Oil-yielding algae show promise as domestic, export energy trove

Kyodo

Not many people imagine that resource-poor Japan might one day become an oil exporter. But someone who does is Makoto Watanabe, a leading expert in research on producing oil from microscopic algae.

Research into creating biofuel from so-called microalgae may well grow more important as Japan looks for other energy sources to help reduce the reliance on nuclear power in light of the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant.

“If we can develop technology that taps the potential of microalgae to the fullest extent, Japan may become a country that can export oil,” the 63-year-old professor at the University of Tsukuba in Ibaraki Prefecture said at his lab.

The idea of producing fuel from algae is not new, with the oil crisis of the 1970s and concerns over climate change occasionally casting a spotlight on the organisms. Japan also spent more than ¥10 billion over a 10-year period up to around 2000 in a major national project to look into the properties of algae to see if its photosynthesis would help reduce carbon dioxide.

But after the project ended with lackluster results, Watanabe, who was until then interested in research on environmental problems caused by algae, such as red tide, decided to shift his focus to algae biofuel.

“After the project ended . . . researchers involved in it broke up. But I thought that studies should continue, even on a reduced scale, because the potential of algae is high,” the environmental sciences professor said.

What makes the idea of using algae so special is that, unlike other biofuels made from agricultural crops such as corn and soybeans, it would not lead to an increase in food prices because algae can grow in conditions unsuitable for food crop production.

Oil production from microalgae is also up to several hundred times more efficient than that from terrestrial plants, although the biggest challenge is overcoming the high production costs, such as by improving cultivation methods, experts say.

Watanabe’s research has centered on a microalgae called Botryococcus and more recently on a type called Aurantiochytrium.Both can produce hydrocarbon, the chief component of petroleum.

According to Watanabe, each has strengths and weaknesses. Botryococcus has high hydrocarbon content but grows slowly. Aurantiochytrium has only about one-third of the oil content of Botryococcus but grows 48 times faster.

Given the higher hydrocarbon productivity of Aurantiochytrium, Watanabe believes there is more room to reduce algae biofuel costs, which have run between ¥155 to ¥800 per liter when using Botryococcus and much more expensive than crude oil prices at about ¥50.

“By securing land or sea areas of 20,000 to 200,000 hectares, producing algae biofuel equal to the amount of Japan’s oil imports for one year is not impossible,” he said, noting there is plenty of unused farmland that could be made available.

Since Aurantiochytrium needs organic substances to produce oil, unlike Botryococcus, which creates fuel through photosynthesis, Watanabe is considering ways to create a system to cultivate the algae by making use of sewage water from households and factories, and cleaning the water in the process.

Companies are also joining the algae biofuel field, with heavy machinery maker IHI Corp. launching a research and development company with a university venture in August and planning a ¥400 million investment in the firm over two years.

JX Nippon Oil & Energy Corp. has conducted a joint study with other companies to create jet fuel from another microscopic algae, Euglena, which conducts photosynthesis and moves like an animal, with a view to seeking commercialization in fiscal 2018.

An official at the Natural Resources and Energy Agency welcomed what appears to be recent progress in the area, but added, “Still, I don’t think this is something that will work out in the next five years or so. More improvement in technology is needed, as I hear of cases in which researchers find that algae, which has grown a lot inside a beaker, doesn’t cultivate in a larger pool.”

Hiroshi Uno, senior project manager of the Green Innovation Business Strategy Department at the Mitsui Global Strategic Studies Institute, predicts commercialization could begin around 2020.

“Unless algae biofuel can compete with usual petroleum in terms of costs, you can’t really use it as energy . . . but I think Japan has a strong point in the area of algae culture,” he said.

While global competition in algae research is intensifying, Watanabe is hoping to use his study not only to address his country’s energy woes but also to contribute to rebuilding areas devastated by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, which set off the nuclear crisis.

Watanabe’s current plan is to conduct experiments at a disaster-hit sewage treatment facility in Sendai, hoping eventually to make algae oil production part of the drainage treatment process.