobs University has now partnered with Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU), in Port Elizabeth, to expand the research with the intention of establishing pilot sites at various Eastern Cape industrial sources – including breweries, refineries and cement factories – by early next year. The next step is to partner with major industrial facilities, both nationally and in other African countries.

Underpinning the German-South African partnership is a memorandum of understanding, signed in December between Phytolutions, which is jointly owned by Jacobs University and several German investors, and InnoVenton, NMMU’s internationally recognised institute of chemical technology.

InnoVenton’s Professor Ben Zeelie says the Eastern Cape was selected for the pilot project as it boasts “optimal coastal climatic conditions [in which algae can thrive], along with a mix of industrial activity”. That, coupled with InnoVenton’s expertise in bioprocessing, made it the obvious choice.

“The merging of the two scientific capabilities and the proven ability of both to undertake and demonstrate the engineering and viability of the integrated systems are of huge significance and contrast with the negative local and international publicity surrounding past schemes to achieve real results from this next-generation biofuels technology.”

By June, a 200-m² photobioreactor – capable of producing 2 t of dry biomass a year – will be up and running at NMMU. This will be followed early next year by the establishment of two 1 000-m² photobioreactors at sites adjacent to interested industrial partners, to evaluate the technology in industrial applications.

“It is envisaged that, within two years, the technology will have been optimised for African conditions, with photobioreactors sized to match carbon dioxide mitigation targets,” says Zeelie.

To keep costs down, the photobioreactors will be built locally by black economically empowered small and medium-zed enterprises, based on the original Phytolutions designs, with the algae housed in plastic bags on metal frames, and the carbon dioxide piped to each bag through long tubes.  Phytolutions has developed software to monitor the process.

Once harvested, the algae will be turned into dry biomass and converted into biofuels, glycerine and protein.

Zeelie says the project’s main goal is the mitigation of carbon dioxide into a form where it is “permanently sequestered on a significant scale, based on an economically and technically sustainable technology”.

Edited by: Martin Zhuwakinyu
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