While the technology itself is not new, Japanese scientists say they believe oil from aquatic algae could become an important raw material as biomass technology improves and the world looks for oil sources other than those in the ground.
Experts also say algae will be a more sustainable biomass source than sugar cane or corn as the global population expands.
"In the short term, we can use farm crops to produce oil, but in the long term, algae will play a vital role because crops will be needed as food," said phycologist
According to the
"Where do we find a replacement for petroleum?" Watanabe asked. He believes algae oil is the best alternative.
There are possibly hundreds of thousands of species of algae in nature. Those most suited to oil production are fast-growing species with an oil-rich structure that resists attack by fungi, experts say.
Watanabe works with two species of microalgae, the photosynthetic Botryococcus braunii, and Aurantiochytrium, which feeds on organic matter and can grow without light. Both produce oil that is relatively compatible with existing energy infrastructure.
Researchers and algae oil producers worldwide are trying to bring down production costs so it can compete with crude oil.
"This research development is about how much lower you can drive production costs," said
Comparable to crude oil, algae oil can be refined to produce auto and aviation fuel and can be turned into cosmetics and plastics.
Neo Morgan has teamed up with
Through Neo Morgan's breed improvement technology, the company modified a strain of Botryococcus braunii suitable for simple, cheap incubators, Fujita said.
He said the firm believes it can produce oil from algae at a cost of
Discovered by Taira Enomoto, a professor of microbiology at
Moreover, Neo Morgan has come up with a more efficient incubation system. Oil is usually extracted from algae with a centrifuge, but Fujita said the modified algae can be collected using a simple straining method, keeping production costs down.
Still, scientists are struggling to bring costs down to the level of crude.
"Producing oil for fuel is the hardest part . . . if we were asked to make oil that sells for several thousand yen (for uses such as cosmetics), we could do it now. But it is really difficult to bring down the production cost to
He said crowded
Watanabe of the
He said Aurantiochytrium can feed on sewage treatment byproducts, such as active sludge, while effluent that has gone through primary treatment contains the nitrogen and phosphorus needed for Botryococcus braunii to thrive.
By utilizing these byproducts, which usually go waste, the production costs of algae oil can be reduced, said Watanabe.
Watanabe believes a commercial-scale incubator using existing technology could produce oil at a cost of between
"I think we'll be seeing a price competition of about
But regulations and
For example, since algae oil can be used in the manufacture of high-end cosmetics, there is scope for business models using current production methods, he said.
The government also could work harder to promote the technology, Watanabe said, noting that the annual budget for algae oil research is only a few tens of millions of yen.
Watanabe attributes the lack of government interest to its previous failures with algae. In the 1990s, it unsuccessfully invested about
But Watanabe warned that
The U.S. has spent tens of billions of yen on algae research and on supporting companies involved in it. The Japanese government estimates that algae oil will be in commercial use around 2030.
This lack of drive frustrates Watanabe.
"It's as if
This section, appearing on the second Monday of each month, features new technologies that are still under research and development but are expected to hit the market in coming years.
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