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DUT: Scientific solution to lack of fuel and energy

DUT: Scientific solution to lack of fuel and energy

Media statement by Dr Manjinder Singh, Lead Researcher in Biotechnology

An eminent scientist Dr Manjinder Singh is working tirelessly along with his team of researchers on an “oil from Algae” research project that aims to extract oil from algae, converting it into biodiesel in response to the high demand of fuel in the world.

Dr Singh, who works under the leadership of Prof Faizal Bux, is a lead researcher in Biotechnology at the Durban University of Technology (DUT). He is an environmental scientist from Punjab State in India.

“Renewable bio-fuels are needed to displace petroleum-derived transport fuels, which contribute to global warming and are of limited availability. Biodiesel is the potential renewable fuel that has attracted the most attention. Biodiesel is currently being produced from agricultural crops, waste cooking oil and animal fats that cannot sustainably replace fossil-based transport fuels, but there is an alternative,” comments Dr Singh.

In 2006, says Dr Singh, the United States required 0.53 billion m3 of biodiesel annually for replacing all transport fuel at current rate of consumption. He adds that such fuel demand can’t be realistically satisfied by oil crops, waste cooking oil and animal fat. He says many countries such as United States, Canada, Australia, England and Japan are currently satisfying about 2-7% of their fuels requirements from biodiesel produced from crops and microalgae. He emphasized that South Africa has no commercial production of biodiesel from microalgae yet.

“Biodiesel from microalgae seems to be the only renewable bio-fuel that has the potential to completely displace petroleum-derived transport fuels without adversely affecting supply of food and other crop products. Most productive oil crops, such as oil palm, do not come close to microalgae in being able to sustainably provide the necessary amounts of biodiesel,” advises Dr Singh.

Dr Singh points out that microalgae are sunlight-driven cell factories that convert carbon dioxide to potential bio-fuels, foods, feeds and high-value bio-actives. Many microalgae are exceedingly rich in oil, which can be converted into biodiesel using existing technology. In addition to oils, continues Dr Singh, algal biomass is rich in proteins, carbohydrates and other nutrients. He advises that the residual biomass from biodiesel production processes can be used as animal feed supplement or can also be used to generate electrical power necessary for running the process. He adds that excess power generated could be sold to power grid to cover the cost of producing biodiesel.

Dr Singh says that the research which started at DUT in 2006, focused on isolation and identification of indigenous freshwater microalgae capable of producing oil that could be converted into biodiesel. During this period he isolated quite a few algal species that had the potential to store oil at different levels. He explains that the work was further scaled up to lab scale open raceway ponds and closed photo bioreactor processes (5 to 15 L volume) to study the feasibility of establishing continuous process for commercial scale production of algal oil. He was satisfied with the positive results he received as these processes provided valuable information about effect of climatic factor like temperature variation; light periods, evaporation rate over different seasons on the biomass and oil yield of selected microalgae. Based on these studies, he says, the research work was further scaled up to a pilot scale 3000L raceway pond for growing and harvesting bulk quantities of biomass. He acknowledges that the initial study was full of challenges like contamination by germs, insects, over flooding caused by heavy rains, salt deposition caused by high water evaporation in summers and slow growth rate because of cold nights in winters. He is confident that at the same time this pilot scale process boosted the research team with valuable knowledge of successfully operating a pilot scale process for algal biomass production. He says the team is current focusing on producing oil from the microalgae. He further adds that the training of graduate and postgraduate students involved in this research will facilitate development of human resource capital which is essential for successful operation of the technology.

Dr Singh is now working in collaboration with eThekwini Municipality on a joint project of testing this technology at 300 000 litre volume raceway process at Kingsburgh Wastewater Works for the next two years. The final sewage from wastewater treatment plant will be fed to the raceway process to grow algal biomass for biodiesel production. He adds that the residual biomass will be subjected to broken down to produce organic fertilizer. He further adds that glycerol, the byproduct of biodiesel production, will be used to produce methane for power generation and for running the process.

For more information contact Dr Manjinder Singh on 031 373 2782 or 084 228 9940.