First industrial-sized seaweed biofuel plant recycles CO2 while bypassing crop concerns

The world’s first industrial-sized plant producing biofuels from seaweed is set to open in Brazil later this year

Located in the north-eastern state of Pernambuco, the $9.8m facility will produce up to 1.2m litres of algae-based biofuels a year. Austrian firm SEE Algae Technology (SAT) is building the facility on an ethanol-producing sugar cane plantation owned by Brazilian company Grupo JB.

The plant will produce algae biomass and bioethanol from both natural and genetically modified algae strains.

There are already plans for a second similar facility in the state of Espírito Santo in the south-east of Brazil.

Large-scale production of biofuels from land-based crops has become increasingly controversial due to concerns that it leads to the destruction of forests, pushes up food prices and actually increases greenhouse gas emissions. Using algae means the SAT plant will not require growing any crops that will compete with food crops for land and water.

According to the company, algae is quick to mature and much more efficient for biofuel production than corn or soybeans.

Dr Joachim Grill, CEO of SAT, said his company’s technology can achieve cost and environmental advantages over fossil fuels, “all without using either arable land or food crops.”

SAT has also produced upright bioreactors where algae can develop in a controlled environment perforated by sunlight, thereby avoiding the huge surface area demands and potential dangers involved with previously used open pools.

In a further pioneering step, carbon dioxide (CO₂) emitted during ethanol production, which would otherwise go to waste, will be used to speed up photosynthesis.

“For each ethanol litre produced, one kilogram of CO₂ is released in the atmosphere. We are going to take this CO₂ to feed our plant,” said Rafael Bianchini, head of SAT’s Brazilian subsidiary.

The plant is expected to use 5% of CO₂ emissions from ethanol production to begin with, but SAT says the figure will rise with time.

However, Anders Dahlbeck, biofuels expert at ActionAid, said that other countries should remain cautious about seaweed biofuel until proper sustainability research has been carried out.

“To avoid negative impacts, countries and regional blocs such as the European Union need to put in place rigorous regulatory frameworks before production of algae-based biofuels,” he said. “These should include human rights impact assessments and a robust life cycle analysis of the entire production cycle to ensure that production does not have negative social and climate impacts.”

Construction of the Brazil plant is due to be completed before the end of the year and the plant could be operational shortly afterwards.

SAT was awarded the Brazilian Bioenergy Innovation of the Year 2012 award for its work with Grupo JB, which the judging panel said could provide a major boost for commercialisation of microalgae-based biofuels worldwide.

Brazil is the second biggest producer of biofuels after the US.