Discovering tomorrow

InnoVenton and The Downstream Chemicals Technology Station

12 - 15 April 2010 - Vodaworld, Midrand, Johannesburg

An Overview of the NMMU Micro-algae to biofuels project.

The presentation at the forum was the first public presentation of the work at InnoVenton, NMMU on the large-scale cultivation of micro-algae and the conversion of the biomass into a liquid fuel product. In the presentation a very brief introduction to InnoVenton was presented, followed by an overview of the state of play on the international micro-algal landscape. The use of micro-algae for the capturing of solar energy through photosynthesis is arguably the most promising technology for the large-scale capture of solar energy. Several technical challenges are still hampering commercial roll-out of this technology.

A brief overview of the wide range of possible commercial structures that is theoretically possible by using micro-algae was presented, as well as an overview of the main economic drivers in such commercial structures. The selection of lipid extraction from micro-algae and the subsequent conversion of such lipids into biodiesel necessitates specific technical approaches for the cultivation of micro-algae, and impacts directly upon the business models that could be used for such ventures.

The overview of the InnoVenton project highlighted the difference between international R&D efforts and what is being done at NMMU, namely a deliberate move away from a narrow focus on biodiesel as end product. This choice impacts dramatically on potential business models, and it was shown how the three main economic hindrances to micro-algae technologies are being addressed through this particular choice. A brief overview of the progress in the project to date was given as well as an overview of the work that is either in progress, or being planned. A brief overview of the commercial structures set up at NMMU for this particular project was also given and the opportunities for potential collaboration discussed.

by Prof Ben Zeelie