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Better Energy

Microalgae, a promising pathway to sustainable biofuels

BETTER ENERGY

Microalgae, a promising pathway to sustainable biofuels

Biofuels have been identified by the International Energy Agency as one option for limiting transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions. However, to enable their development, we need to diversify the types of biomass that can be used to produce them. Microalgae represent a promising pathway, which is being explored by Total.

Reducing carbon emissions

More than 20% of global CO2 emissions are transportation-related. Biomass, which is organic matter from plant or animal sources, is currently the only renewable alternative to fossils fuels that can be used to produce liquid fuels, which most vehicles still require to run. Biofuels therefore play a key role in reducing transportation’s environmental footprint.

The commercial biofuels available today are primarily produced using either vegetable oils or sugar from food crops, which are relatively easy to extract and convert to fuel.

But to meet the needs of a growing and increasingly mobile global population, we must explore other types of resources, such as lignocellulose (plant and forest waste or residues) and microalgae. These resources still present significant technological and financial challenges.

“Total has been producing biofuels for more than 20 years and has invested close to €500 million in research and development on advanced biofuels,” says François Ioos, Vice President, Biofuels at Total. “We started to take an interest in microalgae at the beginning of the decade, and it’s now a key focus of our work.”

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Harnessing the potential of microalgae

Thanks to photosynthesis, which uses sunlight as an energy source and carbon dioxide as a carbon source, microalgae can directly convert CO2 into lipids (oils) that can be processed into molecules of interest, such as fuels and polymers, with a low carbon footprint. Therefore it’s not surprising that microalgae has attracted the industry’s interest.

“The list of potential applications is enormous,” points out François Ioos. And the advantages offered by microalgae don’t stop there. They grow very quickly, can be produced at any time of the year and their oil yield is up to 40 times higher than that of the oilseed crops used for biodiesel production, which include rapeseed, sunflower and palm oil. Marine microalgae, on which Total is focusing its efforts, can also be grown without freshwater.

In addition, microalgae can be cultivated in open ponds or inside reactors, therefore it doesn’t take up arable land. “We can install production units close to carbon dioxide-emitting facilities, such as refineries, cement factories and steel plants, and supply them with the CO2 generated by these facilities,” François Ioos explains. “That’s why microalgae projects are part of Total’s carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) program.”

The microalgae-based production process
From microalgae to molecules of interest
A new sector in the making

For now, the microalgae pathway is still at the exploratory stage. “The potential is enormous, but there’s still a long way to go before microalgae-based biofuels will be available at the pump,” notes François Ioos. “The main challenge will be producing the molecules on a commercial scale, at a competitive cost.”

Achieving this goal will require cutting-edge expertise in a wide variety of fields, including biotechnologies, carbon capture and cultivation processes.

To speed up research and drive faster progress, Total has built an ecosystem of partners that brings together start-ups; universities like Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands and Qatar University; and academic research organizations, such as France’s Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) and its Cell & Plant Physiology Laboratory (LPCV)¹, and China’s Qingdao Institute of Bioenergy and Bioprocess Technology (QIBEBT).

Other partners include companies that emit large volumes of CO2 emissions and are interested in microalgae’s potential as a carbon capture solution.

¹ The Cell & Plant Physiology Laboratory (LPCV) is a science and technology research unit at the CEA in Grenoble.

“Our priority is to identify and optimize the most efficient and robust varieties of microalgae,” explains François Ioos. “In this area, we’re notably working with LPCV, via a joint research team. We’re also embarking on the next stage, which involves scaling up the cultivation process by developing techniques that are more efficient in terms of technologies, cost and energy use.”

The objectives for 2025 are to achieve per-hectare yields that are 10 times higher than those of the most productive land-based crops, or 60,000 liters of oil per hectare per year, and to also significantly reduce production costs. Total is working with numerous partners in this area, to share research costs, pool expertise and save time.

With operations in more than 130 countries, Total is a top-tier international oil and gas company and a major player in low-carbon energies. We discover, produce, process, sell and market energy in a variety of forms, all the way to end-customers.

Committed to better energy, our staff of 98,000 employees help provide customers throughout the world with products and services that are safer, cleaner, more efficient, more innovative and accessible to as many people as possible.

Our ambition is to become the responsible energy major.

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