Bio Eclipse

Algal synthesiser at Loy Yang
A potential 5000 hectare algal synthesiser at Loy Yang, Victoria. Production of 11 million litres of oil and 25,000 tonnes of algal meal will be achieved at just 80 hectares.

Proponents of bio-carbon capture and storage (bio-CCS) argue new technologies can reduce emissions without the hefty price tag.

A carbon cycle that might naturally take millions of years to complete takes just 24 hours in a plastic membrane in a Townsville research facility. When trialled alongside one or more major Australian power plants later this year, the CO2 will be piped from smokestacks and injected into slowly circulating waste water primed with a select strain of oil-rich micro-algae. The algae thrive on greenhouse gases, using them as feedstock to help double in mass every 24 hours. This valuable algal bio-mass may then be harvested daily to produce oil suitable for transport fuel or plastics, protein-rich stockfeed for animals and clean water. It’s the same process which over millions of years produced the oil, coal and gas we’re dependent upon for energy today – only now it’s anticipated that the whole cycle can be achieved in just a day.

MBD Energy Limited, the public unlisted company behind the new technology called ‘algal synthesis’, has partnered with an algal research team based at James Cook University (JCU) to develop a 5000 sq m test facility designed to produce 14,000 litres of oil and 25,000 kg of algal meal from every 100 tonnes of CO2 consumed.  According to MBD managing director, Andrew Lawson the technology is compelling due to its relative simplicity, comparative low cost and the fact that it values CO2 and greenhouse gases as feedstock for a commercial value-add – not as costly waste.

“Bio-CCS, of which algal synthesis is a stunning example, works because it commercially harnesses the Earth’s natural response to atmospheric carbon,” Mr Lawson told Energy Source & Distribution.
“The success of trials to date inspire cautious optimism that our algal synthesiser technology will be suitable for retro-fit to a wide range of existing problem industrial greenhouse gas emitters including power plants, refineries and smelters. I am not currently aware of another technology offering that potential,” he said.

Bio-energy accounts for the largest share of renewable energy technologies globally, according to Federal Minister for Resources and Energy, The Hon Martin Ferguson. MBD is particularly mindful of the positive role the technology may play in developing countries also in need of sustainable animal nutrition and capacity to help improve polluted water systems.

MBD Energy’s upgraded Townsville research and development facility was officially opened in November by Queensland Premier, Anna Bligh, who said the technology could hold the key to rapid reductions in carbon emissions from coal-fired power stations.

“If captured CO2 can be recycled to be permanently stored in plastics, or to make large volumes of transport fuel and low-methane emission stock feed for farm animals, as two years of successful trials at JCU now show, Australia and the world may be about to turn an important corner on being able to set and attain significant CO2 emissions reduction targets,” Premier Bligh said.

Using the most conservative cost-to-yield projections based on current outputs, Mr Lawson said he is confident that bio-CCS algal and soil sequestration will quickly emerge as a primary CO2 abatement technology solution for existing coal and gas-fired large-scale emitters around the world.

“There is now broad-based acceptance that industrial emissions need to be cut quickly but without loss of jobs or harm to the economy. We are confident that construction of algal synthesisers will create jobs, and that the valuable supply-chain commodities they produce will result in significant economic growth,” Mr Lawson said.

While Mr Lawson doesn’t rule out government regulation or other ‘carrot and stick’ approaches to help foster rapid take-up of the technology, he said financial modelling indicates it doesn’t require a price on carbon to be commercially viable.

Three of Australia’s largest greenhouse gas emitters have signed to trial one hectare algal synthesisers. Loy Yang Power, Tarong Energy and Eraring Energy have each sought to trial the technology with a view to ramping-up scale if initial trials as early as this year prove successful.

According to MBD, the aim is to determine whether progressively expanded algal synthesisers, each ultimately occupying up to 5000 hectares, could be expected to capture, store, or recycle more than half of a major power plant’s emissions by 2020. Current performance data indicates that a demonstration plant of just 80 hectares would produce 11 million litres of oil for plastics and transport fuel and 25,000 tonnes of nutritious, drought-proof stock feed. If initial power station trials prove successful, construction of an 80 hectare demonstration plant may commence immediately.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd last year launched the Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute which aims to help foster the establishment of 20 sustainable carbon capture and storage demonstration projects world-wide by the year 2020. Mr Lawson said that while a great deal of the initial focus of the GCCSI has necessarily been devoted to investigating geo-CCS, he is hopeful that at least one of the 20 demonstration projects completed by 2020 will harness bio-CCS and MBD’s algal synthesiser technology.

