C4 offers sustainable solution to mass-produce biofuels in Malaysia

George Monbiot’s 2004 article, “Feeding Cars, Not People”, catalyzed the debate of how biofuel production affected food security. Since then, only a handful of businesses have revisited the food versus fuel debate. CHITOSE Carbon Capture Central (C4), the world’s largest mass microalgae biomass production facility, which adopts flat-panel photobioreactors, wants to transcend this debate and offer a sustainable solution for mass-producing biofuels. 

Rather than relying on a linear supply chain, C4 has devised a sustainable supply network that will provide long-term success and benefits for all stakeholders, including the people of Sarawak, Malaysia.

In an interview with Maritime Fairtrade, Chitose Laboratory Corporation executive officer and chief bioengineer Dr. Takanori Hoshino said: “Located on seven hectares of land, the C4 facility is a proof of concept that harnesses emissions from the Sejingkat power station, enabling the stable mass production of both food and fuels. Our technical proficiency is reflected in our ability to produce 350 tons of biomass annually, a feat made possible by deploying flat-panel photobioreactors.

“Recently, we secured approximately US$400 million in funding from the Japanese government to support our operations for the next eight years, starting from 2023. In three years’ time, our facility will have grown to cover 100 hectares, and by 2030 it will encompass 2,000 hectares.”

On April 4, C4 was started in Sarawak. Since 2020, the CHITOSE Group has been leading a collaboration with Sarawak Biodiversity Centre, Sarawak Energy, and ENEOS Holdings, Inc. to explore microalgae mass production. The project is financially supported and commissioned by New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO) and administered by Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI).

CHITOSE Carbon Capture Central (C4) is a facility that is capable of producing 350 tons of dried microalgae biomass annually in Sarawak. 

Food versus fuel

In 2007/08, the global surge in food prices and subsequent social unrest in some regions raised the question of whether food or fuel should be prioritized. The food versus fuel debate is controversial. Those who opt for biofuel are depriving the already food-insecure population of their basic sustenance, as many sources of first-generation biofuel are agricultural staples, such as barley, wheat, corn, and sugar beets.

Take corn as an example. It is a widely cultivated crop with uses that extend far beyond simply feeding people. Corns are also used to make ethanol. In the U.S. in 2008, increased monoculture farming of corn was being promoted to provide biofuel for automobiles rather than to feed those in poverty. 

Dr. Hoshino said: “Bioethanol production is largely affected by the fluctuation in commodity prices. The pricing of such commodities is mainly determined by the food industry and mostly affects the cost of producing bioethanol. Meanwhile, forces in the fuel and energy industry also play a significant role in pricing bioethanol.” 

The U.S. Midwest floods of 2008 caused immense damage to crops, and led to a record high price of US$8 per bushel for corn. Contradictorily, prices for bioethanol decreased in the same period. Many companies were pushed to bankruptcy as relying solely on corn was incredibly fragile.

C4 now seeks to move beyond the old debate between food and fuel, but this time, biofuel isn’t in the offensive position. This poses the question: How so?

A supply chain network called the MATSURI project

The MATSURI project (an acronym for “Microalgae Towards Sustainable and Resilient Industry”) is a collaboration among relevant partners to create an efficient and cost-effective microalgae biomass supply network. 

“Microalgae can be broken down to extract oil, which has many versatile applications. For example, the oil can be used to manufacture plastic materials, which may then mix with paint for the car’s glossy finish,” Dr. Hoshino explained. “But bear in mind that oil is just a small part; proteins and carbohydrates play an equally important role as well.” 

“To make use of the entire microalgae biomass, we have formed a partnership with about 50 different private companies and municipalities, referred to as the MATSURI project. This initiative is driven with the philosophy of creating an interconnected organization that will bring about increased knowledge and resources for all involved, leading to positive impacts for the environment, society, and economy.” 

Partners include Shiseido, NH Foods, Asahi Kasei, Honda, Fuyo Kaiun, Mitsui Chemicals, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Nippon Steel Corporation, among others. How will this project benefit the people of Sarawak? 

“Not only does C4 offer job opportunities, but it also has the capacity to increase production, making it easier for downstream processing plants and other new technologies to be integrated into the Sarawak economy. This integration will allow Sarawak to become more efficient and competitive in the global market while also creating more jobs for locals,” Dr. Hoshino answered.

An illustration depicts the mission and vision of C4. 

Microalgae serves as the biofuel feedstock

According to Dr. Hoshino, there are three primary reasons why microalgae biomass is selected as the biofuel feedstock: it has the greatest output efficiency when exposed to photosynthetic elements; growing it requires significantly less water and minimal land; and its unique capability to grow in any climate, when given enough access to water and light under the appropriate temperature condition. 

Sarawak is situated close to the equator, with suitable temperatures throughout the year with a range of 25 to 35°C, an abundant amount of sunshine and is generally free from natural disasters such as typhoons or earthquakes. Additionally, the tropical and humid climate brings plenty of rain. The eco-friendly atmosphere of this area makes it an optimal location for large-scale microalgae biomass production.

Regarding the microalgae species being cultivated, Dr. Hoshino said: “Chlamydomonas reinhardtii is the name of the strain we are cultivating at C4. Under ideal conditions, it can divide itself into two cells within a span of five to six hours. Just like Escherichia coli, a type of bacteria, Chlamydomonas species is widely used for various sorts of research and is considered a “model strain” within the scientific community due to its popularity and familiarity among scientists. As such, it’s an ideal starting point for C4’s research endeavors.”

C4 has been cultivating Chlamydomonas reinhardtii, a type of microalgae, which can divide itself in a span of five-six hours under optimal condition.

The promising technology

Dr. Hoshino stated that in the past, the open raceway pond was often the go-to option when producing microalgae biomass in bulk due to low cost. However, this method is not desirable for wetter climates as it can be difficult to maintain stable production. 

In Sarawak, for instance, the sunlight intensity on a typical sunny day usually amounts to 2,500 μmol·m-2·s-1. But for microalgae cells to survive optimally, the intensity of light they require is much lower, ranging from 200 to 400 μmol·m-2·s-1. The excessive amount of sunlight reaching the water surface in open raceway pond is a problem for microalgae, as it can cause cell death due to high concentrations.

Moreover, lying beneath the photosynthetic zone, there is no light, preventing photosynthesis from being carried out by the microalgae. Instead, they must obtain their energy by consuming the nutrients they have already synthesized. Since microalgae cannot thrive, their well-being is compromised when predators enter and outpace them in terms of growth. This makes the output of an open raceway pond inadequate.

The flat-panel photobioreactor, on the other hand, consists of a polyethylene bag that ensures the light path length is between five to six cm, with light entering both endpoints of its path. This method maximizes the microalgae’s exposure to light, preventing dark spots from forming in the suspension, resulting in maximum CO2 recycling capability by microalgae, and thus, contributing to lowering atmospheric CO2. If any contamination gets in, microalgae can quickly multiply and spread. By consistently maintaining the culture and harvesting as needed, these contaminants can be eliminated from the system. 

Dr. Hoshino is confident that C4 can capture up to 700 tons of CO2 to microalgae biomass annually, aiding Sarawak to reach its goals for the Decarbonization and Green Energy Agenda.

C4 has started using the flat-panel photobioreactor technology for large scale production of microalgae. 

Top photo: Dr. Takanori Hoshino, executive officer and chief bioengineer of Chitose Laboratory Corp. 

All photos credit: CHITOSE Group

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