A number of years ago I started Solar Bike with a goal to get electric bicycles running on hydrogen produced from algae. There are quite a few hurdles to achieve that goal but it is very possible. It was great to re-visit Prof Peer Schenk, who was my PhD supervisor 5 years ago, at the University of QLD to see the effort he has been making with algal biofuel projects. Many researchers often aim for very technical and highly engineered solutions. Peer aims for a very low energy and low tech solution; he is aware that the energy required to setup and run the operation must not exceed that which you can get from the algal biomass itself.
The top left picture shows some of the hundreds of algal strains Prof Schenk and his team have collected, isolated and grown up as pure cultures in the last 4-5 years. It is a very laborious and difficult task to isolate just one pure strain from a pool of murky water so it is an incredible accomplishment to collect so many strains and identify and characterise their potential practical uses. They often do mutational and selection studies in the laboratory to speed up evolution for higher amounts of oil or other products and then send these strains over to me at UWA to analyse for fatty acid content or other products. The top right picture shows one of their “mid-scale” growing bags that they use to keep stocks of pure cultures for times when the larger ponds get contaminated. The bottom left picture shows a small raceway pond, powered with solar panels, that is used to test both fluid dynamics with different pond designs and also strain ability to survive temperature fluctuation and contamination pressure. You can see from the picture this strain didn’t do so well. The bottom right picture is a much larger facility that is under construction. It is being used to test an extremely low energy input system for growing and harvesting algal strains – using nearly all recycled materials. It is situated on the Brisbane river and they will use brackish water pumped from the river into a top pond. The water will drift by gravity through a series of “growth” and “fattening up” ponds that will be driven by solar powered paddle wheels, then it will pass to a final gravity based settlement pond, the algal biomass will be harvested and solar dried on special mats. Depending on the strains that are growing, they have developed techniques to settle and harvest the algal biomass from the large volume of water. Low energy harvesting of algae from the liquid culture is perhaps the most challenging step to a successful system. It’s part a biological challenge, part chemical and largely an engineering challenge. As well as producing biofuel, another of their aims with this large pond they are building here is to produce algal biomass to feed cattle. Preliminary studies have shown an increase in growth performance using algal biomass. They are hoping to also produce beef that has high levels of the important omega 3 fatty acids that usually come from fish (fish get the good fatty acids from their algal diet). If any phytosterols accumulate in the animals then there is also potential for lower cholesterol and high omega 3 beef! You can see more of their work they do here: http://www.algaebiotech.org/
Good work Peer and team!