Algae ‘blooms’ in automotive industry
Mazda is investing in it. Honda is using it for R&D and potential byproducts. Algenol, AlgaEnergy and others grow and develop it. Euglena began producing it for biojet fuel at its new biofuel refinery plant in Japan. The U.S. government has a whole R&D department that is looking at this stuff. The list goes on. So why is algae living it up lately? It’s all about research and getting further down the path step by step with each discovery.
Let’s start with the cars. Back in 2009, we saw the unveiling of the world’s first algae fuel-powered vehicle – the Algaeus – which was a plug-in Prius hybrid car, that ran on algae-based fuel from Sapphire Energy. Some say that was the beginning…
Mazda recently talked about algae being an important part of its “Sustainable Zoom-Zoom 2030” initiative, as reported in NUU in October Their goal is simple – to promote the wide-spread adoption of biofuels from microalgae growth and reducing its average ‘Well-to-Wheel’ CO2 emissions to 50% of 2010 levels by 2030, and to 90% by 2050.
Improving productivity and reducing costs are fundamental to the widespread future availability of algae biofuels. To that end, Mazda is lending research-accelerating technical support to both research into genome editing by Hiroshima University and the study of plant physiology by the Tokyo Institute of Technology, which is intended to lead to a breakthrough in these areas.
Today, Honda R&D Americas, Inc. is running an algal farm onside at their Ohio Center. In a ‘let’s go full circle’ way, the building’s CO2 is used to grow algae that can then be converted into new energy and other valuable products. The leaders of the algae project at Honda, Joel Agner, Daniel Sellars, and Dan Wells, got the idea for the on-site algae farm after discovering a passion for alternative energy and making their own biodiesel from used vegetable oil.
“In the Honda spirit of ‘sangen shugi,’ or ‘going to the spot,’ we decided to look at a major source of CO2 – exhaust from our engine and transmission test cells,” Wells said, referring to the “dynos,” or dynamometers, used for vehicle testing.
Their carbon-neutral diesel generator, placed at ground-level, draws CO2 from the roof’s dyno exhaust flue into its combustion chamber. A nearby compressor—also powered by the generator—then captures and stores the generator’s exhaust and injects it into the algal system, also on the ground. Interestingly, the generator gets its power not from diesel fuel, but from the waste vegetable oil from Honda’s cafeteria.
“Using discarded vegetable oil was another opportunity for us to show true waste-to-energy and electricity generation from plant-based fuel,” Agner said. “Because we capture the exhaust and feed it to the algae, there is no carbon penalty associated with the generator’s combustion.”
In addition to storing up CO2, the generator also charges a Honda Fit electric vehicle, which provides a full day’s worth of power for running the algal system.
They hope to create a modular algal system for other Honda sites to employ and make it more automated so that it can work on its own. In May, global Honda leadership saw the algal farm after the seeding inoculation took place. Already, the amount grown is doubling per day, and the extracted algae is now being studied at Ohio University.
“Through this we’ve found all kinds of other technology and ideas that could be implemented, including ones that would feed directly into our algal system,” Sellars said. “This is just the tip of the iceberg with this technology.”
Even oil and gas giant, Exxon, said it could make 10,000 barrels a day of biofuel from algae within a few years. They are working with Synthetic Genomics to see if they could produce it on a massive scale. Oliver Fetzer, chief executive officer at Synthetic Genomics told Fast Company, “The goal here is to get to a sustainable, renewable biofuel that can be cost-competitive with pumping oil out of the ground, but can scale to levels that go far beyond demonstration levels. We see this step as a very important step along the way to scalability.”
Their 2017 discovery that by tweaking a particular gene in a certain species of algae, they were able to make the algae produce twice as much fat as it would in the wild, but still grow as quickly as usual, changed the whole outlook on algae as biofuel feedstock for them.
“Ten thousand barrels a day would be world-scale for current biofuels,” Vijay Swarup, vice president for research and development at ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Company told Fast Company. “And this is one small step. It’s an important step because we’re going to learn about the engineering fundamentals tied with the biology fundamentals. But we see this as scalable. The goal here is to get to the hundreds of thousands of barrels a day…if we didn’t think this was going to be scalable, reliable, affordable, and sustainable, then we wouldn’t be working on it because we go in for scalable solutions. We’re not interested in niche applications or additive applications. The pathway here is to get to that large scale.”
So it’s happening! Mazda, Honda and Exxon are on it with determination, and what’s even more exciting is that we can barely keep up with the latest algae developments, especially in research circles where it seems each day we are hearing about improvements and getting a step closer to massive scale.
In Michigan, with $2 million from the U.S. Department of Energy, University of Michigan researchers aim to make the long-touted promise of algae as a biofuel source for diesel engines into a reality, as reported in The Digest in October. They will work with colleagues at Penn State University on a three-year project to perform an end-to-end evaluation of how best to grow algae, transform it into a diesel fuel and maximize its performance during the combustion process.
As reported in NUU in September, Michigan State University scientists found a solution using two species of marine algae and soil fungi to enhance oil production and harvest using what many consider sea sludge. The new proof of concept is a biofuel production platform that lowers cultivation and harvesting costs and increases productivity.
As reported in NUU in October, PHYCO2 LLC’s three-year pilot program with Michigan State University hit a major milestone with the operation of its new, scalable algae production technology reactor. The PHYCO2 algae reactor has operated continuously for over 7 months and is still running. A new 1,000-liter reactor with a new design that builds upon the earlier research was also built and put in service. It is expected to have lower operating costs, scalable design and higher productivity rates.
Also in October, the Digest reported that researchers at Colorado State University are leading a $2.1 million project that aims to increase algae yield by improving carbon dioxide utilization. The three-year project is part of an effort led by the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy to improve the cost-competitiveness and environmental sustainability of microalgae-based fuels and products. Project goals include 1) improving delivery of CO2 to algae and 2) enhancing algae’s consumption of the CO2.
In New Jersey, Rutgers University researchers found clues to how nature can modify genomes in a single-celled species of green algae that suggest ways in which scientists may someday engineer more robust algae to serve as biofuels and provide other benefits, as reported by NUU in October.
If all the news lately about algae is spinning your head, we understand why. It’s a time of -excitement, of new discoveries and ever-improving ways to utlize algae for biofuels as well as the host of other uses like cosmetics, food, chemicals, and more.
The fact that Mazda, Honda, Exxon and other giant players in the vehicle and fuel markets are paying attention to algae is more than hopeful. It’s a sign that they see a real future with algae-based fuels, and that is huge.