Saturday 24 May 2008

Algae and hydrogen

Robyn Williams: Oil is a main supply to drive transport and other engines. But what about hydrogen? We've discussed this before. What about hydrogen from ponds with algae?

Ben Hankamer: One question we often get is; is it actually feasible to produce any biofuel, whether it's hydrogen or oil or whatever, on the scales that we need globally? Say if you had a solar voltaic panel right now at 12% efficiency, the area you would need for global energy, to supply the entire global energy demands would be about 4% or 5% of the Sahara desert. It's actually doable. Every year we receive 8,000 times the amount of energy we require to drive our economy from solar energy, which we just really don't use.

On an Australian scale, if you start thinking about algal efficiencies of, say, 7% efficiency, something like that, if we had a 7% efficient system we would require something like 1% of Australia's surface in order to produce the energy requirement that we need for Australia.

Robyn Williams: Any reasons to think that you could get 1% of the surface area?

Ben Hankamer: No, it's not been discussed, but when you start thinking about the vast areas of non-arable land in Australia that could be used, there's huge potential. You've probably heard the big debate at the moment about food versus fuel with biofuels, and that's one of the big strengths of micro-algae is you can locate those on non-arable land and therefore not compete with food production.

Robyn Williams: We'll meet Ben in a moment at the University of Queensland. That's where they got the algae in the ponds, even using salt water (which works) to make the fuel of the future. But there are technical hurdles to leap as well as financial ones. Dr Peter Isdale is CEO of IMBcom at the university.

Peter Isdale: It's all about cost, and the cost of the production of hydrogen at the moment is quite high from conventional sources, but the algal photosynthesis route offers a way of producing it quite cheaply.

Robyn Williams: How cheaply?

Peter Isdale: We've done feasibility studies in conjunction with a large engineering company, and we've shown that we are within reach of being able to produce the hydrogen at something which approximates commercial viability. The missing ingredient and the missing cost factor is what will be picked up in the development of bio-reactors and the engineering solutions.

Robyn Williams: Tell us something about the scale of this. Is it small ponds? Is it just a number of vats? Or is it on a big scale that could be expanded almost indefinitely?

Peter Isdale: Given that the projections for the production system for the algal hydrogen is likely to be in sort of square box-type bio-reactors, then we can visualise it by looking at a series of ponds over which you could presumably theoretically gather the hydrogen as it bubbled to the surface. We've done some projections which show that if you were to construct a series of ponds 1,000 metres on the side, that's a square kilometre, and 33 of these ponds would actually supply Queensland's stored chemical energy needs for the year 2020.

Anyway, intuitively you would think, well, how could that be, because after all that's an area about the size of the city of Mt Isa. But in fact it does work out that at the efficiency level that we project, that hydrogen will be produced, that such a small area of ponds would actually produce the energy that you'd need.

Robyn Williams: For the whole of Queensland, what an extraordinary suggestion. Now, if I come to Ben, could you first of all introduce yourself?

Ben Hankamer: I'm Ben Hankamer, I'm group leader at the IMB and the focus of my work is really on developing clean fuel systems.

Robyn Williams: How did this idea about hydrogen from algae come up in the first place?

Ben Hankamer: We really based our work on a study that was initially presented by Tasios Melis from Berkeley, and he showed that normally if you have algae you grow them and they absorb sunlight and they use the solar energy that they capture to split water into protons and electrons, and they combine that with carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and make all the bio-molecules in the cell. What Tasios Melis showed was that if you deplete those cultures of sulphur you could switch over the photosynthetic pathway towards hydrogen production. So you have a two phase process; one in which you split water and make the protons and electrons and store them, say as starch, for example, and in the second phase you convert that starch and other bio-molecules to hydrogen.

Robyn Williams: So they don't want to make hydrogen but you make them.

Ben Hankamer: Yes, it's really a survival mechanism. So under anaerobic conditions, just like you or I need oxygen to breathe and if we don't have it we die, and the reason we would die is that we can't make ATP which is the universal energy carrier in the cell. What these algae have developed to do is to convert the protons and electrons back to hydrogen, feed them out of the cell, and this process allows them to stay alive and produce ATP.

Robyn Williams: Okay, so when you've got the algae in the pond, can you keep going indefinitely, feeding them stuff, or do they get to a certain point and stop?

Ben Hankamer: It has already been demonstrated that you can do this in a cyclical process. So if you take sulphur out of the medium and induce hydrogen production and then you add a bit of sulphur back in, you can allow the algae to recuperate, and then you take the sulphur out again and do it as a cyclical process in that way. So yes, that's possible.

Robyn Williams: What do you feed them, just sulphur?

Ben Hankamer: You can do this in a number of different ways. From a purist point of view the best thing to do is just add the trace elements that most plants need, plus water and sunlight and carbon dioxide. But you can actually add other carbon sources, such as acetate and different carbon sources to improve the process.

Robyn Williams: So that seems to be pretty cheap, as a feed, to maintain them.

Ben Hankamer: Yes, it is relatively cheap as a feed, that's one of the benefits of the system.

Robyn Williams: You're telling me here is a system that can actually scale up to supply a state like Queensland with its needs, and yet it requires very little in the way of resources. It sounds almost too good to be true.

