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Microbial oil as the result of top research


Since 2007, the Department of Biotechnology and Chemical Technology and Neste Oil have been developing a new oil production method. The microbial oil research project has now reached the point where a pilot plant is being built in Porvoo.

As crude oil resources have gradually started to diminish, there has been a constant rise in the production of renewable fuels and the related research work performed. Traditional biofuels include bioethanol that is produced from maize, wheat and sugar cane and biodiesel that is produced from palm oil and waste fats. However, the chemical composition of these fuels differs from that of fossil oil and additionally the raw materials used to produce them could be used as food. 

Renewable diesel, on the other hand, is a high-quality biofuel similar to fossil diesel, but it is manufactured from vegetable oils and waste animal fats. Adding hydrogen to these fats in a plant process turns them into a high-quality fuel, a hydrocarbon compound with properties that can even exceed those of fossil diesel.

Renewable and not part of the food chain

Microbial oil is oil that has been produced from organic compounds, such as sugar, with the help of micro-organisms. The oil-producing microbes can be bacteria, yeasts, moulds or microalgae. Microbial oil can be further refined in order to make different types of fuels.

“The starting point of our research has been to use entirely renewable raw materials that are either waste or agricultural residue and that are not part of the food chain. In practice, this means using lignocellulose which comprises much of the mass of plants. Suitable raw materials include agricultural residues, energy crops, wood-based sawmill and paper industry waste and paper waste. The objective is to use as much of the carbon in these raw materials as possible,” says Professor Simo Laakso.

As a result of the research project, Neste Oil and Aalto University have applied for several patents concerning the production of oil with the help of yeast and moulds. “We use safe yeasts and moulds from public and commercial collections,” Laakso emphasizes.

Microbes can produce oil amounts equivalent to up to 60-70 per cent of their dry weight. By modifying the refining process, the hydrocarbon composition of the renewable microbial diesel can be changed in order to make various end products, such as diesel or kerosene. The process only causes minor emissions and the use of chemicals is minimal. Using waste and residues as raw materials helps to radically reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The widespread use of microbial oil would also entail other benefits. Professor Laakso gives two examples: “The sulphur emissions related to crude oil would end because microbial oil is entirely sulphur-free. Using agricultural residues as a raw material would decrease the formation of greenhouse gases because the residues would be used to produce oil instead of leaving them to decompose in the ground. Approximately ten per cent of the world’s areas under cultivation are used to grow rice. After harvesting, the rice straw is ploughed into the ground where it decomposes and produces methane. Methane is a much stronger greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. If the straw was used to produce oil, this source of emissions would be eliminated.”

Finland as a pioneer

According to Professor Laakso, the co-operation project with Neste Oil has progressed from basic research to designing a pilot plant during these four years. “We have had all the expertise needed for the basic research under the same roof. A dozen experts from different fields have participated in the project and five postgraduate students have also been involved.

The commercial production of microbial oil will be possible by 2015 at the earliest. The capacity of Neste Oil’s current plants producing renewable diesel in Porvoo, Rotterdam and Singapore is 2 million metric tonnes per year.

The co-operation between Neste Oil and Aalto University has made Finland a pioneer in the use of microbial oil. Professor Simo Laakso is satisfied with the co-operation and the results that have been achieved. “Neste Oil gave us a free hand to carry out the research and the company’s special know-how has always been available when necessary.”

More information:

Professor Simo Laakso, simo.laakso [at] aalto [dot] fi