An Argentinian company claims to be at the forefront of producing affordable jet fuel from microalgae, and is confident that its product will be widely available to the aviation industry "very soon".
Biocombustibles del Chubut (BC) has developed a "simple and scaleable proprietary harvesting system", says company president Marcelo Machin.
"We transform the biomass with a small quantity of water into a jelly state in a pre-harvesting device. Engineers extract the oil through high-tech cryo-critical fluids that we developed last year," he adds.
Testing algae-derived biofuel in Argentina
"We have successfully researched and developed algae which, when combined with other cultures, resulted in twice the yield of the closest competitor's reproduction cycle." He says BC has spent 12 years researching "the right species to make sure that they are easy to cultivate and have maximum potential for oil production".
The company uses solar panels, wind and biomass byproducts to generate the energy needed to grow the microalgae.
"So when do we expect production of commercial quantities? Very soon," says Machin, adding that BC's "Brazil" blend of algae-derived biofuel will soon undergo certification testing for aviation use in the USA. "You can expect that in less than two years it will be all over the market," he says.
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Algae can offer twice the yield of the closest competitor's reproduction cycle
Algae's main advantage over other biomass sources, such as rapeseed, is that it reproduces rapidly and has a harvesting cycle of between one and 10 days, says Machin. BC claims to be "the first in the world to be developing algae blind ponds", which enable algae to be grown "in large buildings or beneath the ground".
The company has teamed with EADS and Eurocopter to study the possibility of constructing a biofuel production plant in Brazil. "The feasibility of helicopter flight tests powered by biofuel is currently under assessment," says Machin. "The study has started and we are finalising initial discussions with our local partners.
"We hope to have positive results of this feasibility study by mid- to end 2011 and to be able to start in 2012 the definition and implementation of a pilot plant in Brazil."
Odile Petillon, head of operations at EADS Innovation Works' Energy and Propulsion Technical Capability Centre, says the aim of the proposed Brazil plant is to look at "one or two hypotheses" to bring down the cost of producing algae-derived biofuel.
"For example, today oil is extracted from dry biomass, but we are looking to do it with biomass with a high water content," says Petillon. Also under consideration is mixotrophic production, which uses air and organic matter to feed the algae. BC has already done this in a cold climate, says Petillon, but "we're looking at how to deploy this in Brazil, where the climate is warmer".
BC's goal, says Machin, is to "come to a system in which algae fuel can be sold at a competitive price without any subsidies".
Machin adds: "Until we are there, we need a lot of research and this will not be possible without state money."