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September 16, 2009— Ottawa, Ontario

Last year, the biofuels industry generated negative headlines around the world when a global food crisis was partly blamed on rising prices of corn and other crops grown to produce ethanol rather than food.

The NRC-IMB team plans to evaluate dozens of marine and freshwater algae species.

The NRC-IMB team plans to evaluate dozens of marine and freshwater algae species.

While this debate was raging, NRC and its partners in the National Bioproducts Program (NBP) began exploring the potential for producing biofuels from a more sustainable source: algae. "The advantage of using algae for fuel production is that it wouldn't compete directly with the production of food," explains Dr. Stephen O'Leary, a researcher at the NRC Institute for Marine Biosciences (NRC-IMB) in Halifax and co-leader of the NBP biofuels project, along with Ed Hogan of Natural Resources Canada in Ottawa. 

In fact, the potential use of algae for biofuel production offers multiple environmental benefits. "Many species of algae can grow on wastewater sources, such as agricultural runoff or partially treated sewage water," says Dr. O'Leary. In the process, they could provide bioremediation by removing nitrates and phosphates from wastewater and by recycling carbon dioxide from CO2 emitters. "Algae can take those inputs and convert them into a rich lipid source, which is then used to produce biofuels." 

The NBP project aims to help industry, particularly Canadian firms, develop technology required to commercialize biofuel production from "microalgae" - single-celled organisms that survive via photosynthesis, like land plants do. Currently, five NRC institutes and more than a dozen academic and private sector partners are developing R&D collaborations within this project. "We have at least one interested industrial collaborator for each of the various processes necessary for producing biofuels from algae, including the production, harvesting and concentration of algae; the extraction of oil from algae; and its conversion into fuel," says Dr. O'Leary. 

"We're primarily focused on converting algal oil to a liquid fuel source, such as biodiesel or jet fuel," he adds. "But we're also working with NRC researchers in Montréal to evaluate the potential of using anaerobic digestion to convert the remaining algal biomass into methane - to power electrical generators, for example. Our goal is to collect as much energy as possible from algae."

NRC-IMB has more than five decades of experience in cultivating algae. “We’ve grown algae to harvest high-value compounds and to produce feed to support aquaculture programs,” says Dr. O’Leary. “Members of our Certified Reference Materials Program are currently growing algae as a source of marine toxins, which are used to create analytical standards for monitoring the status of shellfish harvests worldwide. This is to ensure that biological toxins are not present in harvested shellfish beyond acceptable levels.”

NRC technology

Using equipment developed by NRC, Dr. O'Leary and his colleagues grow algae in enclosed, internally illuminated, "photobioreactors" that hold 250, 500 or 1000 litres. "From a 1000-litre photobioreactor, we can harvest 500 grams of dried microalgae per day, of which 20-50 percent may be extractable oil, depending on the species," he says. "At this scale, we can provide meaningful laboratory samples to our partners."

Did you know?

A photobioreactor is a device that houses and cultivates algae. It provides an optimal environment for algae growth — supplying light, nutrients, carbon dioxide and a regulated temperature.

During the project, the NRC-IMB team plans to evaluate dozens of species of marine and freshwater algae to identify those with the best growth characteristics and highest oil yields. "We are now generating algal biomass and beginning to distribute the biomass to our industrial partners for further research," says Dr. O'Leary. 

NRC technical officer Dr. Kyoung Park poses beside a NRC-developed “Brite-Box” photobioreactor.

NRC technical officer Dr. Kyoung Park poses beside a NRC-developed “Brite-Box” photobioreactor.

Dr. O'Leary cautions that biofuels made from algae are not likely to be widely commercialized for another 5-10 years. "When our technology is ultimately marketed, microalgae may be grown in open ponds in equatorial regions," he says. At Canadian latitudes, "it's more likely that they will be grown in an enclosed photobioreactor that can be illuminated with natural sunlight in the daytime and artificial light at night." 

Aerial view of NRC-IMB’s Marine Research Station in Ketch Harbour, Nova Scotia..

Aerial view of NRC-IMB’s Marine Research Station in Ketch Harbour, Nova Scotia.

"In a Canadian context, we would hope to co-locate any algae production with sources of CO2 emissions in order to mitigate its release by recycling the carbon dioxide into a fuel that can be used locally," says Dr. O'Leary. "In this scenario, the biofuel would preferentially be used on site rather than shipped long distances."

Related information

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National Research Council of Canada
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media@nrc-cnrc.gc.ca

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