PRIME Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad recently called for reseachers to find new industrial crops to diversify beyond rubber and oil palm, and expand our economic base.
Those two crops have been cornerstones of our socio-economic development even before independence—antidotes for poverty and proven saviours in time of economic downturns.
We pride ourselves as one of the most megadiverse countries on Earth and we are one of the earliest signatories of the highly acclaimed UN Convention on Biological Diversity, signed by Dr Mahathir himself during the Earth Summit in 1992. And yet we have not done enough to fulfil the second objective of the treaty, namely “to sustainably use the components of biodiversity” even for our own national benefits.
It is, therefore, worth a second look.
Interestingly, the next industrial crop need not be a tree. It could be the abundant seaweed surrounding the extensive coastline and numerous islands of our megadiverse country.
Algae are often referred to as “lower plants”. They range from microscopic (microalgae, phytoplankton) to the seaweed species found in the ocean but also on land, in freshwater, and in brackish water.
Seaweed makes up more than 99 per cent of commercial algae biomass produced worldwide. Global production and algae for various uses, including food, animal feed, health food supplements, pigments, fertilisers, and many others, already constitute a multibillion-dollar industry. And in recent years, interest has surged in algae-derived biofuels —a renewable energy source.
ExxonMobil is one of the corporations conducting research and development in a big way — examining, for example, how to produce a fuel that emits less climate-changing CO2. Diesel fuel refined from energy-rich algae oils could transform how we power everything; from automobiles to jet planes. It can be used in existing diesel automobiles without major changes to engines and infrastructure.
The climate-related benefits of algae-derived energy, however, go beyond lower CO2 emissions (about half as much as petroleum-derived fuel). Since algae consume CO2, production sites could also become much needed carbon sinks.
Algae can grow in saltwater and on land unsuitable for crops. A successful algae-based biofuel could increase world energy without posing a challenge to global food and freshwater supplies.
Every 0.4 hectare of algae yields more than 7,570 litres of fuel.
Compare that with 2,460 litres for oil palm and 190 litres for soybean.
Unlike corn and other feedstock, algae can be harvested repeatedly year-round. It can be cultivated on land unsuitable for other purposes with water that can’t be used for food production, in wastewater and industrial effluent, and can actually purify polluted water while simultaneously producing energy-rich biofuels.
ExxonMobil and Synthetic Genomics, Inc. (SGI) aims to produce 10,000 barrels of algae biofuels a day by 2025. While this target is years away, and 10,000 barrels of fuel is relatively minuscule compared with world consumption, researchers are edging closer to a meaningful scaling up of algae biofuel production.
On the local front, our country launched some years ago the Aerospace Malaysia Innovation Centre (AMIC), a unique platform developed by the Malaysian Industry-Government Group for High Technology (MIGHT). The AMIC convenes stakeholders from the public and private sectors, as well as the academic and research communities. Two international aviation giants, Airbus and Rolls-Royce, are key members.
Among its aims is to develop jet fuel from algae, identifying the right strain of algae as the first step. Progress has been limited by the availability of feedstock, start-up costs and other concerns.
More recently, a project entitled “Offshore Cultivation of Tropical Macro-Algae for the Production of Aviation Jet Fuel” brought together AMIC, Airbus Group, and four universities — Universiti Malaya (UM), Universiti Malaysia Terengganu (UMT), University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus, and Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) — in a new collaboration aligned with AMIC’s ambition.
UM will utilise its expertise in macro-algae, the ocean environment, physical and chemical processes, nanotechnology, catalysis, fuel processing and conversion, and analysis.
UMT will focus on design, engineering, and deployment of an offshore cultivation system for tropical macro-algae. The University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus will leverage its proven track record of design and modelling of techno-economics, and the assessment of future scenarios, while UKM will assess the social-environmental impact of rolling out and developing the industry here in Malaysia.
AMIC, together with Airbus Group, will ensure the research is in line with aviation standards and requirements, and assess the fuel’s overall commercial viability.
Aircraft today contribute two to three per cent of humanity’s CO2 emissions, some 705 million tonnes. The industry aims to halt carbon emissions growth by 2020 through technology, operations, air traffic management, and sustainable fuel.
AMIC is leading the way in sustainable aviation jet fuel research in the region. And the quest to create more environmentally-friendly biofuels is a good example of how New Malaysia can successfully harness expertise at the nexus of the public, private, and academic sectors to exploit an underutilised and yet a valuable natural resource and advancing sustainable development worldwide.
Zakri Abdul Hamid is a senior fellow of the Academy of Sciences Malaysia and former chairman of Aerospace Malaysia Innovation