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Scale Up

Japan’s algae pioneers explore productive strains

September 15, 2015
AlgaeIndustryMagazine.com

Botryococcus braunii algae are being produced at IHI Corp.'s 1,500-square-meter pool in Kagoshima, Japan. Photo: The Asahi Shimbun

Botryococcus braunii algae are being produced at IHI Corp.’s 1,500-square-meter pool in Kagoshima, Japan. Photo: The Asahi Shimbun

With large-scale production at low cost a future possibility, many corporations in Japan are beginning to jump on the algae fuel bandwagon.

Heavy industry giant IHI Corp. erected a 1,500-square-meter facility in Kagoshima earlier this year. Commissioned by the central government’s New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO), the facility was established as one of the nation’s largest algal production plants.

The company had been cultivating algae in a facility in Yokohama on a trial basis, but decided to erect their new facility down south in Kagoshima where the warmer climate and longer daylight hours provide a better environment for the mass production of algae.

Botryococcus braunii is grown in the new plant. The strain, which can deliver 50 percent or more of its dry weight as oil, was selected after the company consulted Taira Enomoto, a professor of biology at Kobe University. The alga is also known to show strong resistance to infection.

“What’s significant is that we were able to establish a basic method that enables us to grow the algae outdoors with ease and little supervision,” said Tsutomu Narikiyo, deputy general manager of the IHI’s Corporate Business Development Division.

Elsewhere in the country, autoparts giant Denso Corp. is currently developing methods to produce Pseudochoricystis, an algae known for its resistance to germs and high rate of reproduction. The company, based in Kariya, Aichi Prefecture, anticipates establishing a technology to harvest it as biofuel by 2018.

Euglena is being cultivated by the appropriately named Euglena Co., a fast growing start-up company based in Tokyo. It is growing the algae on a trial basis in Okinawa Prefecture’s Ishigakijima island.

Algal production could also provide assistance for Fukushima to reconstruct its economy after being devastated by the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, and the resulting nuclear disaster in the prefecture.

In Minami-Soma, Fukushima Prefecture, algae native to the area is being test produced by the University of Tsukuba in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture, and other institutions.

“The algae was able to make it through the winter while being cultivated. We’re confident that we will be able to cultivate the algae throughout the year,” said Mikihide Demura, an assistant professor of biology at the university.

The university, together with Tohoku University and the Sendai city government, is also planning to produce, in Sendai, an alga that does not require light to prosper from nutrients in sewage water.

The Japanese government is eager for a piece of this booming algae action, as well. In July, a public-private panel to assess whether biofuel could be used in jet aircraft by 2020 was launched by the government. Japan hopes to hold test operations of algal jet fuel through mass production of the organism until around 2018, according to a schedule outline released in early July on next-generation aircraft fuel. Then, after further expanding production and lowering costs, it is hoped that algal biofuel could be used by aircraft as early as 2020.

A liter of oil from algae currently costs about 250 yen ($2) to 300 yen, according to Makoto Watanabe, a specially appointed professor of biology at the University of Tsukuba. Costs would need to be lowered to about 100 yen per liter to make its use economically feasible, he figures.

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