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Tuesday April 12, 2011

Microalgae - Jagjit Kaurah thinks he has the answer



Breaking the algae cost barrier – can one Malaysian scientist do it?

JAGJIT Kaurah thinks he’s onto something. He’s always been an inventor of sorts but this time he’s aiming big, and is ready to take on the big boys.

For years, giants such as Boeing, Exxon Mobil, Bill Gates, BP and the US Military have pumped billions into microalgae research in hopes that these microscopic proto-plants might turn out to be the world’s answer to dwindling fossil fuels.

Up until now, the only thing standing in the way of microalgae and their potential to solve the world’s twin crises of climate change and a looming energy shortage has been the amount of money it takes to produce and harvest the stuff.

Jagjit Kaurah showing containers filled with microalgae at the Universiti Putra Malaysia research station. He intends to grow microalgae in the sea off Port Dickson in Negri Sembilan.

Most commercial operations which do deal with microalgae focus on marketing the more nutritious species as an expensive nutraceutical on the health foods market.

Kaurah, however, says he has developed a method of bringing down production costs to a level where prices will revolutionise both the health food and biofuel industries.

Similar claims have been made before, only to have initial hype fade like a mediocre sunset; so the next six months will be critical for Kaurah, who intends to take his technology commercial near the seaside town of Port Dickson in Negri Sembilan.

If his current claims about finding a way to produce microalgae at a cost of US$1.50 (RM4.65) per kg, (less than half that of current world leader Michael Borowitzka’s US$4 per kg) stand up commercially, he might well put Malaysia on the world map as a leader in microalgae production.

Microalgae have everything you could possibly want from a renewable energy resource. They grow fast, have a high oil content and unlike crops such as sugar cane, oil palm and switchgrass, their growth is not limited by the availability of land to grow on. And when they grow, microalgae sequester carbon dioxide.

Up to to 68% of its dry weight is made up of of oil which can be converted to biodiesel through a process that is similar to converting oils from other feedstocks.

Kaurah explains how the idea of growing microalgae cheaply came to him. On a beach trip to Port Dickson one day, he was watching the waves. Up till that point, he was versed to a very basic level on the reasons why microalgae production is so expensive. Among them are the fact that photobioreactors require large capital costs, whilst meticulous temperature regulation and constant agitation are required for algal populations to thrive.

It was then that a light bulb moment occurred; he realised the sea could be a potential solution in breaking the cost barrier, thereby providing a solution to three of the world’s most pressing issues – climate change, dwindling energy resources and malnutrition.

“You see, microalgae are not like plants. With plants if you have a 10 to 15 degree change in temperature it doesn’t affect them too much. With microalgae, even with a four degree change they go into funk. But in the sea, temperature change is almost zero. And the sea waves will give you free agitation ... mixing is very important.”

Kaurah is not the only person to have had that idea. It has surfaced before but there have been no big attempts at setting up a bioreactor for microalgae in the sea. The Floating Bed Method (FBM) is what Kaurah calls it, and after five years of scheming, constructing, failing and re-calculating, he says it finally works.

At the Universiti Putra Malaysia research station in Port Dickson where he conducts his trials, Kaurah points out long, barnacle-covered pipes piled up a short walk from the shoreline – remnants of his final commercialised pilot project which he completed last December.

“We’ll be cleaning off the barnacles soon and transporting them (the pipes) to the new site,” he says.

He’s waiting for state government approval to set up his first commercial plant.

The FBM consists of a large structure of interconnecting pipes that float on a large bed of water. A network of nets or ropes attached to them hold up a colony of big long garbage bags. In these bags there are dense populations of microalgae, scaled up first in a series of vesicles starting from small flasks to five-litre plastic containers to 20-tonne bioreactors.

The entire structure when set up at sea is about 50m by 50m in size. A harvesting system connects microalgae in the “garbage bags” to processing or storage containers on the shore.

The bags are almost completely impermeable, with carbon dioxide and other exchanges taking place through tubes that connect the inside of the bags with the harvesting pipes.

“They act as a totally enclosed bioreactor, so it’s very clean,” says Kaurah.

So what makes Kaurah’s FBM different from the multi-million dollar projects out there? For one thing, it enables a massive reduction in photobioreactor capital costs. Another is that other expensive temperature regulation and agitation services are provided free by the sea and waves. Kaurah also says he has found a solution to scaling issues, however his harvesting system remains for now a closely guarded secret. He is secretive about some things as certain elements of his technology are pending a patent application.

The journey to get where he is wasn’t easy. Many a battered prototype has been washed up onto the shores of Malacca where some of his earlier trials took place. He solved some of the issues by making the entire structure submersible but other issues have kept him from achieving fuel price parity with crude oil.

“We still have problems with fouling, handling the sea currents and waves better, durability of some of our components and other less pressing concerns which require extra labour to handle. That’s the reason our costs are about US$1.50 (RM4.65) per kg.”

To be ready for the biofuels market, he said he would need to push the price of production down to US$0.70 (RM2.17) per kg in order to be competitive.

“But I know what needs to be done, and I am confident I can get it down to US$0.70 within 12 to 18 months.”

While he works on getting the cost of propagating microalgae down, Kaurah’s first commercial operation will produce the variety of microalgae called spirulina.

Aside from egg white, spirulina is the only other “complete protein” source, which basically means it contains all the amino acids the body requires in the correct proportion – part of the reason why it is both a popular nutraceutical and a popular candidate for solving malnutrition. Kaurah intends to supply aid organisations with the world’s cheapest complete protein source to tackle malnutrition problems.

At the moment, he says the cheapest dry bulk suppliers provide spirulina at US$10 (RM31) per kg, so he will bring the price down to US$3 (RM9.30) per kg for aid agencies, and supply other businesses such as health food companies at about US$5 to US$6 (RM15.50 to RM18.60) per kg.

Based on current world aid budgets, Kaurah believes he can supply spirulina at prices cheap enough to eliminate malnutrition across the world.

Related Stories:
Blue petroleum
The need for biofuels
Farming fuels

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