Ben Hankamer: I don't like to try and make it sound better than it really is. There are efficiency issues. So at the moment we are at a conversion efficiency of about 1% from light to hydrogen. That would be in an outside system right now. And where we need to get to to make it economically viable is about the 7% to 10% mark. So there are definitely improvements that need to be made. We've spent a lot of time working with IMBcom and with Peter Isdale's group to do industrial feasibility studies and evaluate where those key bottlenecks are in making those processes economically viable. One point is to make the bio-reactors cheaper. Most bio-reactors cost in the order of about 100 euros per square metre, and we need to bring that down to about 10 euros.

Robyn Williams: That's about $A15?

Ben Hankamer: That's about right, yes. You can probably already see this is a really multifaceted project; you need to do genetics on the algae, you need to develop best media conditions, you have to build bio-reactors. And so this resulted in my colleague Olaf Kruse and I setting up the solar bio-fuels consortium, and using this consortium to headhunt people with specific skills and bring them into the consortium to tackle all aspects of the project. So Clemens Posten, for example, at the University of Karlsruhe in Germany, is in the process of making these cheap bio-reactors.

Robyn Williams: Okay, imagine what's it's like in, let's say,'s the phrase of the moment! Imagine a town with various ponds around it, they may be enclosed, they maybe with ducks swimming on them...perhaps not...but could you imagine, to supply my hydrogen driven car or bus, what that town might look like and how much of its needs could be supplied?

Ben Hankamer: Think of it more like a series of large plastic bags that would be either flat on the ground or organised in some kind of structure to catch the light, and the hydrogen would be bubbling off those cultures and you would collect the hydrogen. In the first phase of development what we would do is we would feed that hydrogen into fuel cells and generate electricity which could be fed to the local households. That would be the easiest thing to do while an infrastructure is being developed for hydrogen distribution and hydrogen cars.

Already, if you look at the car manufacturers, most car manufacturers have an active program in terms of developing hydrogen powered fuel cell cars. You can see the space shuttle is already running on hydrogen. Boeing is in the process of developing airplanes which can run on fuel cell hydrogen systems. People are developing laptops that can be driven on hydrogen, et cetera. So you can see everything from a small scale to a large scale gradually being built up.

Probably what will happen is initially people will start with the small things, the niche markets like fuel cell powered lap top et cetera, and gradually go to the larger scales. I think the thing that will probably interest most people is what about the hydrogen car and how would that work. So you would need to have some kind of storage facility for the hydrogen and some kind of pressurised system to deliver the hydrogen into the car. So the storage at the moment, there's two strategies; one is that you pressurise the hydrogen and make it into liquid hydrogen, just like a gas cylinder really.

Or the other one is a system called a metal hydride storage unit, which you can imagine like a metal sponge, a nano-sponge, it has very tiny pores in it and you pressurise it so the hydrogen goes in and bonds with the surface of the metal, and by using this kind of approach you can pack the hydrogen atoms in very tightly and store them. To release them you apply heat and the hydrogen gas gets released from the system and is supplied either to a car or whatever it is you're powering.

Robyn Williams: So that's what it will look like. In the meantime, back in 2008, what are the impediments?

Ben Hankamer: At the moment one of the real problems that industry is facing is that they don't knew what will be the fuel for the future. It might be hydrogen, it might be bio-diesel, for example, it might be more liquid gas that we're already using at the moment, LPG. So for industry it's very difficult to know where to invest. That's one problem. So there's going to need to be a guide from government to support preliminary research across a number of different fields. It's often tricky for government because governments don't want to influence the direction of the market, they want the free market and the market to develop itself.

On the other hand, industry is usually interested in supporting projects within a five-year term, and for very long-term infrastructure projects such as the hydrogen economy, one will also need some government involvement at that level. With the Garnaut report coming out later on this year there will be guidance there in terms of how a carbon trading scheme should be built up for Australia, and that in turn will give more value to renewable energies and therefore start guiding the development of such systems.

Robyn Williams: Talking about politicians, back to Peter Isdale; what's been the response from Canberra and the state government of Queensland, for example, on the prospects for such research?

Peter Isdale: I think governments have to work with what they've got, and state and federal governments have been quite supportive of a lot of alternative energy proposals. Hydrogen is probably a little far away. I'd say the main focus at the moment is on clean coal technologies and bio-fuels. When and if the advantages and the availability of good, clean hydrogen work themselves into the market frame, I think we'll see much more support for the kind of development that we're after.

Robyn Williams: And Ben mentioned Germany and America, what about overseas? Is it burgeoning there, this sort of research?

Peter Isdale: Yes, it is, and there's a lot of money being spent internationally on hydrogen research, particularly bio-hydrogen.

Robyn Williams: With algae?

Peter Isdale: With algae. It's seen as having a huge potential, but it's not within the realms of investment returns at the moment. For example, it's not a venture capital play to invest in hydrogen at the moment. The time to return is outside the window of venture capital.

Robyn Williams: You're not putting off my listeners who are millionaires, billionaires, who are about to write a cheque, are you?

Peter Isdale: The listeners are welcome to write the cheques. The thing is that it takes patient capital, and where there are many patient listeners who have listened to you over the years, if they've got patient capital we'd love to hear from them.

Robyn Williams: Dr Peter Isdale with Dr Ben Hankamer at the Institute for Molecular Bioscience, University of Queensland. Hydrogen from algae.


Peter Isdale
Chief Executive Officer IMBcom Pty Ltd The University of Queensland

Ben Hankamer
Institute for Molecular Biosciences The University of Queensland

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