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Sent: 20 November 2008 10:12
Subject: 29: Relevance to developing countries // Microalgae and the role of biotechnology
This is from Alessandro Flammini. I am working for the Global Bioenergy Partnership (GBEP) Secretariat since 2007, based at FAO Headquarters. Before joining GBEP, I worked in the energy and industrial statistics division of the United Nations Secretariat in New York and in the strategic partnerships and resources mobilization group of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) in Vienna. My background is in industrial engineering and business management with a special focus on energy.
Responding to message 23 by Dele Raheem: Thank you for the introducing the issue of technology, viability and appropriateness of advanced biofuels for developing countries. The so called 'second-generation' conversion technologies are supposed to circumvent the food-fuel debate using ligno-cellulosic feedstocks to produce biofuels that do not compete with agricultural products, using not specifically dedicated cultures and widening the type of biomass that can be used, including industrial scrap material and a part of urban and agricultural waste. It is clearly important that policies to encourage use of biofuel produced from wastes, residues, and other feedstocks that require little land or land that is otherwise of low ecological and socio-economic value (including unsuitable for food production) are developed. In this context, the alternative options for use of such wastes and residues should also be considered. The enormous increase of available feedstock deriving from advanced biofuel production (from advanced feedstocks like algae and/or from advanced conversion technologies that can deploy the ligno-cellulosic part of the plant) should in this way increase the quantity of biofuels produced with a consequent decrease of costs. Second-generation technologies are already available and technically viable, although processing costs are still high and further research is needed to make these technologies economically sustainable.
One of the most promising feedstocks at this time, in terms of cost effectiveness and efficiency of the overall process seems to be micro-algae. Algae-based biofuel production is currently attracting great interest and important investments from the private sector and it is regarded as the new 'silver bullet' of the biofuel sector. Algae-based biofuels could potentially improve upon the potential negative impacts regarding the environment compared to traditional biofuel production, on top of a number of other benefits (harvest throughout most of the year, use of less freshwater...). The biofuel produced can be customized on the basis of the algal species used and the systems employed (this includes biodiesel, ethanol, aviation fuels like kerosene, renewable diesel, biocrude, biogasoline). Also the energy yields are significantly higher than first-generation biofuel (45000-130000 litre/hectare/year compared to 6000 litre/hectare/year of oil palm, one of the most productive feedstocks available). Algae for biofuel production can be grown in closed photo-bioreactors systems (PBRs), in open ponds, in dark bioreactors and they basically need only CO2 and NO2. Closed photo-bioreactors allow the use of these systems for algaculture in combination with coal power plants, capturing carbon dioxide and fixing it in the biomass produced.
A number of research centres and international organizations are getting more and more interested in these new technologies for biofuel production in order to assess their real impact and the net benefits that could derive in comparison with other energy crops. In this regard, FAO has recently established a working group (the Aquatic Biofuel Working Group) under the umbrella of the FAO Inter-Departmental Working Group on Bioenergy that is addressing the sustainability concerns linked to algae-based biofuel production and its suitability for developing countries.
Since this sector is relatively new for FAO and no official position exists at this time, one of the first activities that the working group is carrying out is to assess the suitability of these technologies for developing countries and their impacts on the three dimensions of the sustainability (environmental, economic and social). To identify the different outcomes in terms of sustainability resulting from selected production paths, as well as related management systems compared to the most common biofuel production paths before concluding that the technology is appropriate for developing countries is paramount. Also, technological capacity is just one of the aspects that should be taken into account along with capacity of institutions and policy-makers, in particular in equatorial regions.
In this context, genetic modification and metabolic engineering are likely to have the greatest impact on improving the economics of production of algae-based biofuel and some specific applications of biotechnologies that might be considered include increasing the biomass yield; increasing the biomass growth rate as well as the oil content in the biomass; and improving temperature tolerance of the microalgae so that there is a reduced need for cooling, which is expensive (see the Background Document of the conference). Certain algae can furthermore synthesize molecular hydrogen, which is an interesting and environmental friendly alternative to today's fuels, as well as a number of high-value co-products (e.g. natural carotenoids, powerful anti-oxidant substances much in demand in the health, food and cosmetics industries) and, to this end, further investments in biotechnology are essential to make the production viable, efficient and deliverable by integrated systems (food/feed/fuel/chemicals).
Currently, two of the main challenges that technology is going to face are in the oil extraction in respect of biofuel production from algae and in the production of resistant and inexpensive enzymes in respect of ligno-cellulosic conversion technologies. It is important to stress that second-generation technologies cannot solve the food-fuel debate in the short term and, although the feedstock to be processed is largely available, it is hard to predict that the overall cost including processing cost will be economically competitive with first-generation biofuels. In the future, a sound policy implementation could solve the problem of economic sustainability between first and second-generation technologies. Although biofuel prices are usually higher than fossil fuel prices, the added social benefit might justify some subsidies and regulations taking into account that the externalities are not currently included in fossil fuel markets. Clear environment-related efficiency criteria and sound process standards need to be established (globally) that internalize the positive (and negative) externalities of biofuels and ensure that the energy output from biofuel production is greater than the amount of energy used in the process.
We welcome contributions from experts that would like to be involved in the work of the Aquatic Biofuels Working Group and that could provide us with best practices they would like to disseminate. If interested, contact me at my e-mail address below. A website will be made available soon to broaden awareness about our activities.
Global Bioenergy Partnership Secretariat
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
Viale delle Terme di Caracalla
Tel. (+39) 06.570.55686
Fax (+39) 06.57053369
E-mail: alessandro.flammini (at) fao.org