Experts look into the potential of algae as source of biofuel

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Who would have thought that one day algae would find its way to the laboratory as a potential source of biofuel? Well, that day may be just around the corner.

Algae are plants or plant-like organisms of any of several phyla, divisions, or classes of chiefly aquatic usually chlorophyll-containing nonvascular organisms of polyphyletic origin (of multiple ancestries). These usually include the green, yellow-green, brown, and red algae in the eukaryotes and especially the cyanobacteria in the prokaryotes group.

To better look into the potential of these plant-like organisms, the Bureau of Agricultural Research (BAR) recently convened experts on algae for a preliminary consultation meeting on 16 May 2011 at BAR. The meeting was attended by Dr. Joel L. Cuello, professor of Biosystems Engineering, Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering, University of Arizona, USA; Professors Rex Demafelis, Lourdes Cardenas, and Nerissa K. Torreta of the University of the Philippines Los Banos (UPLB); Dr. Nemesio Montano, University of the Philippine Diliman – Marine Science Institute(UPMSI); Professor Caridad N. Jimenez, University of the Philippines Visayas (UPV); Dr. Fabian M. Dayrit of the Ateneo de Manila University; and Mr. Edwin Bacani of the Congressional Committee on Science Technology and Engineering (COMSTE).

Dr. Cuello, one of the 10 members of the US National Academy’s Committee on the Sustainable Development of Algae Biofuels, was in the Philippines to meet and discuss with R&D stakeholders the potential of algae in the biofuels spectrum. Further, the consultation intended to conceptualize the developmental framework wherein UPLB, UPD, UPV and Ateneo will form the core organizations of the program. On the other hand, BAR will serve as the facilitator and theliason between the above institutions and other government agencies like DA-Biotech, BFAR, COMSTE, and the Committee on Agriculture and Food, among others.

Dr. Cuello, who has been working and studying algae for more than a decade, said “algae are very good candidates as feedstock for biofuels because they are renewable, meaning to say you can grow them. They also have high productivity in terms of oil, much greater than all the others.” The consultation meeting, which was presided over by Mr. Anthony B. Obligado of BAR-TCD, began with the presentation of Dr. Cuello wherein he presented the algae engineering technologies leading to innovations in scaling up of biomass and renewable hydrogen. He also updated the group on the University of Arizona’s on-going studies on algae research and development particularly feedstock for biofuels.

The visiting scientist said that his coming to the Philippines has opened a lot of doors and opportunities for the country to look into the potential and benefits of algae not only in biofuels, but in the areas of nutraceuticals and high-value organic fertilizers as well. He added that the country is a natural habitat for algae.

On the part of BAR, Mr. Obligado said that, being the research arm of the Department of Agriculture, BAR is tasked to coordinate and facilitate research activities deemed necessary to warrant national interest. “And such is a welcome and positive development”, Obligado said.

The presence of the scientific community in the said meeting is a manifestation of the commitment among the academes to pursue vigorously doable measures to enhance the country’s productivity.

The formulation of the Roadmap for Algae Production in the Philippines will institutionalize the needed push to jumpstart the industry that will eventually commercialize and utilize the potential of algae in the country in terms of industrial and agricultural use. The draft road map is expected to be finished by August of this year.

Professor Rex Demafelis, the focal person of BAR’s biofuels program, recommended that a convenor and co-convenor for the project be named or appointed. He proposed the adoption of a common framework to effectively facilitate the submission of inputs and findings in relation to the general parameters which are to be identified by the tapped experts. Prof. Rex also stressed the need for knowledge interfacing among the core members in order to fine-tune the inputs given to BAR prior to the finalization of the said Roadmap. This shall then be subjected to a strategic workshop in the first week of August in 2011. (Patrick RA Lesaca/DA-BAR)

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