Algae is future fuel for thought for big business and government

[Japan] When scientists huddle around the viridian-colored pool of water and gaze into its depths, they predict a bright, greener future for the world.

But this is not Nostradamus. It is Scenedesmus. An algae, and in the eyes of the scientists, a potential abundant source of biofuel.

Scenedesmus is a genus of microalgae measuring about 20 micrometers, or microns, in size, with one micrometer being one millionth of a meter.

Scenedesmus opoliensis

It dwells in a pool at a facility in Ishii, Tokushima Prefecture, having been produced by a team of researchers.

As various renewable energy sources continue to garner international attention, a number of Japanese firms, institutions and government projects are hoping Scenedesmus can be part of the solution to the world’s fuel needs.

Microalgae has the ability to produce oil by consuming carbon dioxide as long as it has constant sources of sunlight and water. The pool of Scenedesmus in Ishii, which has 20 square meters of water surface, can theoretically produce a daily maximum of 0.2 liters of biofuel under the appropriate weather conditions.

Sachio Nishio, a professor of agriculture at Shikoku University Junior College, has been researching algal biofuel for about 10 years. According to Nishio, Scenedesmus is strong enough to withstand a wide range of temperatures, from about 40 degrees to ice cold. Up to 50 percent of the organism’s dry weight is oil and, theoretically, Scenedesmus can multiply by more than twice in number over a course of 24 hours.

With large-scale production at low cost a possibility, many corporations are jumping on the algae fuel bandwagon.

Heavy industry giant IHI Corp. erected a 1,500-square-meter facility in Kagoshima earlier this year. Commissioned by the central government’s New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO), the facility was established as one of the nation’s largest algal production plants.

The company had been cultivating algae in a facility in Yokohama on a trial basis, but decided to erect the new facility down south where the warmer climate and longer daylight hours provide the perfect environment for the mass production of algae.

Botryococcus is grown in the Kagoshima plant. It’s a tiny algae measuring just a few micrometers in size. A strain, which can deliver 50 percent or more of its dry weight as oil, was selected after the company consulted Taira Enomoto, a professor of biology at Kobe University. The algae is also known to show strong resistance to infection.

“What’s significant is that we were able to establish a basic method that enables us to grow the algae outdoors with ease and little supervision,” said Tsutomu Narikiyo, deputy general manager of the IHI’s Corporate Business Development Division.

A hectare of algal culture is capable of producing 137,000 liters of oil annually, according to some data collected abroad. Botryococcus is able to produce twice to 10 times as much oil compared to coconuts, an important source of biofuel, according to IHI.

Autoparts giant Denso Corp. is currently developing methods to produce Pseudochoricystis, an algae known for its resistance to germs and high rate of reproduction. The company, based in Kariya, Aichi Prefecture, anticipates establishing a technology to harvest it as biofuel by 2018.

Denso Corp.'s algal biofuel production facility in Nishio, Aichi Prefecture, in 2010 (Asahi Shimbun file photo)
Denso Corp.’s algal biofuel production facility in Nishio, Aichi Prefecture, in 2010 (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Euglena is being cultivated by the appropriately named Euglena Co., a start-up company based in Tokyo. It is growing the algae on a trial basis in Okinawa Prefecture’s Ishigakijima island.


Algal production could also provide assistance for Fukushima to reconstruct its economy after being devastated by the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, and the resulting nuclear disaster in the prefecture.

In Minami-Soma, Fukushima Prefecture, algae native to the area is being test produced by the University of Tsukuba in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture, and other institutions.

“The algae was able to make it through the winter while being cultivated. We’re confident that we will be able to cultivate the algae throughout the year,” said Mikihide Demura, an assistant professor of biology at the university.

The university, together with Tohoku University and the Sendai city government, is also planning to produce in Sendai an algae that does not require light to prosper from nutrients in sewage water.

As it does not compete with food production, unlike corn and sugar cane, algal biofuel has the advantage that increased demand will not cause food shortages or price inflation.

Hitoshi Ikuma, the head of think tank Japan Research Institute Ltd.’s Center for the Strategy of Emergence, said that algal biofuel first gained attention in the 2000s. Research in the field took off as the technology to study algae advanced, allowing scientists to efficiently select strains that are highly productive.

“The algal biofuel technology could see even more growth if its demand can be increased not just through jet fuel, but power generation and other applications as well,” Ikuma said. “The government’s policy will play a significant role if that were to happen.”

And the central government is eager for a piece of the algae action, too.

In July, a public-private panel to assess whether biofuel could be used in jet aircraft by 2020 was launched by the government. Japan hopes to hold test operations of algal jet fuel through mass production of the organism until around 2018, according to a schedule outline released in early July on next-generation aircraft fuel. Then, after further expanding production and lowering costs, it is hoped the algal biofuel could be used by aircraft as early as 2020.

A liter of oil from algae currently costs about 250 yen ($2) to 300 yen, according to Makoto Watanabe, a specially appointed professor of biology at the University of Tsukuba. Costs would need to be lowered to about 100 yen per liter to make its use economically feasible.

Meanwhile, NEDO has selected 12 ideas related to the development of algal biofuel production technology as commissioned projects between fiscal 2010 and 2016. The organization is providing an annual fund of approximately 60 million yen per idea.


Photo: Algae is being produced at IHI Corp.’s 1,500-square-meter pool in Kagoshima. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

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