As part of its research on biomass, Total is carrying out several projects on microalgae. These microorganisms have several advantages. Thanks to photosynthesis, which uses sunlight as a source of energy and CO2 as a source of carbon, microalgae are able to convert CO2 directly into lipids – that is, into oils – which can in turn be transformed into useful molecules with a small carbon footprint.
Microalgae can be cultivated on non-agricultural land and can attain levels of oil yield that are as much as 30 times greater than those of oilseed crops. They have many potential applications in fuels and chemicals.
To accelerate research on how to farm and produce microalgae on an industrial scale, we have entered into partnerships with research institutions such as the PCV cell and plant physiology laboratory in Grenoble (a CEA/CNRS/University of Grenoble/Inra mixed research unit), China’s Qingdao Institute of Bioenergy and Bioprocess Technology (QIBEBT), and the Netherlands’ Wageningen University (AlgaePARC program, European Magnificent project).
Optimizing Microalgae Production
The microalgae sector is still in the exploratory stage for the production of fuel and other commodities for the chemicals industry. For this reason, our teams, along with those of the CEA and the CNRS, have designed a joint research program to accelerate progress on the selection and optimization of microalgae strains, the first condition for their industrial use.
The quality of the strains used is of critical importance for their mass production. Out of the million known species of algae, 30,000 strains have been identified for their oil-rich content and only some ten strains are currently being utilized. Our research is therefore focused on selecting robust strains with high-oil content. Once chosen, these strains are optimized in order to be usable on an industrial scale.
Bringing together teams from the CEA, the CNRS and Total, the research is being carried out at the PCV cell and plant physiology laboratory, a unit of the Institut de Recherches en Sciences et Technologies (iRTSV) at CEA Grenoble.
In addition to the research underway in France, we are working in China with the Qingdao Institute of Bioenergy and Bioprocess Technology (QIBEBT), whose objective is to identify the enzymes best suited to the production of biofuels and products for the chemical industry.
Cultivating And Converting Microalgae On An Industrial Scale
Downstream from identifying and optimizing microalgae strains, we are studying ways to produce them on an industrial scale. It is crucial to develop methods of cultivation that can offer high yields and large volumes over the long term.
For this reason, Total is a partner in the AlgaePARC program managed by Wageningen University in the Netherlands. The purpose of this research initiative is to:
- Develop more efficient systems of cultivation, while managing the associated environmental risks.
- Control the industrial production processes by studying in particular the methods for processing and extracting the molecules.
- Assess the quantities of resources necessary (water, fertilizer, CO2, land) and the potential environmental impact of cultivation in order to manage the environmental constraints.
- Validate the business models for the production of molecules of interest.
In line with its ambition to become the responsible energy major, Total is strengthening its commitment to microalgae research. Although still in the exploratory stage, this sector could have long-term development potential for fuels and the chemical industry.