Whyalla is set to be the biofuels capital of the world if South Australian start-up Muradel has its way.
The seaport town, at the northern end of the Eyre Penisula, is at the forefront of an international race to produce renewable biofuel from microalgae on a commercial basis.
Muradel is a joint venture between Murdoch University, the University of Adelaide and local company SQC Pty Ltd, formed after more than 30-years of prospecting in the area, combined with a technological breakthrough by Adelaide’s Associate Professor David Lewis. The development of the technology has also received significant support from the Federal Government.
While biofuels from microalgae have long been seen as a valid alternative to fossil fuels, the energy used to produce them did not generate enough carbon saving to make them worthwhile.
This is where Associated Professor Lewis’ breakthrough technology comes in.
The new integrated system of harvesting and concentrating microalgae directly from the production ponds—with the ability to fully recycle the growth media growth media—means the company can produce an economical biofuel product that is energy positive.
Associate Professor Lewis believes this revolutionary process will produce hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of oil a year in South Australia within 20 years.
The company hopes that its $8 million algal biofuel demonstration plant in Whyalla will be the catalyst for a major new industry in SA.
Success promises to be a game changer for business in the battle against ever-rising costs and a reduction in the carbon footprint.
It also offers the potential to generate by-products such as bio-plastics, and feed for livestock and aquaculture.
According to Associate Professor Lewis, Whyalla was the ideal location for the plant for a number of reasons.
It has an “ideal climate, skilled workforce, non-arable land adjacent to the ocean, industrial waste streams that can be intercepted and value added, and many potential customers”.
“During peak production (summer) we can harvest microalgae on a daily basis and concentrate and convert to kerogen (precursor to crude oil) in a matter of hours,” Associate Professor Lewis said.
“The crude oil is extracted from the kerogen and can be directly refined into various petroleum products.
“The process uses full recycle so that the only waste is salt (as we use saline water to grow the microalgae).”
Muradel has progressed from a concept five years ago to demonstrating the technical and economic feasibility of producing crude oil from algae.
The company believes the Whyalla plant could produce all the biofuel needed to supply at least South Australia.
Associate Professor Lewis said its next hurdle is to cut the cost of producing oil from microalgae to less than $1 a litre.
Muradel hopes to have a product on the market by 2017, scaling up to full production by 2019.
With fossil fuels in limited supply, this innovative company—born out of a University of Adelaide breakthrough— plans to secure future energy supplies for generations to come.
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