21 January 2013

Algae research is attracting growing interest in the biofuel industry


Algae are the subject of increasing interest in the biofuel industry. Neste Oil has been investigating the suitability of algae for its renewable fuels production for some years, and its research has shown that algae oil represents a suitable raw material for producing NExBTL renewable diesel.

Although algae cannot yet be cultivated on an industrial scale, they appear to be a promising future renewable raw material. These microscopically small organisms offer high oil yields, and cultivation does not require potable water, as they can be grown in salt water or wastewater. Algae also do not compete for land areas with food production, as they can be cultivated on land unsuitable for farming.

“Algae represent an exceptionally good alternative as a raw material in terms of their greenhouse gas balance, which makes research in the area very attractive,” says Pauliina Uronen, an algae researcher at Neste Oil.

Neste Oil is collaborating with a number of Finnish and international organizations in the algae research area. A research project was launched with the Marine Research Centre of the Finnish Environment Institute (SYKE) in 2011, for example, to test the lipid production capacity of different types of algae and analyze how adjusting growing conditions can optimize the quality and quantity of these lipids. Neste Oil is also a member of major international algae research consortia based in Australia (SBRC) and the Netherlands (AlgaePARC).

Algae research under the Andalusian sun

Neste Oil has carried out its own field trials in Andalusia in southern Spain focused on studying how algae behave and how they can be cultivated outside the laboratory.

“Trials like this can reveal a number of surprising issues that are not addressed by laboratory work at all, as field trial conditions cannot be controlled in the same way. How different times of the day can affect algae growth is a good example of this,” continues Pauliina Uronen. The projects in Andalusia were conducted in co-operation with Wageningen University.

Algae have been grown in tubular photobioreactors made out of plastic tubing in Neste Oil’s field trials in Andalusia. Spain and other Mediterranean countries are ideal for algae cultivation because of the high amounts of sunlight there.

Tubular photobioreactors have been used to grow marine algae.

Although water is essential for cultivating algae, water quality is not a critical issue, as both wastewater and seawater can be used.