Biotech fuel promises carbon breakthrough

World Wide Carbon Credits (WCCC) announced in December 2010 that it has successfully lodged final patent applications over new biofuel research that could pave the way for a new generation of biofuels.

WWCC director, Dr Steven Hensen, who holds a doctorate in chemistry, said the research led by Flinders University environmental biotechnology chair, Professor Andy Ball, has isolated the gene that encodes an enzyme capable of producing a class of hydrocarbons known as triterpenoids, which includes the rare dihydro squalene.

Mr Hensen said future research will focus on producing commercially viable quantities of oil and by-products from the renewable green algae, botryococcus braunii.

“The organism used to extract this gene is not at present economically significant. However, the gene itself can form a biotechnological platform for production of fuel from renewable sources,” Dr Hensen said.

“By isolating this gene and inserting it into an alternative organism we have paved the way to substantially reduce the cost of producing oil from algae,” he said.

The research, backed by WWCC, has resulted in the lodgement of patents covering approximately 150 countries.

Algae have been the focus of worldwide research into renewable fuel sources due to their efficiency in producing usable fuel. Algae produce at least 15 times more oil per acre than any other current food or plant based biofuel option, according to WWCC.

In addition, algae’s reproduction rate is many times faster than plant crops.

“There are three strains of botryococcus braunii, race ‘A’, ‘B’ or ‘L’. The majority of algae research focuses on other species due to availability and easy manipulation. However these species are only able to produce lipid oil which is commercially low- grade,” Dr Hensen said.

“On the other hand, the rarer race B is the only algae capable of producing high-class triterpenoid hydrocarbons, known as botryococcenes,” he said.

The team will now focus on manipulating the gene in botryococcus braunii in order to control production of hydrocarbons.

“Currently race B algae produces oil when it is starved of light, carbon dioxide or nutrients but under these conditions it reproduces at a slower rate. Our focus is now on further gene and pathway analysis to establish optimal environmentally safe conditions for maximum growth whilst still producing large quantities of high-grade oil,” Dr Hensen said.

According to WWCC, dihydro squalene is a pure hydrocarbon that provides the added benefit of being compatible with existing infrastructure including oil refineries, allowing for economical integration of this green energy platform.

“By absorbing atmospheric carbon dioxide during photosynthesis, converting algae to oil has the potential to reduce the carbon footprint by a factor of four. It is estimated that to produce one metric tonne of oil from algae will not only absorb five metric tonnes of carbon dioxide but also release 3.5 tonnes of oxygen,” Dr Hensen said.