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DEMA Report Summary

Project ID: 309086
Funded under: FP7-ENERGY
Country: Ireland

Periodic Report Summary 2 - DEMA (Direct Ethanol from MicroAlgae)

Project Context and Objectives:
The DEMA Consortium will develop, demonstrate and licence a complete economically competitive technology for the direct production of bioethanol from microalgae with low-cost scalable photobioreactors by 2017. Initial proof-of-concept results show via Life Cycle Assessments (LCA) and economic balance that it is feasible to use microalgae to produce bioethanol for an operational cost of less than € 0.40 per litre.

The catalytic conversion of solar energy, H2O and CO2 into ethanol will be carried out by a metabolically engineered strain of the cyanobacterium, Synechocystis sp. PCC6803. The DEMA Project will carry out research and development on the complete biofuel- production process at two levels. In the first level, the performance of cyanobacteria will be substantially enhanced by a series of metabolic engineering strategies to directly transform CO2, H2O and sunlight into Bioethanol at a concentration level of >1-2% (v/v).

In the second stage of the DEMA Process the bioethanol is continuously extracted from the culture media via a membrane technology process exploiting existing EU expertise and technology. This DEMA process design is completing a value engineering methodology to improve the economic and energy balance of bioethanol production and extraction so as to minimise the required Capital and Operational expenditure. The LCA performance is being improved so that the DEMA process is superior to any other alternative microalgae based process designs in the literature or by the other biofuel technologies. We will also study exploitation of the residual biomass for other energy related applications to generate an even better total LCA.

The DEMA bioethanol process will source its CO2 from renewable sources so is economically, socially, and environmentally positive, providing a complement and future replacement to terrestrial biomass-derived ethanol and act as an immediately actionable means of reducing the carbon footprint of EU transport needs. The DEMA consortium will achieve a Transformational Innovation in biofuel production via low risk improvement of existing technologies at proof of concept stage.

Project Results:
The DEMA project research activities in the first phase can be divided into three domains. The Bio-Science work packages that are focused on producing a metabolically engineered version of the cyanobacterium. The other two areas are Photobioreactor (PBR) development and Ethanol separation which are focused on delivering the equipment design that will be deployed as part of the DEMA process.

The growth effect of exogenously added ethanol on the cyanobacterium Synechocystis sp. PCC 6803 has been evaluated at the targeted levels of concentration from 5 to 35g/L. It has been shown that, while the cyanobacterium can tolerate these concentrations, it does have a negative influence on the growth rate. It will be necessary to enhance the ethanol tolerance of Synechocystis sp. PCC 6803 in order for it to survive and thrive at the DEMA target ethanol concentration of 50 g/L.

A large portfolio of metabolically engineered strains of Synechocystis sp. PCC 6803 has been developed by the DEMA consortium, which have been shown to produce ethanol. It has been found that the growth rate of these ethanol producing strains is significantly lower than for the normal wild type strain. This has significant implications for the growth of cyanobacterium inoculum for PBRs in production mode. Several Synechocystis sp. PCC 6803 strains have been generated to counteract the growth retardation. In these strains, growth and ethanol production have been separated via the use of an inducible promoter system which allows growth to progress to a suitable level before inducing ethanol production. The level of ethanol concentration being achieved by the ethanol producing strain is close to the targeted level for this stage of the project. The DEMA bioethanol producing strain has achieved 4.5 g/l in laboratory conditions. The DEMA project final target ethanol concentration level of 50 g/L appears to be very challenging at this time. It has been confirmed that bioethanol productivity and concentration does not appear to being strongly influenced by the product (bioethanol) tolerance as had been expected at the beginning of the DEMA project. Considerable additional research effort will be required to engineer the cyanobacterium strain to produce ethanol at a final target ethanol concentration level of 50 g/L.

This metabolic engineering work will be supported by the exploitation of a microfluidics experimental platform which has been adapted for the DEMA project. This platform enables the culturing of cyanobacteria over several days, and confirmation has been obtained that their behaviour reflects that seen in bulk culture. A quantitative fluorescence assay to monitor ethanol secretion by the cyanobacteria into the droplet has been developed. This technology has been updated and needs to be better deployed towards the DEMA strain development and mutant library sorting.
The evaluation of DEMA bioethanol producing strain in PBR pilots has achieved a bioethanol concentration level of between 0.9-1g/l as part of WP5 in M36. This level is lower than planned which has been associated with the poor level of biomass production. It has been found that the production of bioethanol is correlated with the cell density.
The photobioreactor develop has been progressed by evaluating alternative designs that will be more cost effective in terms of Operational and Capital expenditure.