“Affordability based on lower construction and operational cost, and the opportunity to produce valuable manufacturing supply-chain commodities, whilst also achieving significant net emissions reductions will I believe make this a technology difficult to pass up,” Mr Lawson said.

MBD’s agri-business manager, Tony St Clair said test results indicating up to 50 per cent protein in the algal meal and as much as a 40 per cent reduction in methane emissions when fed to cattle and sheep is extremely encouraging.

“The United Nations and World Health Organisation have identified sustainable access to nutrition, clean water and energy as paramount issues of our time. The prospect of utilising atmospheric waste gases to create valuable bio-mass for food, water and energy is very compelling,” Mr St Clair said.

Mr Lawson is quick to point out that whilst bio-CCS and MBD’s algal synthesiser technology have been embraced with “cautious optimism” by Australia’s three largest CO2 emitters, to date virtually all of the financial heavy-lifting has been done by private sector investors in MBD Energy Limited.

One of the world’s largest diversified mining companies, Anglo American recently announced acquisition of more than 20 percent of MBD Energy Limited.  In addition Anglo American’s Australian CEO, Seamus French has joined the MBD Board.

While MBD’s algal synthesiser and bio-CCS appear to offer more, at least in the short-term than geo-CCS, Mr Lawson refuses to be drawn into any direct performance comparisons with geo-sequestration.
“Whilst we have every reason to be confident that our technology offers a compelling near-term, broad-based solution, we have some important project milestones we’re steadfastly focussed on delivering which is now our focus above all else,” he said.

When questioned by Energy Source & Distribution about the effectiveness of biological carbon storage compared to geological sequestration, the Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute (GCCSI) refrained from promoting a particular carbon technology.

GCCSI communications and media manager, Chandran Vigneswaran was reluctant to rank different types of carbon storage by their effectiveness, saying they will all play an equal role.

“The Government is looking at a portfolio of technologies. I suspect they are reluctant to pick winners,” Mr Vigneswaran explained to Energy Source & Distribution.

“This really is for a lot of technologies they won’t get up in the short term unless there is assistance.”

Environment Business CEO, Fiona Wain is a keen advocate for bio-CCS. While she agreed that a range of technologies are essential when combating carbon, for her bio-CCS was the clear champion.

“If we can roll this out quickly it will make a quantum difference,” Ms Wain said.

“This is really ground-breaking stuff. We are having to do a lot of educating at the moment. The government is having to grapple with it, bio-sequestration is not part of the Kyoto Protocol.”

Ms Wain believes geo-CCS should be trialled, but it is a long term solution while the bio-CCS scale is useful “now”.

“It’s at an early stage, but it is working,” she said.

“Look at cultures of plants that facilitate phyto-silica process – plants like bamboo, wheat and sugar cane which draw up silica from the soil, encasing the carbon from the air. The carbon won’t bio-degrade, it also can’t be burnt out and the carbon remains. It is an excellent way of locking carbon.”

Minister Martin Ferguson outlined the Australian Government’s vision for biomass innovation in November, describing it as a significant opportunity to address energy security.

“The significance of sourcing energy from biomass is two-fold: to help in the transition to a low-carbon economy and enhance energy security through a broader range of fuels,” he said addressing the Biomass Energy Investors Workshop in Canberra.

“Global targets for reducing carbon emissions demand innovative solutions to energy security, especially solutions which don’t deprive people of arable crops or their livelihoods. Biomass-fired electricity and second-generation biofuels are among those innovative solutions.”

Minister Ferguson said the Government was helping to maximise the potential from biofuels through direct funding, tax advantages and biomass-fired electricity generation through the expanded Renewable Energy Target.

“This year, I announced seven successful applicants under the Second Generation Biofuels Program,” he said.

“This research program will focus on producing biofuels from algae, sugarcane biomass, mallee and forest waste.”

The Second Generation Biofuels Program has provided $14 million to fund projects examining a range of research, development and demonstration in biofuel feedstocks and technologies.

Should bio-CCS technology take off, the implications for the biofuel industry could be enormous. Currently, biofuels and bioelectricity are operating only at very small scales in Australia, according to the Sustainable Production of Bioenergy report released by the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RDIRC) in December.  Biofuels supply only 0.45 per cent of total transport fuels while biomass contributes just 0.7 per cent of total electricity.

According to the report, economic viability is an immediate imperative for the biofuel industry. Currently the very small first-generation biofuel industry is struggling for survival, and a second-generation industry does not yet exist.

All that may be about to change very soon.