South Africa demonstrates algae-to-energy technology

algae to coal
Innovative technology that uses algae to convert waste coal dust into a clean, high quality coal which can readily be processed into biofuel was publicly demonstrated at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth on Monday.

The pioneering technology has been developed by the university over the past three years with funding from the Department of Science and Technology, and plans are afoot for its products to be commercialised, the university said in a statement.

One of the main areas of research at university’s institute of chemical technology, InnoVenton, has been the conversion of waste coal into a usable, high quality clean coal using algal biomass.

The institute’s researchers have found that the microalgae can be combined with coal and charcoal and acts as an excellent binder for fine coal.

“If you mix coal dust and algae biomass, the algae adsorps [collects] onto the surface of the coal and binds the dust together,” InnoVenton’s Professor Ben Zeelie said. The result is a coal-algae composite [briquette or pellet], for which they’ve coined – and trademarked – the name “Coalgae”.

“The Coalgae composites may be used as a substitute in applications that require coal, or may be further processed through a variety of additional technologies, such as pyrolysis (heating in the absence of oxygen),” the institute said.

Stephen Bibb Art

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“The result of the additional processing is a bio-fossil crude oil blend that may be processed into a variety of fuels, including gasoline, diesel, kerosene, aviation fuel, and heavy fuel oil.

South African fuel producers will begin mandatory blending of petrol and diesel with biofuels from 1 October 2015 as the country moves to encourage investment in its biofuels sector and reduce its reliance on imported fuel.

“By 2015, the government intends all transport fuels to be a blend, with biofuels making up at least two percent of the blend. Coalgae exceeds this target,” the department said in a statement last week.

And there’s certainly no shortage of raw material at hand. Millions of tons of coal dust go to waste every year in South Africa and elsewhere.

According the department, the country currently has over 1-billion tonnes of discarded coal or coal “fines” (fine coal particles), which constitute a serious environmental nuisance.