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Solar Bio-Fuels Consortium Receives Grant to Boost Algal Production of Hydrogen

The central role of photosynthesis in biofuel production. Click to enlarge. Source: Solar Bio-fuels Consortium.

The Solar Bio-fuels Consortium has received an A$286,000 (US$255,000) Australian Research Council grant to help enhance the efficiency of the algal production of hydrogen.

Ben Hankamer from the Institute for Molecular Bioscience (IMB) at The University of Queensland, Australia and Olaf Kruse from Universität Bielefeld, Germany established the Solar Bio-Fuels Consortium to facilitate the efficient development of algal bio-fuels processes, such as the production of bio-hydrogen, bio-diesel, biomass for BTL and biomass for bio-methane.

The consortium has grown to include representatives from Universität Karlsruh; Universität Münster; The University of Sydney; and Imperial College London. Collectively, the group conducts bio-discovery, structural biology, molecular biology, microbiology, genomics, transcriptomics, proteomics, metabonomics, culture optimization and bioreactor scale-up within a coordinated research program.

Many countries are already aiming to replace 10 to 20 percent of their existing energy production capacity with CO2-neutral energy systems by 2020. But this is very likely not nearly enough. Some reports indicate that 50-66 percent of current energy production capacity may have to be CO2-free by 2020 to avoid the worst effects of climate change. This will be very hard to achieve and we need new technologies to do so.

—Ben Hankamer
The pathway of bio-hydrogen production in microorganisms. Click to enlarge. Source: Solar Bio-fuels Consortium.

A select group of green algae (including Chlamydomonas reinhardtii) and cyanobacteria have evolved the ability to use solar energy to produce H2 from water. The theoretical conversion efficiency from light to H2 is calculated to be as high ≅10%, according to research cited by the consortium.

In the first phase of its development of a bio-hydrogen solution, the consortium developed and patented the high-H2-producing mutant Stm6. The researchers incorporated a sugar transporter to produce Stm6glc4, with a 50% boost in hydrogen production capacity from that of Stm6.

Several renewable energy laboratories have concluded that production efficiencies had to be increased from originally 0.2% photon to H2 conversion efficiency at 20W/m2 illumination to ≅7-10% at 230W/m2 illumination (day light) to make the process economically viable...we have already enhanced the efficiency of this process to ~1.0% from light to H2 and 2% to biomass. The H2 gas produced in our mutants has a purity of ~90-95% and typical yields are 500ml H2 for a 1 liter culture (10days; 110W illumination). Without further purification, the H2 gas can used to power a small-scale fuel cell car.

—Solar Bio-fuels Consortium

One advantage, especially in drought-stricken countries like Australia, is that hydrogen can be produced from salt water. Marine and salt-tolerant algae can extract hydrogen and oxygen from seawater and on combustion these gases produce fresh water and electricity, which can be fed into the national grid. Consequently, clean energy production can theoretically be coupled with desalination.

Algal bioreactors can also be placed on non-arable land, but use much less water than conventional bio-fuel crops.



Rafael Seidl

Australia is a perfect place for algaculture: sparsely inhabited, flat, plenty of sunshine, oh and it's a democracy, too. Bio-hydrogen seems a bit of a stretch, but if it's cheap enough to be used for improving BTL yields, why not.

If they decide to burn the stuff directly - albeit in a fuel cell - they could even condense the water vapor to irrigate, I don't know, greenhouses or something. Not that there aren't cheaper ways to desalinate...


Do these bioreactors conserve water? Are they covered? Because otherwise for a 1% conversion rate, and energy required to pump the saltwater onto the land, and the latent energy cost of the system...makes you wonder if it pays for itself. Wouldn't it be easier to harvest the fibers, lipids and proteins for ethanol, biodiesel and animal feed.

John Schreiber

This is good research, but its going to take WAY MORE than $250K to get it anywhere close to helping with our GHG issues by 2020.

Paul Dietz

Do these bioreactors conserve water? Are they covered?

If not, the hydrogen escapes go the air. So if they are there to hydrogen, they necessarily are covered.


A hydrogen electrolysis kit and solar panels could do it with efficiency 5 times greater. Making protein, carbohydrates and veg. oil would have been better.

gavin walsh

"Australia is a perfect place for algaculture: sparsely inhabited, flat, plenty of sunshine, oh and it's a democracy, too. "

what does the political system of a country have to do with its suitability for novel forms of agriculture? I would assert there is no connection whatsoever.


Non-democratic governments tend to restrict access to information which is pivotal to developing hightech ideas. And it's productive to have a say in who rules your roost.

P Schager

"What does the political system of a country have to do with its suitability for novel forms of agriculture?"

Whether it's on the side of the democracies or not is the most important factor in the suitability of a country as a place to develop novel forms of energy, which could displace oil. Our times are characterized by a battle over the rise of democracy, and oversubscribed oil is the key lever that the autocrats have to stay in business. Because they offer little or no technological leadership and have low economic productivity, these regimes need the foreign exchange from control over mostly-unearned inherited resource wealth to maintain control over their people. That means access to the real wealth produced overwhelmingly by democratic countries in return for access to the oil.

Thus they are not going to be supportive of any technological challenge to the oil gravy train, and an investor would be unwise to work there. If they do anyway, the new source of energy will end up getting regulated along with the oil by OPEC, in service of the goal of throttling the supply to artificially maximize the price, while still lulling the customer base into complacency. So it won't help the free world much.

Visionaries in the free world, where it's needed, are both the potential sponsors and innovators of alternative energy. Technologies such as biofuel including direct biohydrogen if it works out, are sufficiently attractive to garner the necessary investment if and only if people in the free world recognize the full importance to global security and global freedom. And will sustain the economic support for renewables advancement through the ups and downs of the price of oil. It's tough, because there are still so many vested oil interests in the West as well. The worldview they cultivate explains why so many people will ask questions such as "what does the political system of the country have to do with business?"


America helped pioneer the auto and oil industries. It is time that we helped pioneer a new way forward.


Hydrogen is the Magic Pixie Dust of the Green energy schemes: sprinkle it on anything to make it look better.

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