"Algae have long been known to produce lipids that can be used for biodiesel production. With the current world-wide impetus on cleaner fuels and environmental awareness, algal biodiesel is an attractive option, as the specific production of oil from a unit biomass is extremely high in algae, compared with most seed crops," says Lalloo.
He adds that current biodiesel technologies use oil seed crops that are either themselves a food crop, or could potentially compete with food crops for limited arable land, and could, therefore, threaten food security in the country. Lalloo says algae have advantages over oilseed crops in that they do not use arable land, and can be used to simultaneously sequestrate carbon dioxide emissions, such as flue gases.
CSIR lead researcher for the pro-duct Dheepak Ramduth says that algae can produce up to 90 times more lipids for one unit of biomass than the best oil seed crop, and that it has the potential to use wastewater as a source of media. "The CSIR is also aware of the environmental, skills development, and job creation competitive advantages that such a technology would have on the socioeconomic needs of South Africa, through its first-stage implementation of betacarotene production technology in Upington, in the Northern Cape."
Lalloo says the CSIR has been involved in algal technology develop- ment since 2000, and has researched processes for the production of spirulina, astaxanthin, and betacarotene. In 2006, the CSIR started with a project to investigate algae as a potential source of biodiesel.
"A preliminary technoeconomic assessment of a proposed process indicated a promising option for the production of biodiesel from algae, especially as mineral fuel prices continue to rise. "We have thus embarked on a screening exercise to isolate indigenous algal strains capable of producing high levels of biodiesel-related lipids."
He adds that the main driver behind this is to generate new knowledge and a potential com- petitive advantage for the local manufacturers of biodiesel. In addition to the screening exercise, the CSIR will investigate applied biotechnology options for the enhancement of lipid production through organism improvement, development of a knowledge of the metabolic enhancement of lipid production, and the integration of competitive processes into existing carbon challenges, such as flue gas generated as emission in electricity production, and the growth of algae on industrial and domestic effluent water.
Although algae have a faster growth rate than oil seed crops, their rate of growth is still much slower than bacteria or fungi, says Lalloo. "This is a challenge regarding the time required for research. Addi- tionally, the production process needs to be optimised for lipid production, and is not as simple as extracting lipids from oil seeds."
He adds that for the extraction of lipids from algae, a substantial amount of biomass is required; since algae generate lower concentrations of biomass, the scale at which research is conducted is critical for drawing accurate conclusions. "The genetic manipulation of algae is known to be very inefficient, with current successful methods using high-value equipment such as biolistics, or particle bombadment, gene guns. The cell wall of an algal cell is not as amenable to the introduction of foreign DNA as a bacterial or fungal cell wall, and requires innovative ways of introducing foreign DNA."
The CSIR has already invested about R1,4-million in the algae- to-biofuels project, and Lalloo says the project is set to continue until 2009. "However, funding for the following years has not been established and the aim is to attract other external funders to streamline the research and development process."
Fossil fuels, such as crude oil and coal, have been nature's way of removing excess carbon from the carbon cycle, and storing it in the earth's crust, says Lalloo. The burning of this stored carbon as fuel results in a net increase in carbon in the atmosphere, and other greenhouse gases. Additionally, the fossil fuel reserves worldwide are rapidly reaching exhaustion. "These two factors, coupled with the current cost of crude oil, are sufficient justification for an alternative renewable fuel, such as biofuels."