Algae Oil in China
August 2, 2011
ecently, Australia’s largest ethanol producer, Manildra, diversified its biofuel portfolio by entering into algae production. In cooperation with Atlanta-based Algae Tec, Manildra will build a demonstration facility near Manildra’s ethanol production plant in Nowra, south of Sydney.
Australia’s algae oil rush is fueled by a combination of tough emissions control standards and state-by-state biofuels mandates. Carbon emitters will pay a $23 dollar per metric ton tax starting in 2012, which has accelerated a boom for carbon capture and biofuels, whose consumption increased 34% from 2009 to 2010. The Manildra-Algae Tec demonstration offers both. Algae Tec photobioreactor modules will use carbon dioxide produced by ethanol processing to feed algae, which consumes two parts CO2 for every part algae produced.
To a company like Manildra, with established operations throughout Indonesia and sales throughout the Asian rim, China inevitably figures in its market calculations. China surpassed the United Kingdom and United States as Australia’s major trade partner in 2006, and unlike most wealthy nations’ balance sheet with the world’s fastest-growing economy, Australia maintains a healthy balance of payments. Manildra originally entered ethanol production as a way to generate downstream value from its wheat-based starch and gluten production for industrial use. China deregulated wheat imports in 2010, and Australian wheat exports immediately more than tripled. Manildra began retail sale exports to China this year, with 200 tons of Canola oil.
Separate from its Manildra partnership, Algae Tec has also entered into a partnership with Hong Kong-based Pacific Minerals, and Australian RKD International, to introduce its algae production technology to China.
But is China a ready market?
On the surface, it may not look that way. To the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter, green energy does not immediately appear to top the list of national priorities. Beijing residents see the sun only as a hazy circle. Industrial provinces tolerate a continuous gray, dry, drizzle of particular coal dust. And China seems intent on maintaining economic growth ahead of environmental concerns. A convergence of conditions, however, could soon make China the world’s largest market for algae oil.
In 1997 China became a net oil importer and, with that status, victim to the same insecurities of foreign oil dependency that bedevil North America and Western Europe. For a nation asserting global leadership, that creates an independence imperative. China is now the Middle East’s largest oil customer, and despite its aggressive export sales, has announced national goals for increased energy self-sufficiency.
Coal is an alternative; but coal gasification is an expensive substitute for petroleum. And even to meet its current electrical and industrial output, China has been forced to turn to imports. As with wheat, and in spite of its vast coal production, China has had to turn to Australian coal, which now ranks behind only iron ore as Australia’s leading China export.
Like other nations, China has launched an aggressive alternative fuels campaign, mandating 15% of total transportation fuels from biofuels by 2020. But China’s principal reliance on ethanol directly conflicts with food policy and needs. With less than 10% arable land for one fifth of the world’s population, food for fuel is a disappearing option. In listing the reasons for diversifying into algae oil, Manildra cited the two conditions that summarize China’s energy dilemma: rising oil prices and the increasing reluctance to use food products for oil.
What China does have is vast amounts of land, sunlight, non-potable water, and labor, along with an immediate imperative to find productive work for the millions of people displaced by water- and energy-driven water projects. It also has a centrally-mandated, decentralized-implemented capacity to focus on simultaneous economic, social and environmental goals.
All these are ripe conditions for algae oil. Another is China’s established demand for algae products that can add profitability to algae oil production for high-end chemicals and nutraceuticals, fertilizers and foods. Chinese eat seventy species of algae, including the highly-prized fat choy, a dark, silky, strand resembling fine vermicelli. As a nutraceutical, algae-based oils in China have long rivaled fish oil as health supplements. Chinese companies already produce for a mass market in algae powder. Algae-based feeds and fertilizers already command large markets in fish-farming aquaculture, commercial meat, and fertilizer industries.
Integrating carbon capture with algae products production could prove a major win for China.
It would require a policy turn and priority change for China to venture into major algae production. But China is full of surprises, and has repeatedly shown that when it changes policy, it can do so at scale and with a speed that astonishes the rest of the world. Who would have believed, even a decade ago, that China would be the world’s supplier of wind and solar equipment? Or that, even for the brief period of the 2008 Summer Olympics, Beijing residents would see the sun?
Early signs point to a tentative algae commitment. Governmentally-subsidized researchers are hunting for local algae strains. Clean tech companies are exploding, and a May 2011 Chinese new energy IPO found ready investors in the London market. Chinese energy technology giant ENN is testing out algae production to complement its carbon capture technology at a 327-acre research facility an hour outside Beijing.
When he stepped down as Australia’s ambassador to China in 2010, career international trade diplomat Geoff Raby said that China’s coal-fired electrical output was unsustainable, and that carbon capture presented Australia with a major export opportunity. The right mix of carbon capture and algae oil production could offer the world’s fastest growing economy, with a fifth of the world’s population, exactly what they’re looking for.
That would change more than any game. That would change the world.