Japanese companies eye algae for green energy
YOKO SHOJI and AKANE OKUTSU, Nikkei staff writers
TOKYO -- Decades of research into green energy by Japanese companies is beginning to bear fruit. Autoparts manufacturer Denso plans to undertake testing this autumn of a biofuel made from algae extracts.
The organism is an ideal resource for clean energy and is attracting growing attention as a possible alternative to fossil fuels. There are more than 50,000 varieties of algae. They absorb carbon dioxide from the air during photosynthesis, during which they produce oil and nutrients.
Japan's transportation and industry ministries together launched a working group in July for using biofuels to fly aircraft, with a target of achieving the goal by the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Algae-based fuels are one high-potential option.
Denso, a Toyota Motor affiliate, is currently cultivating a huge amount of algae known as Pseudochoricystis, at its Zenmyo Plant in Aichi Prefecture. It will later dry those algae, extract their oil, and produce several dozen liters of light fuel. The algae-based substance will then be blended with gas oil made from petroleum.
Feasibility testing of the blended fuel will begin in autumn for use in passenger vehicles. During testing, the company will also experiment with suitable mixing proportions of conventional and algae-based oils.
Denso developed algae cultivation facilities in 2010. The idea initially came from studying how the company could cut carbon emissions. As part of its efforts, carbon dioxide emitted by the plant is directed to a pond to help algae photosynthesize. Denso has been trying to create an optimal environment for the cultivation pond.
"We had focused on cultivation until recently," said Kinya Atsumi, who oversees the company's new business promotion department. "And this spring we entered the next stage, where we will extract the algae oil and check the capability of the substance by actually using it in vehicles." he said.
The company will focus on the testing phase of green energy to be used for diesel and jet fuels in the future. But it has hurdles to clear for commercialization. Currently, 3kg of dried Pseudochoricystis can only produce 800 milliliters of gas oil. To be a viable option, efficient production, cheaper and faster cultivation as well as higher oil content algae are needed.
The capacity of the pond in the Zenmyo Plant is currently 33,000 liters. As part of the company's plan to have a total surface of 1-2 hectares for cultivation, it is preparing to launch a site in Kyushu region. By the year ending March 2019, it aims to be technically ready for commercialization of a large-scale plant.
Meanwhile, Japan's heavy industry group IHI in December 2013 registered the name of its algae-based oil, Mobura, as a trademark.
Consigned by the country's New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization, IHI in March began large-scale algae growing at its newly constructed cultivation pool in Kagoshima Prefecture. By May, it had reached its harvest target.
The pool, the largest in the country with a surface area of 1,500 sq. meters, is about 15 times the size that of a facility previously run by the company.
"We were first concerned that the algae might not grow evenly in a larger environment, but so far, it has grown fine," said Tsutomu Narikiyo, deputy manager of the company's new business promotions.
The success of the plant's mass cultivation will be an important step toward the company's commercialization of Mobura oil. It is looking to leverage the technology gained at the site to achieve a mass production of the oil as a biofuel of the future.
IHI is experimenting with cultivation in several sites including Southeast Asia. It aims to establish a technology base, by the year ending March 2021, for large-scale commercial plants consisting of several hundred hectares.
The company in 2011 began to mass cultivate an algae known as Botryococcus, from which hydrocarbon oil is extracted. The extracted substance has a similar structure to petroleum, so it is easy to be distilled into kerosene, which is used for jet fuel.
Commercializing a home-grown biofuel by the 2020 Tokyo Olympics could be a big promotion for Japanese technology. The use of biofuels is expected to be indispensable in the near future, as aviation continues to grow worldwide. It can offset increasing carbon emissions by absorbing carbon dioxide during fuel production. Major Western airlines are hoping to use greener fuels.
Japanese bioventure euglena has set up a production technology research center to examine Euglena, or freshwater unicellular organisms, in March. It is focusing on the microalgae at its site on Ishigaki Island, Okinawa Prefecture. The company is studying the organisms to search for varieties and growing methods suitable for producing biofuels.
Euglena is a rare type of algae that does not have cell walls. It could die when the soft membrane around the cell breaks. For cultivation of the microalgae, high skills are required in providing sunlight evenly across the delicate surface of the organisms, as well as for providing the nutrition necessary to hold oil.
The company, by the end of 2015, plans to extract oil from Euglena and to test whether it can be used for biofuel.
"We are looking to establish a stable cultivation system in a capacity of 3,000 sq. meters by around 2020," said Ryohei Nakano, who heads the research center.
The biggest bottleneck facing all biofuel development is the high cost of production. The expense is several times that for kerosene, which is now about 100 yen (80 cents) per liter.