Saudi Arabia Biorefinery from Algae (SABA) Project

The King Abdulaziz City for Science & Technology (KACST) is funding an innovative project called Saudi Arabia Biorefinery from Algae (SABA Project) to screen for lipid hyper-producers species in Saudi Arabia coastal waters. These species will be the basis for next-generation algal biofuel production. The goal of this project is to increase research and training in microalgae-based biofuel production as well algal biomass with an additional goal of using a biorefinery approach that could strongly enhance Saudi Arabia economy, society and environment within the next 10 years.

The primary mission of the SABA project is to develop the Algae Based Biorefinery – ABB biotechnology putting into operation innovative, sustainable, and commercially viable solutions for green chemistry, energy, bio-products, water conservation, and CO2 abatement. Microalgae are known sources of high-value biochemicals such as vitamins, carotenoids, pigments and anti-oxidants. Moreover, they can be feedstocks of bulk biochemicals like protein and carbohydrates that can be used in the manufacture of feed and food.

The strategic plan for SABA project is based on the achievement of the already ongoing applied Research, Technology Development & Demonstration (RTD&D) to the effective use of microalgae biomass production and downstream extraction in a diversified way, e.g. coupling the biomass production with wastewater bioremediation or extracting sequentially different metabolites form the produced biomass (numerous fatty acids, proteins, bioactive compounds etc.). This interdisciplinary approach including algal biology, genetic engineering and technologies for algae cultivation, harvesting, and intermediate and final products extraction is crucial for the successful conversion of the developed technologies into viable industries.

The first phase of this project entitled “Screening for lipid hyper-producers species in Saudi Arabia coastal waters for Biofuel production from micro-Algae” will build the basis for large scale system to produce diesel fuel and other products from algae grown in the ocean with a strong emphasis on building know-how and training. It will ultimately produce competitively priced biofuel, scaling up carbon capture for a range of major environmental, economic, social and climate benefits in the Kingdom and elsewhere. The project lends itself to an entrepreneurial new venture, working in partnership with existing firms in the oil and gas industry, in energy generation, in water supply and sanitation, in shipping and in food and pharmaceutical production.

The project is gaining from cross-disciplinary cutting edge Research, Technology Development & Demonstration for the industrial implementation of the fourth generation algae-based Biorefinery. The technology development is supported by a consortium of engineers, researchers in cooperation with industry players (to ensure technology transfer), international collaborators (to ensure knowledge transfer) and the Riyadh Techno Valley (to promote spin-off and commercialization of results). 

Since the research topic is innovative in the Kingdom research circles, a strong research partnership was promptly developed by the King Saud University / King Abdulah Institute for Nanotechnology with international distinguished research centers with proved successful experience in this technology development. The Centre of Marine Science (CCMAR) and the Institute of Biotechnology and Bioengineering (IBB) both from Portugal are a guarantee to the successful research-based technology development in the SABA project development and the effective capacity-building for Saudi young researchers and technicians.

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Algae Biorefinery – Promise and Potential

High oil prices, competing demands between foods and other biofuel sources, and the world food crisis, have ignited interest in algaculture (farming of algae) for making vegetable oil, biodiesel, bioethanol, biogasoline, biomethanol, biobutanol and other biofuels. Algae can be efficienctly grown on land that is not suitable for agriculture and hold huge potential to provide a non-food, high-yield source of biodiesel, ethanol and hydrogen fuels. 

Several recent studies have pointed out that biofuel from microalgae has the potential to become a renewable, cost-effective alternative for fossil fuel with reduced impact on the environment and the world supply of staple foods, such as wheat, maize and sugar.

What are Algae?

Algae are unicellular microorganisms, capable of photosynthesis. They are one of the world’s oldest forms of life, and it is strongly believed that fossil oil was largely formed by ancient microalgae. Microalgae (or microscopic algae) are considered as a potential oleo-feedstock, as they produce lipids through photosynthesis, i.e. using only carbon , water, sunlight, phosphates, nitrates and other (oligo) elements that can be found in residual waters. Oils produced by diverse algae strains range in composition. For the most part are like vegetable oils, though some are chemically similar to the hydrocarbons in petroleum.

Advantages of Algae

Apart from lipids, algae also produce proteins, isoprenoids and polysaccharides. Some strains of algae ferment sugars to produce alcohols, under the right growing conditions. Their biomass can be processed to different sorts of chemicals and polymers (Polysaccharides, enzymes, pigments and minerals), biofuels (e.g. biodiesel, alkanes and alcohols), food and animal feed (PUFA, vitamins, etc.) as well as bioactive compounds (antibiotics, antioxidant and metabolites) through down-processing technology such as transesterification, pyrolysis and continuous catalysis using microspheres.

Algae can be grown on non-arable land (including deserts), most of them do not require fresh water, and their nutritional value is high. Extensive R&D underway on algae as raw material worldwide, especially in North America and Europe with a high number of start-up companies developing different options.

Most scientific literature suggests an oil production potential of around 25-50 ton per hectare per year for relevant algae species. Microalgae contain, amongst other biochemical, neutral lipids (tri-, di-, monoglycerides free fatty acids), polar lipids (glycolipids, phospholipids), wax esters, sterols and pigments. The total lipid content in microalgae varies from 1 to 90 % of dry weight, depending on species, strain and growth conditions.

Algae-based Biorefinery

In order to develop a more sustainable and economically feasible process, all biomass components (e.g. proteins, lipids, carbohydrates) should be used and therefore biorefining of microalgae is very important for the selective separation and use of the functional biomass components.

The term biorefinery was coined to describe the production of a wide range of chemicals and bio-fuels from biomasses by the integration of bio-processing and appropriate low environmental impact chemical technologies in a cost-effective and environmentally sustainable. If biorefining of microalgae is applied, lipids should be fractionated into lipids for biodiesel, lipids as a feedstock for the chemical industry and essential fatty acids, proteins and carbohydrates for food, feed and bulk chemicals, and the oxygen produced should be recovered also.

The potential for commercial algae production is expected to come from growth in translucent tubes or containers called photo bioreactors or in open systems (e.g. raceways) particularly for industrial mass cultivation or more recently through a hybrid approach combining closed-system precultivation with a subsequent open-system. Major advantages of a algal biorefinery include:

  • Use of industrial refusals as inputs ( CO2,wastewater and desalination plant rejects)
  • Large product basket with energy-derived (biodiesel, methane, ethanol and hydrogen) and non-energy derived (nutraceutical, fertilizers, animal feed and other bulk chemicals) products.
  • Not competing with food production (non-arable land and no freshwater requirements)
  • Better growth yield and lipid content than crops.

Indeed, after oil extraction the resulting algal biomass can be processed into ethanol, methane, livestock feed, used as organic fertilizer due to its high N:P ratio, or simply burned for energy cogeneration (electricity and heat). If, in addition, production of algae is done on residual nutrient feedstocks and CO2, and production of microalgae is done on large scale in order to lower production costs, production of bulk chemicals and fuels from microalgae will become economically, environmentally and ethically extremely attractive.

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