Friday 12 Apr 2024
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This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly on June 20, 2022 - June 26, 2022

In a world troubled by climate change, the use of biofuels to replace fossil fuels, which is a major greenhouse gas (GHG) contributor, is increasingly receiving widespread attention.

Feedstocks such as sugar, starch and oilseed crops can be processed into biofuel. But these are also food crops that can be used for human consumption, and the cultivation of these feedstocks has resulted in deforestation in some countries. 

An alternative feedstock is algae. Malaysia-based Next Generation Oil (Group) Sdn Bhd (NGOG), for instance, has developed a commercially viable process to cultivate microalgae on an industrial scale. Algae is not a food crop and has a higher yield compared with land-based crops, according to the company.

In February, NGOG partnered with Boustead Holdings Bhd to launch the Algae Farm Tank-Vendor Development Programme (AFT-VDP), where individuals and companies are identified to produce the special tanks required to cultivate algae using its patented A-MAP honeycomb pool architecture. 

“We offer an interesting, exciting and real solution by introducing a commodity that is carbon neutral. Crude algae oil can be refined into biodiesel, bio-gasoline and sustainable aviation fuel,” says NGOG executive chairman Datuk Indera Mohamed Moiz.

“We’re going to allow you to live your life the way you have always lived. Using our refined crude algae oil, you can continue to drive your cars and fly your planes without polluting the atmosphere the way fossil fuels do.”

NGOG is recognised by the International Sustainability and Carbon Certification (ISCC), which is an international certification system that covers bio-based feedstocks and renewables. It is currently the only algae-cultivation company to be certified by the ISCC.

This ensures that the company’s algae cultivation farm and crude algae oil extraction facility in Pahang comply with ecological and social sustainability requirements, and implement GHG emissions savings and traceability initiatives throughout its supply chain.

Biofuel is considered to be a carbon-neutral fuel. When the algae are grown, carbon is absorbed. When the fuel is exhausted, the carbon is released. Therefore, it does not introduce new carbon molecules into the atmosphere.

In contrast, fossil fuel does not see the light of day until it is extracted from the ground, and once the fuel is exhausted, it introduces carbon into the atmosphere.

One of the major benefits of algae is that it eliminates the need for food crops to be used as biofuel, and avoids the problems that come with using land-based crops such as crude palm oil as feedstock.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has stated that global temperatures will only stabilise when carbon dioxide emissions reach net zero. To limit warming to 1.5°C, net zero carbon dioxide emissions must be achieved globally by the early 2050s.

“If we continue relying on fossil fuels, the repair bill for the world when all this is done would be US$550 trillion, which is three times the world’s net wealth. That is a cheque that none of us can write or sign off,” says Melvin Rohan Padmanathan, chief operating officer of NGOG.

With just under US$9 billion (RM39 billion) worth of contracts, NGOG will be shipping its first supply of crude algae oil to its clients towards the second half of the year. The company is unable to reveal who its clients are at the moment.

“Oil majors need the feedstock for biofuel refineries. We can be a constant and reliable supplier for them,” he says.

What sets NGOG apart 

In the early 2000s, algae biofuel was the talk of the town, landing hundreds and millions of dollars in investments. But the hype fizzled out due to its lack of cost competitiveness compared with fossil fuels as well as technical issues.

According to Peter Kim, a South Korean chemical engineer and CEO of NGOG, the technical issues that plagued algae biofuel production included the difficulty of maintaining suitable conditions for its open pond system. It also required immense volumes of water, carbon dioxide and fertiliser to ensure the algae could be cultivated and harvested fast enough.

Kim believes that the A-MAP technology that he has developed can address the inefficiencies of previous algae cultivation technologies.

The A-MAP system comprises an open pond and photobioreactor system, which are melded into a unit. Doing so addresses a weakness of the previous system, says Kim.

Open pond systems require lower capital expenditure and were the preferred choice of algae cultivators. However, there is often a risk of contamination. It is also energy intensive, as the open pond has to be emptied and refilled just to harvest the algae.

In contrast, the A-MAP tanks do not empty the open pond systems to harvest algae. Instead, they coagulate the algae first, which makes it easier to harvest.

“Algae is everywhere. When you go to the sea and you see green water, that’s algae. But when you put your hand inside, you can’t get to the algae. What Peter has been able to do and others have not is that he has been able to coagulate the algae,” says Indera.

Furthermore, while the traditional open pond system uses fresh water to cultivate algae, the A-MAP tanks use seawater, which reduces competition for fresh water.

Indera says NGOG needs 15 million tanks to cultivate algae over the next 10 years, which will produce 68 million tonnes of algae. These algae will absorb around 76 million tonnes of carbon dioxide and produce 34 million tonnes of crude algae oil and dry algae cake, he adds.

The vendor development programme will enable various local businesses to participate in this new industry. NGOG hopes to provide employment to Malaysians through the programme and positively affect local communities.

This will be done by supplying and donating generator sets powered by crude algae oil to rural areas that have no electricity or face electricity supply problems, as well as donating animal feedstock made from dry algae cakes to small farmers and breeders. This will help lower the farmers’ operating costs and ideally, help grow their businesses, according to NGOG.

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