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Current State of Microalgae-derived Biofuels and Bioproducts Research in South Korea: Outcome and Future Direction of Advanced Biomass R&D Center (ABC)
by Yong Keun Chang

1. Introduction

Critical needs of alternative energy have coerced the South Korean government to actively invest in biomass-based energy development. One such example is to launch Advanced Biomass R&D Center (ABC), which will receive approximately USD $100 million from Korean Ministry of Science, ICT and Future Planning (MSIP) for a duration of nine years. More than 100 experts from various research fields including phycology, molecular biology, biochemical engineering, and chemical engineering contribute to the establishment of this research center. In order to best utilize microalgae (our biomass of choice) for the production of biofuels and bio-materials even to a commercial level, new microalgal strains with desirable characteristics, as well as energy-efficient technologies for mass cultivation, harvesting, and conversion are being intensively developed. Besides, ABC is actively seeking strategic global cooperation.

(Keywords: Advanced Biomass R&D Center (ABC); microalgae, biofuel, bio-material)

1.1. Energy Crisis and ‘Low Carbon, Green Growth’ Policy of South Korean Government

Intensive human civilization over the last century has led to the exploitation of petroleum resources. Resulting impacts have been observed in forms such as air pollutions and global warming. It has also rendered energy and environmental problems with serious consequences. In response to the severity of the crises, green and sustainable energy are gaining popularity as keywords among search engines. Many countries have realized environment and energy are the two essential features for future development.

In 2013, South Korea consumed 280 million TOE of energy and emitted 616 million ton of CO2; the government is thereby maintaining the consistent national policy, a policy to reduce emission of greenhouse gas to the minimal level and to promote South Korea as a nation which consists of eco-friendly, green-energy technologies and industries. This governmental effort is to incorporate a wide variety of approaches, to improve the international competitiveness of South Korea, particularly in green and renewable energy technologies.

1.2. Biomass as an Alternative Fossil Fuel

In order to promote the sustainable growth of economy and overcome energy and environment crisis, aggressive efforts are being made to find putative alternatives that may replace fossil fuels, permanently. First of all, the alternatives must not generate undesirable side effects that current fossil fuels do. In addition, they have to be naturally replenished or be renewable to meet the immensity of needed energy materials in a continuous manner. In this regard, biomass is an obvious and sure option as it fits all requirements. The natural balance of the amount of carbon absorbed and released in bio-energy, so-called carbon-neutrality (Abbasi and Abbasi, 2010; Johnson, 2009), provide solutions for environment problems as well as energy crisis. In addition, it is estimated that the worldwide annual biomass productivity reaches approximately 220 billion oven-dry tons, which is almost ten times higher than current world energy consumption.

Biofuels are responsible for 8% of energy consumption in the transportation sector, and the demand for biofuels is expected to increase over the next two decades in order to meet the needs of overall energy usage.

2. Advanced Biomass R&D Center in South Korea

2.1. Global Frontier Projects in Korea

Korean Ministry of Science, ICT and Future Planning (MSIP) works as a key department for government-assisted R&D in South Korea. For several decades, MSIP has supported nationwide research projects, the fundamental parts in national growth and the advancement of South Korea. The ‘Global Frontier Project’ launched in October 2010 is another ambitious support, The project aims to rank South Korea on top of other world’s leading technology countries in the strategic fields of science and engineering, including bio-energy technology.

2.2. Advanced Biomass R&D Center

Biofuels are Biofuels are, without doubt, future alternatives to fossil fuel. Therefore, there is an urgency to research and develop cutting-edge technologies, and to discover breakthroughs for the entire biofuel production process. It was this reason that Advanced Biomass R&D Center (ABC) has been initiated with an unprecedented scale of financial support from the Korean government (MSIP). ABC is the key research institute of the ‘Global Frontier Project’, which has a goal of becoming one of the top research center establishments in biomass (more specifically microalgae) technologies in the world. More than 100 experts with diverse specialties including phycologist, molecular biologists, chemists, biochemical engineers, and chemical engineers are participating in ABC. Through this enormous government-sponsored investment, ABC has an ambitious vision of becoming the global leader of biomass technology by 2019, and to serve as the most important research institutes pioneering modern technologies for biofuel commercialization.

2.3. Research Objectives of ABC

ABC is currently focusing on microalgae as the sole biomass, and rightly so, this is due to the limited land area for agriculture purposes. Besides, Korea has the potential to utilize its geographic conditions of a peninsula.

The research areas of ABC can be broadly classified into three categories: biomass development, cultivation, and bio-conversion. ABC has designated them as the three ‘core technologies’, in which their descriptions and specific goals are characterized as follows:

  • Biomass development: ABC targets eco-friendly development of highly efficient biomass which is capable of rapid growth with desirable phenotypes for bio-fuels such as increased oil content. In addition, the composition of biomass should be ideal for the conversion into bio-energy and biomaterials.

  • Biomass cultivation: The second category of three core technologies is to create innovative biomass production systems, which should allow obtaining massive biomass efficiently. Also, biomass harvesting and extraction technology are included in this category as an extension of biomass cultivation.

  • Conversion: The third category is to develop the breakthrough technology suitable for high-throughput conversion of lipid and lipid-extracted biomass into bioenergy and biomaterials.

These core technologies are inter-connected. In other words, the outcome of the first core technology influences the second core technology and the second on the third core, in a cascade manner. Thus, the success of ABC will largely depend on the overall outcome of all of the three core technologies. Details of each elemental technology are further described in the following section.

