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Tsinghua Researchers Find that Sugarcane Juice is a Good Fermentation Feedstock for Algal Biodiesel

Researchers at Tsinghua University in China have shown that sugarcane juice is a good feedstock for biodiesel production, when used to support the growth of the alga Chlorella protothecoides by heterotrophic fermentation. In fermentation in a 5-liter bioreactor, algae using sugarcane juice hydrolysate (SCH) grew faster than algae using glucose. Conversion ratios of sugar/biomass and sugar/oil using SCH were 15.2 and 8.8% higher than that using glucose, respectively. The highest oil content was 53.0% by cell dry weight.

The results suggest that sugarcane is not only a good feedstock for fuel-ethanol production but also for biodiesel production, the authors wrote in a paper on their study, published online in the ACS journal Energy & Fuels.

Dominant fatty acid methyl ester in conventional biodiesels
Soybean C19H34O2 53.2%
Rapeseed C19H36O2 64.4%
Olive oil C19H36O2 80.4%

The biodiesel prepared from the SCH-derived algal oil by transesterification is mainly composed of 9-octadecenoic acid methyl ester (C19H36O2), 9,12-octadecadienoic acid methyl ester (C19H34O2), and hexadecenoic acid methyl ester (C17H34O2). This result shows that the main components of biodiesel produced from algae grown with SCH are similar to those of biodiesel produce from algae grown with glucose, and are accordant with biodiesels produced from crop oils.

Most algae are photoautotrophic, and grow using CO2 as the carbon source and sunlight as the energy supply. However, both biomass productivity and oil content of photoautotrophic cultures can be low. By contrast, heterotrophic fermentation allows algae to accumulate a much higher proportion of oil within less time and the scale-up is much easier.

(Heterotrophs obtain their carbon and energy for growth from organic compounds; autotrophs use CO2 as their sole carbon source and obtain their energy from light or from the oxidation of inorganic compounds. Algal fuels company Solazyme, earlier post, is using an optimized heterotrophic fermentation pathway with genetically modified algae.)

The researchers note that from the aspect of energy saving and greenhouse effect relief, the photoautotrophic alternative may seem to be more economical and preferred. However, they wrote, “biofuel via a heterotrophic pathway should be further studied and considered as a transitional strategy” for the following reasons:

  • First, fast-growing photosynthetic algal cells tend to produce poor amounts of oil, whereas those accumulating high oil content show little growth ability. Nitrogen starvation has been widely reported to trigger lipid accumulation but leads to a decrease in protein synthesis, chlorophyll content, and cell division.

  • Second, light deficiency is common in photosynthetic cultivation. Thus, enough ATP and reductant for CO2 fixation are not supplied. Thee synthesis of fatty acid needs a large amount of ATP and reducing power, they wrote, and when light is restricted, “it is not likely for alga to prefer synthesizing fatty acids”.

In prior studies, the Tsinghua team reported pilot-scale fermentation of heterotrophic microalgae with high biomass productivity and oil yield of up to 50% of dry cell weight. This new study investigated further improvements in algal oil yield, while minimizing the cost of fermentation. Key factors associated with algal oil yield are nitrogen content, C/N (ratio of carbon source/nitrogen source), and carbon source.

In their prior work, the team found that of three inorganic nitrogen sources (urea, potassium nitrate, and ammonium nitrate) and two organic nitrogen sources (glycine and yeast extract), yeast extract (YE) was the most suitable nitrogen source to provide high biomass and oil yield. Accordingly, they used YE as the nitrogen supplement in all cultures.

They found that the optimal oil production with the highest output-cost coefficient was achieved when C/N was 26.9 and the YE concentration was 0.60 g L-1.

This work, for the first time, illustrates the feasibility of sugar cane juice served as a fermentable carbon source for oil production in C. protothecoides...The production pathway from sugar cane to biodiesel by microalgae fermentation has some advantages in comparison to fuel-ethanol production by yeast fermentation. For example, the heating value of alga-based biodiesel is much higher than that of yeast-based fuel-ethanol. Because algal cells are easily separated from medium and oil is easily extracted by solvent, it takes a lot of heating power to prepare ethanol by distillation from yeast fermentation medium.

...we are clearly conscious that this is just a beginning for biodiesel production using microalgae to meet the commercial needs. There are bottlenecks in this pathway. In comparison to yeast fermentation for ethanol production, microalgae accumulate oils as intracellular products. The oil/carbon source conversion is dependent upon the biomass/sugar conversion. As a result, the oil cell content typically ranges from 30 to 60%, leading to a limitation of oil/carbon source conversion.

Larger quantities of ethanol could be produced with relatively small amounts of microbial cells for ethanol fermentation. However, in the future, reasonable improvements can be introduced to the pathway of alga-based biodiesel production. For example, microalga is genetically modified, allowing the oil vesicle to be transported to an extracellular medium. On the other hand, the algal species used in this study cannot assimilate sucrose directly. Because of the lack of corresponding enzyme, pretreatment of SC is inevitable and requires time and labor. Genetic manipulation offering algal species with the ability of digesting sucrose is welcome in future studies.

—Xiong et al. (2009)

They also suggest that further in-depth research on the mechanism of oil production in heterotrophic alga should be undertaken—for example, genetic manipulation of critical enzymes for lipid synthesis may result in further improvements in oil yield. They also note that a strategy of phototrophic/heterotrophic tandem cultivation may be beneficial in both environmental and economic aspects.




Unfortunately, Sugarcane Juice is the main food source for the Lesser Panda.


Dur: Funny! Probably more like bamboo juice. At any rate, maybe researchers can experiment with Miscanthus & Sweet Sorghum juice....there might be some potential here.


One big problem in the use of sugar cane juice is the large quantity of water needed to cultivate it. In a world running out of water this is not a good shift of resources. Again, solar, wind and other forms of energy win out. Oil and bio diesel production just shift the burden of damage to another part of the planet. Solar can be but on "useless" land without taking land away from the cultivation of food.

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