The first organisation with plans to build village-level algae cultivation projects, which will be sustained almost entirely with local materials and will produce a variety of fuel and nutritional products for both local use and for sale/export, expects to make a significant contribution to reducing poverty in Africa. The organisation, Terra Endeavors, which is only two years old, was set up by Charles Abramson, an American, following a visit to Tanzania. Abramson has worked as an energy consultant and in finance and marketing.
Founding research for the Terra Endeavors algae projects concept was particularly drawn from development in the US of small-scale (or even home) projects for cultivation of algae.
However, an advance also came with the combination of this research with the experience gained by a South African engineer, Rex Zietsman, who set up a pilot plant using locally-occurring wild algae on his farm in KwaZulu-Natal province in 2008. He produced ethanol from a still after fermenting the biomass. Zietsman is director of a Johannesburg-based consulting engineering company, Process Projects.
Terra Endeavors recently gained prominence when it won second place out of 120 entries for its integrated algae/biodigester system business plan in BiD Network’s Nature Challenge. BiD Network, a not-for-profit organisation based in the Netherlands, runs several business plan competitions around the world.
High-tech and low-tech
Algae has a major fundamental advantage over other vegetable feedstocks: it can generally double its weight every 24 hours (under optimal conditions).
Hundreds of companies internationally are researching algae production plants (including the US billionaire geneticist Craig Venter, who recently ”created life”). However, almost all these companies focus on biofuels – they are looking for substitutes for crude oil to be extracted from oil-rich algae types. They are undertaking hi-tech research with ultrasound machines to help separate oil from the biomass, and using other technologies for harvesting.
Abramson says that these efforts may succeed in the next decade, but they are currently still in the research stage.
These algae are often genetically modified strains or exotic to the areas where they are culitvated as monocultures – they are selected or bred for their high oil content.
By contrast, wild algae are normally much lower in oil content, but tend to grow much faster.
Monoculture, exotic algae generally have to be strenuously protected from infection from the more robust locally-occurring, wild algae.
Terra Endeavors, in contrast to these high-tech research companies, took a step back and deliberately looked at low-technology, already-proven ways to immediately grow and harvest wild algae.
Abramson says Terra Endeavors’ approach was to address other immediate but equally important issues than the production of biodiesel – and it is the first organisation internationally to take algae in this direction.
"We started by thinking about whether we could help address some of the rural communities’ most pressing needs by collaborating with them to build low-capital cost versions of some of the new, environmentally-sustainable technologies being developed, and pay for these by helping them produce high-margin outputs and providing them access to markets they couldn’t reach otherwise."
Terra Endeavors, the first organisation to advance algae as a potential wealth-creating and business-creating medium for village communities, is a "social entrepreneurship company".
Says Abramson: "This means we are for profit, but not trying to maximise profit, providing investors with an attractive return, as well the goodwill and positive PR that come from contributing to the sustainable development of our rural community partners, as well as helping preserve the environment."
Terra Endeavors has accordingly focused on algae production for products which have environmental and health aspects. For instance, villagers in Africa generally cook with wood. Solar cookers sometimes offer a solution, says Abramson, but otherwise there are no renewable energy sources for cooking.
Terra Endeavors’ sustainable village wild algae production system can produce ethanol cooking fuel and sometimes biodiesel for generator sets and vehicles. The system can also produce money through the cultivation and export of exotic algae Spirulina and Chlorella. Abramson says there is a robust, high-margin market in the developed world and Asia for a Free Trade-type brand to be developed in these algae products. "Consumers in the US, EU, Australia and Asia would be very favourable to products made in village communities in Africa."
Another stream of income would possibly be from carbon credits on aggregated algae projects.
Cattle feed could be made from the dried distillers grain that is produced as part of the ethanol production process.
Abramson says that the company now has partners in Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, Ghana and Ethiopia, but projects in Kenya and Tanzania are the closest to fruition. Within a few months he hopes to secure funding to set up a concept system a few times larger than the test system which Zietsman set up in KwaZulu-Natal.
The first systems
This concept system would consist of a raceway of about 200 sq metres to grow wild indigenous algae. Algae biomass would be fermented and distilled to produce ethanol and other chemical substances. The remaining biomass from this process could be used as animal feed, or it could go into a biodigestor which would produce gas to power generators etc (the gas could be stored in rubber containers, according to Zietsman).
If the local wild algae had a content of 10% or more of oil, oil could be cold-pressed out with a simple mechanical press, and further processed to yield biodiesel.
Production of Spirulina and Chlorella would require separate, covered production facilities, as well as bioreactors to generate seed material (these would not be complex and could, for instance, be made from used PET bottles).
Almost all of the materials for such a project would be locally-sourced (with the notable exception of the enzymes which make fermentation of algae’s cellulosic material more efficient – but the price of these enzymes has fallen dramatically recently).
Two years from now, Abramson hopes that, with funding, the first full-scale farm, on 3-4ha, will be started. As this would consist mainly of water raceways (containing the algae), non-arable land could be used (in contrast with the vast, and often environmentally-damaging schemes to produce jatropha and palm oil for biodiesel, for instance, in Africa).
Abramson says that the initial trial system (with 200 sq metre raceway) will cost about $75,000-$150,000; the eventual full-scale system (in two years time) is budgeted to cost about $1m.
A water source is necessary, but the water would be re-circulated by pumping. The water would not have to be pure as algae thrives on non-pure water. Abramson says technologies also exist which allow the pressing of a high percentage of water out of the algae, which can then be re-circulated.
His team is also designing the first algae growth units which can be part of a rainwater harvesting system capable of capturing and storing fresh water for a village’s needs, and be available to help cultivate algae.
Since all the components of the technology are proven, start-up capital funding for the first projects is now the priority of Terra Endeavors. The BiD Network award will enhance its ability to find funding soon, and to communicate the system.
Terra Endeavors will also be competing in an international version of BiD’s business plan competition to see how well their proposal stacks up against other finalists from various parts of the world, and provide another venue to meet prospective funding partners.
Abramson hopes to land private investors as well as corporate sponsors and sustainable energy investment funds.
"This is a win-win project that can benefit all parties involved. The rural communities we’ve approached are excited to get started, and government entities, sustainable development organisations, corporations and philanthropists can all be at the forefront of something remarkable.
"Another dimension of the project involves hiring a few people from the villages and providing them with equipment to videotape our activities from their perspective. This will be used to provide content to our website and other social media sites we are setting up, and for the documentary film we also hope to produce about this experience. This will provide a means by which we can convey our activities and promote our partners’ sponsorships."
- One of Terra Endeavors’ business partners has also worked extensively with municipalities for application of a variant of the algae system for clean-up of waste water as well as production of biofuels (ethanol and diesel). Algae is currently being tested in the US and elsewhere for use in absorbing carbon dioxide exhaust gases from power stations; the main challenge is the large amount of algae required for this, and wild algae holds no advantage in this scenario, says Abramson.
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