First Commercial Large-Scale Microalgae Biorefinery

Opinion, by Alfonso Stefanini

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – The last time I spoke about Spirulina I was in college, but here am I years later writing about how microalgal biodiesel has the potential to substitute and replace our transport fossil diesel dependence. Only recently, an unidentified Brazilian invested R$32 million or approximately US$16 million to build the world’s first large-scale microalgae biodiesel farm.

Alfonso Stefanini, environmental consultant in Rio de Janeiro

Alfonso Stefanini, environmental consultant in Rio de Janeiro.

With the support of Rio’s state Science and Technology department and the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), this Fluminense-based biorefinery will begin producing microalgae diesel as of October 2012.

According to George Vidor, from the O Globo newspaper, the first batches of fuel will be produced with a mix of biofuel sources, such as castor plant oil, and will eventually reach a production goal of 100 million liters of pure microalgae diesel, enough to meet the entire biodiesel demand of Rio de Janeiro.

According to scientist oil productivity made from microalgal species greatly exceeds that of oil production from the conventional biofuel crops, such as sugar cane, palm oil and castor bean. Microalgae can double its weight in a period of 24 hours and there are many species that can produce a variety of lipids, complex oils and hydrocarbons.

Algal crops can also be grown in photobioreactors, or large transparent tubular structures, utilizing growing space to its fullest.

To get a sense of the energy potential of microalgae diesel, the U.S. would need approximately 25 percent of its total cropland to produce high-yielding oil crops in order to meet fifty percent of its transport fuel demand.

According to scientific studies of 2007, if microalgae where chosen instead, the crop area needed to meet the same demands would be approximately one percent to three percent.

Brazil is the second largest producer of biofuels in the world behind the United States. Close to 45 percent of all the energy and eighteen percent of the combustible fuels consumed here come from biofuel crops.

The country is presently experiencing increasing ethanol and food prices due to the lack of storage facilities and bad harvests. Biofuel feedstock plantations, mainly ethanol, will only produce new harvests as soon as next year.

That could unfortunately encourage other sources of energy exploration such as hydrofracking, a dirty source of energy exploration, that could have disastrous consequences on fresh water basins, such as São Francisco basin in Brazil, where the practice is already taking place. The regions where fracking is presently being introduced are the same that supply water to irrigate biofuel feedstock plantations and large populations.

The biomass byproduct of microalgae, after the extraction of its oil, can be used to produce biogas, animal feed, electrical power and other important industry products such as glycerol. Glycerol can be use to make “bunker green”, a mix-fuel source for big ships that reduce particulate matter by fifteen percent and can reduce sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide emissions by 25 percent.

Microphytes, or microalgae, are responsible for producing half of the atmospheric oxygen in the world. Ironically, by farming microalgae we are sequestering carbon dioxide through a photosynthesis process, thereby creating hydrocarbon-based biofuels, the primary energetic compound used in our current civilization.

On June 19th, 2012, Azul Brazilian Airlines flew the first biofuel commercial size plane using biokerosene, a mix-fuel product using sugarcane, an almost identical fuel used in conventional jets. According to Institute for International Trade Negotiations (ICONE), a Brazilian think-tank, biokerosene can reduce greenhouse emissions by 82 percent.

Brazil is expected to start green commercial flights in about three years, according to an undisclosed source attending the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio.

It is for the hope of Brazil and the world that more investors have the courage and good sense to invest in alternative energy sources, such as the biorefinery being built in Porto Real, Rio de Janeiro state. Hopefully, in the near future, not only cars will run on Spirulina but also planes. What a trip that will be!

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Alfonso Stefanini has an MA in International Environmental Policy from the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California and a BA from Hampshire College. Alfonso lives in Rio de Janeiro, and he can be reached at: Ecobrasilis@gmail.com.

One Response to "First Commercial Large-Scale Microalgae Biorefinery"

  1. Don H. Kim  September 18, 2012 at 8:25 AM

    Good to know about large scale culture of Spirulina. Spirulina has high nutritional value especially protein source and could be used for food and feeding material. Several decades ago, NASA was exploring Chlorella mass culture for food, oxygen supply in space crafts and waste management for astronauts who will be in long space trip. But at the time mass culture was unsuccessful. I sincerely hope Mr. Alfonso Stefanini’s work this time. Mr. Stefanini’s set up for an industrial scale (aqua) culture in a developing country like Brazil make a good sense because of relatively cheap labor and favorable environment. To attract investor a detailed cost analysis information would be critical for its practicability.

    In the State of Oregon, USA a small company harvest naturally grown Spirulina for food additives. Good selection of high economic value species in different environments would be important and a comparative study on different species/varieties of the subject organism is highly recommended.

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