2.4. Further Descriptions of Elemental Technologies

2.4.1. Development of high-performance microalgae species with superb eco-adaptability (Core 1)

ABC tries to exploit competent indigenous strains with the capacity of rapid growth and high lipid accumulation, by way of genomic analyses and genetic techniques to redistribute photosynthesis and metabolism in this first core technology. Genomes of selected competent microalgal strains were sequenced, and tailored transformation techniques were established. In view of physiological and ecological properties, we screened genes and genetic resources able to provide the strains with stress tolerance against high temperature, light and salt.

To obtain fundamental and applicable knowledge of metabolic network of lipid metabolism, transport and growth promotion, ABC is trying to identify rate-limiting steps of lipid metabolism and construct lipid secretion systems, by way of better understanding the cellular lipid transport mechanism. Furthermore, omics analyses are being employed to unravel cellular phenomena in connection with lipid productivity, such as growth promotion and lipid metabolic pathways, which has led to generate new strains with markedly enhanced lipid production. All of this was achieved via the reconstruction of lipid metabolism and the manipulation of the related genes by way of developing transformation toolboxes suited for each microalgal strain and genome analysis.

2.4.2. Technology development for mass production of biomass and biofuel (Core 2)

As the second core technology, ABC pursues the optimization of microalgae productivity, and the development of effective techniques for biomass harvesting and, oil extraction and conversion.

To improve large scale cultivation and production systems well suited for Korean situation, ABC tries to develop mass production technologies such as smart photo-bio reactor (PBR), raceway pond, and attached cultivation. Means of low energy harvesting systems on the basis of electrochemical, biological, and physical methods have been developed, along with an integrated process for cultivation and harvesting. Wet oil extraction is also being actively developed, aiming at extraction yield of > 90%. For conversion, which is the last step of the microalgae-based process, two separate routes, namely a traditional direction of biodiesel and a more challenging way of jet fuel, are being sought. The entirety of the processes, from biomass production to biofuel production, is being optimized in a sophisticated manner, by way of super-structure analysis.

2.4.3. Technology development for eco-friendly biomass conversion (Core 3)

The last core technology being tackled is the development the eco-friendly biomass conversion technology. It is necessary to establish efficient mass production of platform chemicals and smart biomaterials. Therefore, ABC is developing methods of hydrolyzing lipid-extracted biomass using liquid and/or solid acids, means of desalting, and nutrients-supplementing the microalgae hydrolysate containing mixed sugars so as to ensure unhindered microbial fermentation. We are also making an effort to acquire strains able to efficiently utilize microalgae-derived mixed sugars. In another effort, the bioconversion of glycerol (a major byproduct from biodiesel production) to 3-hydropropionic acid (3-HP) has been established from ground-up systems metabolic engineering and synthetic biology (>70 g/L), and recently it was transferred to a related company. Additionally, novel catalyst systems are also being developed in a way that opens up a possibility to convert neutral lipids to green diesel and bio-lubricants simultaneously.

Eventually, through the development of platform technologies, ABC will play a critical role in the safe and fast landing of biorefinery in South Korea through diverse routes producing biochemicals and biomaterials, and ensuingly strengthening the main stream of biofuels production. Above all, rich knowledge and intellectual properties that are being accumulated through this Global Frontier Project will place ABC and thus South Korea at the very front in the compass of biorefinery.

2.5. Expected Research Output of ABC

Though energy and environmental problems are ever-increasing, no microalgae-derived biofuels are commercially available at the moment. In this regard, ABC tries to pave the way for the development of innovative microalgae-based biotechnologies, thus opening up a new era. We believe that the outcomes of ABC can be fully adopted for global biofuel technology and microalgae-based industry. Followings indicate anticipated research impacts possibly originating from ABC.

  • Help to cope with bioenergy-oriented industry

  • Develop an efficient biodiesel production system through the integration of high density biomass cultivation, harvest and lipid extraction

  • Achieve breakthroughs in basic/applied technologies in the field of biomass and bioenergy

  • Reduce dependence of foreign energy in South Korea

  • Promote the rank of South Korea in the field of bioenergy

  • Achieve low carbon, green society and related job creation

  • Improve national technology competitiveness via core/original technologies development

  • Establish biomass R&D hub in South Korea
3. Conclusion

South Korea has invested on bioenergy technology by initiating Advanced Biomass R&D Center (ABC) with tremendous supports of financial and human resources. Research aims of ABC are planned systematically and consist of microalgal strain development, mass cultivations, and biomass refinery. We believe that ABC will be an example of successful bioenergy research institutes in the world and that it will suggest potential approaches to solve energy crises through multidisciplinary researches.


This work was supported by the Advanced Biomass R&D Center funded by the Korean Ministry of Science, ICT and Future Planning (ABC-2010-0029728).

About the Author

Yong Keun Chang, PhD. in Chem. Engineering
Director, Advanced Biomass R&D Center, 291 Daehakno, Yuseong-gu, Daejeon 305-701, Republic of Korea
Professor, Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, KAIST, 291 Daehakno, Yuseong-gu, Daejeon 305-701, Republic of Korea

E-mail: ychang@kaist.ac.kr

Tel: +82-42-350-3927, Fax: +82-42-350-3910

Yong Keun Chang is a professor in the Department of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering at KAIST (Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology) and the director of ABC (Advanced Biomass R&D Center), which is a key biorefinery research center supported by the government in South Korea. He joined KAIST as a faculty member in 1988 and since then he has published over 200 peer-reviewed journal articles in the fields of bioprocessing technology and biorefinery. He served as President of The Korean Society for Biotechnology and Bioengineering in 2012. He was nominated as Director of ABC in 2015, which is the largest R&D program for the production of biofuel and biochemicals from microalgae with an annual budget of US $110 M. He is a recipient of various awards for his significant contributions to the field of biotechnology from the Korean government and academic societies. He received B.S. in chemical engineering from Seoul National University and Ph.D. also in chemical engineering from Purdue University.

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