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Scale Up

Karratha becoming an algae proving ground

May 21, 2013


Aurora Algae – which currently operates a pilot plant in Karratha that turns algae into biofuel, omega-3 for the health food industry, and protein for animal feed – plans to build a larger, commercial plant at Maitland, near Karratha. Their request is now open for public comment.

Western Australia’s Environmental Protection Authority’s Deputy Chairman, Dr. Paul Vogel, said that their organization recommended the Environment Minister approve the project, subject to certain conditions. “The issue we were primarily concerned about was that the ponds didn’t leak and then cause some sort of problem in groundwater…then later on at decommissioning make sure everything is decommissioned effectively.”

The local chamber of commerce and industry’s John Lally says the algae farm will help diversify the local economy. “As we move towards building a city, we need to diversify the economy,” he said. “There has been comment from some fairly recognized experts that this could grow into a very large industry.”

Meanwhile, Muradel, a company backed by Adelaide University, has abandoned developing its pilot plant to produce biofuel from algae in Karratha, saying it’s too expensive to continue research and development work in the region.

Karratha, with high temperatures and low rainfall, is a desirable location for evaporative algae growing operations. But Muradel is instead moving to Whyalla in South Australia because, since the company isn’t profitable yet, it didn’t make sense to stay.

Dr. David Lewis, chief technology officer of Muradel, said, “Unfortunately it’s very expensive for us to employ operators in Karratha because we have to compete with the salaries that operators get paid in the mining industry. For an R&D company it’s just not economically viable to pay those types of salaries.”

Potentially worth $50 billion a year for the Australian economy – according to a study titled Food and Fuel Forever, by Perth-based thinktank Future Directions International (FDI) – a new energy sector based on algal biofuels would produce fuel, food, stockfeed, plastics, textiles, paper, fertilizers, chemicals and pharmaceuticals and employ up to 50,000 Australians in new jobs.

“At current yields we could produce enough oil for all our transport needs from just 6000 square kilometers, the area of a single big sheep station,” says science writer Julian Cribb. “Oil from algae is liquid solar energy. The main thing you need to grow it is sunshine – and Australia has more of that per square meter than any country on Earth. That makes us potentially the world’s largest fresh oil province – the Saudi Arabia, if you like – of the 21st century.”

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