Algal Biofuel Developments in the EU

A discussion of three large-scale demonstration projects currently underway, supported by the European Commission's 7th Framework Program.

By Lois Hobson, Business Manager, Centre for Process Innovation, Wilton Centre; Neftalí López López, Project Development Manager, Abengoa Bioenergia Nuevas Tecnologias; Kyriakos Maniatis, Principal Administrator, European Commission, DG ENER; Maëlle Soares Pinto, Director, Biofuels, Europe & Africa, Hart Energy; and Frank Rogalla, Director of Innovation and Technology, Aqualia Gestion Integral del Agua

The craving for new, sustainable energy sources has turned a garden pond nuisance, green algae, into one of the most promising renewable fuel feedstocks. The sudden popularity of algae is due to reports of very high oil yields and dramatic greenhouse gas (GHG) savings, all devoid of any negative effect on farming. But an in-depth analysis of algae reveals that their potential is not limitless and that further research is needed in order to maximize the benefits drawn from and minimize the environmental impacts caused by algae.

Aquatic microalgae are among the fastest growing photosynthetic organisms. They have carbon fixation rates in an order of magnitude higher than those of land grown plants and can be continually harvested, with harvesting cycles ranging between one and ten days. They produce oils that can be converted into biodiesel and carbohydrates that can be fermented into ethanol, while the biomass residue can be used for further energy production (in combined heat and power applications or synthetic biofuels via gasification and pyrolysis).

Algae as a biofuel feedstock were extensively studied in the 1970s in the United States, but failed to deliver convincing results then and were subsequently supplanted by other feedstocks and technologies. Recent concerns for issues such as climate change and the impacts of fuel crops on food production and land use change have broadened the search for alternative feedstocks and rekindled the interest in algae.

Aligned with the EU's ambitious renewable energy targets, the European Commission (EC) is participating in the funding of three large-scale industry-led projects aimed at demonstrating the production of algal biofuels along the whole value chain, covering strain selection to algae cultivation and production, oil extraction, biofuel production and biofuel testing in transportation applications.

Hart Energy will undertake the common dissemination of all three projects.

European Commission demonstration projects and the EU SET Plan

The 7th Framework Program (7FP) for research and technological development is the EU´s primary instrument for funding research and demonstration activities from 2007 through 2013 (Decision No. 1982/2006/EC). It brings together all research-related EU initiatives under one roof, providing the structure for reaching the EU goals of growth, competitiveness and employment. The total 7FP budget for the seven-year period amounts to €51 billion (US$69 billion). EU Member States and the European Parliament have earmarked a total of €2.35 billion (US$3 billion) over the duration of 7FP for funding energy-related projects.

This allocated budget is split on an equal basis between research projects to be managed by the Directorate General for Research and demonstration projects that are managed by the Directorate General for Energy (DG ENER). Since the inception of 7FP, DG ENER has issued calls for demonstration projects that put particular emphasis on biofuel production from lignocellulosic biomass and addresses practically all value chains from biomass resources to a final marketable biofuel.

The 7FP Call Topic of 2010 is aimed at large scale demonstration of biofuels production from algae with ambitious, but achievable targets:

  • Minimum plantation area of 10 hectares, and
  • Minimum productivity of 90 dry solid tons per hectare per year.

Furthermore the consortia needed to be led by industrial organizations and the projects had to demonstrate the complete sustainable value chain from algae species selection to biofuel production and use in the market. The call was restricted to only projects in which the carbon dioxide (CO2) supply for the algae cultivation was provided by renewable applications, excluding CO2 generated from fossil fuel installations.

In total, 14 proposals were submitted by various industrial groups, from which the three projects described below were shortlisted for support. These contracts were signed in early 2011. The total cost for the three projects is about €31 million (US$42 million) and the corresponding EC contribution amounts to about €20 million (US$27 million).

At the end of 2007, the EC proposed the European Strategic Energy Technology Plan (SET Plan) that targeted a strategic approach to technology development and deployment in order to ensure the achievement of energy-related political objectives. This was accompanied by "A Technology Roadmap," presenting the fundamental roadmaps for wind energy, solar energy, the electricity grid, bioenergy, carbon capture and storage, nuclear and the Smart Cities Initiative, which serve as a basis for strategic planning and decision making.

The main tool for the implementation of the SET Plan are the Industrial Initiatives, public-private initiatives led by industry, aiming to accelerate industrial energy research and innovation at the EU and Member States level. The European Industrial Bioenergy Initiative (EIBI) is characterized by very innovative technologies and high-risk investments aiming to bring new technologies onto the market for the first time. The focus is primarily on second-generation biofuels production from lignocellulosic biomass, advanced combined heat and power (CHP) technologies (power efficiency above 40%) and novel concepts of producing biomass intermediate products. One of the value chains of the EIBI is algal biofuels.