The Algal Research & Development Facility official opening at James Cook University
Anglo American is the largest single shareholder in MBD Energy, which has developed proprietary processes for the commercial farming of algae. The company uses waste carbon dioxide (CO2) as its primary feedstock, to produce carbon neutral oil and animal feed.
A mid-scale pilot project is under construction.
Algae are among Earth’s simplest life forms. There are hundreds of thousands of varieties. Most are the size of bacteria, though in the form of seaweeds, they can grow up to 50 metres long.
Algae are plants, and like other plants, mostly grow by photosynthesis. They convert carbon dioxide and sunshine into oxygen and biomass. They are able to grow almost anywhere -including deserts and in seawater – and they produce approximately half of Earth’s atmospheric oxygen.
They can be farmed for the production of second generation biofuels, yet can crop on waste or non-arable land. It has been claimed that algae could produce up to 300 times more oil per acre than conventional crops such as rapeseed, palms and soybeans, with harvesting cycles of between one and ten days.
They can be fed on waste water – including sewage – and can use the carbon dioxide (CO2) produced by other industrial processes. Coal-fired power stations, for example, could provide both ‘fuel’ and an ideal location for algae farms.
Algae-based fuels are essentially carbon-neutral. While they do not reduce atmospheric CO2 – because any CO2 taken out of the atmosphere by the algae is returned when the biofuels are burned – they would eliminate the introduction of new CO2 by displacing conventional hydrocarbons.
Once the oil has been extracted from the algae, the remaining biomass has other uses. It can be digested to produce methane; or burned as a biomass fuel in its own right for power generation; it can be fermented to produce ethanol; or used as animal feed.
MBD Energy is based in Melbourne, Australia.
The company has global patents that cover the conversion of CO2 emissions and waste water into low-cost oil, food, energy and clean water. The patents specifically cover the selection of suitable algal strains, 50m long elongated plastic membranes in which the captured flue gases are continuously injected to feed the algae and harvesting techniques.
MBD also has development agreements with three of Australia’s major power stations, which together account for 20% of Australia’s base-load power supply. These include the 1,400 megawatt, coal-fired Tarong station in Queensland.
Having already proved the validity of its technologies at demonstration scale, MBD is now constructing a 1 hectare pilot at Tarong. Subject to successful trials over an 18 month period, the Tarong project would grow to a commercial scale facility of more than 80 hectares and beyond that (post-2013) to 1,600 hectares.
Current indications are that a 1,000 hectare project would consume 1 million tons of CO2 and produce 550,000 tons of algae annually, which could be harvested to produce:
- 180,000 tons of algal oil a year; and
- 370,000 tons of livestock feed.
MBD also has a world-class, micro-algae R&D facility at James Cook University in Queensland.
Why is Anglo American involved?
Anglo American’s initial investment in MBD Energy was in 2009 and the group now has a stake of just under 20%.
What the investment has enabled is the prospect for the development of a cutting-edge organic CO2 capture process that could:
- help ensure the future place of coal in the energy supply chain if it was successfully adopted on a large scale; and
- a technology transfer to South Africa.
Ventilation Air Methane
Anglo American is also investing in an MBD project researching the use of algae to remediate ventilation air methane (VAM). This work began in July 2011 and should lead to a pilot project at the German Creek mine in Queensland in 2012.