The Ethanol separation work package WP6 has found that there are few energy efficient technologies available that can deal with the low ethanol concentration found in the DEMA medium. The research effort has focused on the improvement of the selectivity of the membrane technologies being used for ethanol separation. In P2 new membranes with a higher selectivity of 14-16 has been achieved. Even with this superior membrane selectivity performance it still has been necessary to innovate a new ethanol separation process to deal with the low bioethanol concentration levels in order to handle bioethanol concentration levels of 0.9-1g/l reported in WP5.
The integration of the entire DEMA process is being supported by a suite of modelling type tasks that will ensure that the DEMA process will achieve its reduced Capital and Operational expenditure and improved LCA performance goals.
The Value Engineering activities in work package WP7 have been posed a considerable challenge given the bioethanol productivity and concentration reported in WP5. In P3 it will be necessary to make considerable improvements in order to achieve the planned investor ready DEMA Process technology portfolio.

Potential Impact:
The DEMA Consortium is expected to develop, demonstrate and licence a complete economically competitive technology for the direct production of bioethanol from microalgae with low-cost scalable photobioreactors by 2017. The DEMA process challenges have been elucidated and demonstrate where the Life Cycle Assessments (LCA) and economic balance have to be improved to make it feasible to use microalgae to produce bioethanol for less than the operational cost of its fossil fuel equivalent. The catalytic conversion of solar energy, H2O and CO2 into ethanol will be carried out by a modified strain of the cyanobacterium, Synechocystis sp. PCC 6803. A DEMA process has been carried out at the pilot stage level that generates bioethanol albeit at a lower than expected concentration level.

Economic competitiveness and energy security
EU is not energy self-sufficient and relies on continuous access to fossil fuel reserves that in many cases are controlled by politically volatile countries. The import of fossil fuel reserves also represents an export of economic funds, in exceptionally large quantities (the EU spends approximately €1 Billion a day importing only oil). It is essential to the development of the EU to reallocate these resources to the benefit of EU citizens and firms. The proposed exploitation location is in Reunion Island, a department of France. This island currently imports all of its automotive fuels and therefore represents a good biofuel market opportunity. Developments in the fossil fuel market has made this exploitation plan more challenging however it is still important to have this technology available in the case of increases in fossil fuel prices in future years.

Bioethanol within the EU is produced from both corn/maize and sugar beet. Since available land area is highly limited in most EU states and this is expected to shrink further as the population increases and demand for food increases. The development of high-efficiency renewable energy production technologies that do not depend on agriculturally valuable land is therefore likely substantially to influence the economic competitiveness and energy security of the EU as a whole. It is noted that since the start of the DEMA project that the price of oil has fallen by over 70% which will make the commercialisation of the DEMA portfolio of technologies more challenging.

Environmental Sustainability and Quality of life
The greenhouse gas aspect of the current suite of global environmental sustainability challenges is driven by the reality that the profits from economic activity generate externalities in the form of CO2, CH4 and NOx being released from the associated value chains. There have been efforts to price these externalities in the form of Carbon Credits however the current market prices do not appear to provide EU and global value chains a compelling motivation to adapt to more sustainable operating methods. In the biofuels sector the first generation technologies have had some unintended consequences with biodiesel from pam tree plantations causing environmental problems due to change of land use, and bioethanol from corn affecting world food markets.

The DEMA process value engineering activities is seeking to make it operationally profitable to produce bioethanol by preventing CO2 being released back into the atmosphere. In the DEMA case the original CO2 will have been captured by the sugar cane plants that provide the bagasse fuel for the Reunion power plant which is the source of the CO2 for the proposed initial DEMA process deployment.

Increased life quality stems from a cleaner, sustainable environment, and in particular for EU countries, the quality of the air. The economic aspects of the DEMA project have become problematic with the substantial reduction in fossil fuel prices since the beginning of the project. However renewable transport fuel production technologies are still likely to be economically more important when oil prices increase again in future years. If such technologies are adopted at a scale that results in greenhouse gases being reduced and climate changes minimized, this will have a major impact on 'quality of life' compared to a continued reliance on fossil fuels. Overall, DEMA approach to bioethanol production is a more environmentally suitable production process and will result in higher quality of life for EU citizens if the former can be realised at a sufficiently large scale of operation.
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Record Number: 187953 / Last updated on: 2016-08-24