APR 14, 2017 6:13 AM PDT

Reusing residue: algal extract for synthethic chemical production

Algal biomass production is taking flight in the biotech world and recent results from the Tokyo Institute of Technology have just provided another reason for us all to get on the biomass plane (which is powered by only organic biofuels, of course). Scientists have found that the algal residue created during the process of biomass production can actually be used to synthesize key chemicals that can be utilized for pharmaceuticals, additives, and polyesters. That’s big money right there, and the hope is that this will increase motivation to go big on biomass, thus investing in a technology that will decrease our dependence on fossil fuels.

Algae biomass production. Photo: Energy Digital

The study writes: “Algal biomass has received attention as an alternative carbon resource owing not only to its high oil production efficiency but also, unlike corn starch, to its lack of demand in foods. However, algal residue is commonly discarded after the abstraction of oil. The utilization of the residue to produce chemicals will therefore increase the value of using algal biomass instead of fossil fuels. Here, we report the use of algal residue as a new carbon resource to produce important chemicals. The application of different homogeneous catalysts leads to the selective production of methyl levulinate or methyl lactate. These results demonstrate the successful development of new carbon resources as a solution for the depletion of fossil fuels.”

So what exactly are those long sounding compound names? ScienceDaily breaks it down for the chemically challenged of us. The polyesters come from two molecules of lactic acid that can be dehydrated to lactone lactide and subsequently polymerized to either atactic or syndiotactic polylactide (the end-result polyesters). Levulinic acid can be used for pharmaceuticals and additives like plasticizers, and can also be a starting material for other compounds.

Changing carbohydrates into chemicals isn’t new (think corn). Yet most of the woody and crop biomass-based systems we have now need one factor that we’re constantly running out of: more land. In the future, the arable land we do have will most likely be needed for farming edible food, not biomass. So, this is where algae provide a better alternative. Watch this video below to see how the process works. 

Microalgae have received attention because the biomass productivity per unit time and per unit area is very high and it grows well under unfavorable conditions. The critical characteristic of algae is high productivity of oil and carbohydrates (starch), explains the paper. The oil produced is able to be used as biojet fuel or biodiesel, which is one of the reasons that algal biomass is favored. Now with the use for the algal residue, there is even more reason to look towards a biomass future.

Sources: ScienceDaily, Nature Science Advances

About the Author
BA Environmental Studies
Kathryn is a curious world-traveller interested in the intersection between nature, culture, history, and people. She has worked for environmental education non-profits and is a Spanish/English interpreter.
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