Company looks to alga to produce biofuel for jets, automobiles


Euglena, a type of alga, is drawing attention in Japan as a promising source of eco-friendly biofuel that could one day replace aviation and other types of fossil fuels.

The half-animal, half-plant euglena take in carbon dioxide from the air and water and grow by photosynthesis, producing fat and oil in the process.

The oil extracted from euglena is a sticky brown liquid and smells like kelp. When refined, the oil becomes a transparent fuel. It takes about 4 trillion euglena, or some 4 tons of the microorganism, to produce enough jet fuel to fly an aircraft around 100 km, according to Euglena Co.

Set up in 2005, Euglena Co. has been researching the alga’s potential. After building a facility to mass produce euglena, the company started developing supplementary food products containing nutrients produced by the alga. Since 2010, though, Euglena has been trying to develop biofuel with global warming in mind.

“We aim to make both people and the Earth healthy,” says Kengo Suzuki, a Euglena board member in charge of research and development. “Although invisible to the human eye, euglena have contributed to improving the environment since early times.”

On Dec. 1, the firm, based in Tokyo’s Minato Ward, announced a project to build a test plant in Yokohama for the production of euglena-based jet and diesel fuel, with a view to launching commercial operations by 2020.

The project involves such major companies as Isuzu Motors Ltd. and All Nippon Airways. Euglena has been working with Isuzu to develop a bus that runs solely on biodiesel and is planning to start supplying jet fuel for ANA Holdings Inc.’s cargo fleet in the future.

To commercialize the fuels, the biggest challenges are securing stable supplies and reducing production costs. The company says it plans to employ a U.S. firm’s cutting-edge oil refining technology.

Besides biofuel, Euglena is studying an efficient method for culturing the alga using carbon dioxide emitted by thermal power plants. If such a method is established, the greenhouse gas emitted will be converted into oxygen.