Photofuel – Biocatalytic solar fuels for sustainable mobility in Europe
A new European research project is tackling the direct production of transportation fuels from sunlight, CO2 and water with biocatalysts in closed systems
The Photofuel project will develop a next generation technology for the sustainable production of alternative, liquid transportation fuels. The challenge is to advance the base technology of microalgae cultivation in closed bioreactors by enabling phototrophic algae or cyanobacterial microorganisms to produce alkanes and alcohols, which are excreted to the culture broth for direct separation without cell harvesting. This thereby turns the microbial cells into self-reproducing biocatalysts allowing the process to directly convert solar energy, water and CO2 into engine-ready fuels as shown in the figure above.
In the project coordinated by Volkswagen AG, six research institutions and six industrial partners from all parts of the value chain will participate. European research groups on biocatalyst development, algae cultivation, fuels research and sustainability assessment from Bielefeld, Florence, London, Karlsruhe, Uppsala and Paris are joining forces with car and renewable fuel producers from Sweden, Italy, Germany, Finland and Portugal.
Europe is pinning its hopes on transportation fuel from microorganism-based systems. Photofuel is one of only two research and development projects for new fuel production pathways, which were chosen for funding under the 2014 call for Low Carbon Energy under the Horizon2020 EU Research Framework Programme. The project started May 2015 and will have a duration of four years. It is funded by the EU with a total amount of almost EUR 6 million.
Research at Bielefeld University within this collaborative project will be performed at the Center for Biotechnology (CeBiTec) and the Faculty of Biology in the group of Algae Biotechnology & Bioenergy. “Our task will be the participation and coordination of molecular biology research aiming for the establishment of microalgae and cyanobacteria as “green cell factories” for the sustainable production of hydrocarbons that can be used as gasoline and diesel replacements” explains Prof. Dr. Olaf Kruse, the Scientific Director of the CeBiTec.
The project will cover the whole value chain from development of microbial systems for direct fuel production, their validation on pilot scale, fuel blending and engine performance, technology risks, as well as the assessment of socio-economic and environmental impacts. The objective is to significantly improve the efficiency of solar biofuels in the future. The direct production of engine-ready fuel is expected to improve the energy efficiency of several steps along the chain: Biomass production is limited to a minimum amount needed to maintain the level of catalytic activity. This maximizes on the one side the flux of metabolic energy towards fuel production and reduces on the other side the input demand e.g. for fertilizer. In this strategy, energy-intensive cell harvesting is omitted. Biomass is not separated nor dried prior to fuels component extraction. For example, undecane is a drop-in fuel which may directly replace diesel or kerosene, while addition of butanol and octanol will alleviate the boiling point/vapor pressure issues of E5 and E10 gasoline without a need to exchange the already existing infrastructure for storage, distribution and utilization in vehicles.
Professor Dr. Olaf Kruse, Universität Bielefeld
Centrum für Biotechnologie (CeBiTec)
Telefon: 0521 106-12258
Hilke Heinke, Volkswagen AG
Group Research Battery and Energy Carrier
Telefon: 05361 932118