Journal of Sustainable Bioenergy Systems, 2012, 2, 49-59 Published Online September 2012 (
Microalgae: A Potential Source of Biodiesel
Shalini Rajvanshi, Mahendra Pal Sharma
Biofuel Research Laboratory, Alternate Hydro Energy Centre, Indian Institute of Technology Roorkee,
Roorkee, India
Received July 12, 2012; revised August 16, 2012; accepted August 25, 2012
The economic development of the world is highly dependent on fossil fuel supplies which are constrained not only by
limited availability but also generate high levels of pollution. Looking at the limited fossil fuel associated with problems,
concerted efforts have been started to search for alternative bio fuels like bio ethanol and biodiesel. Since the diesel is
being used massively in industrial commercial, agriculture and other sectors. Therefore, the production and utilization
of biodiesel from oil seeds crops has been getting renewed interest in recent years in the India to overcome the demerits
of oil from oil seed crops. The production of biodiesel from microalgae has several advantages over the above re-
sources due to higher algal biomass and oil productivities and the need of non-arable land for its growth. Industrial and
municipal wastewaters can be potentially utilized fo r cultiv ation of micro algal o il th at can be used fo r the produ ction of
biodiesel to completely displace petro diesel. The micro algal biomass has been reported to yield high oil contents and
have the diesel production . Accordingly, lot of R & D work has been initiated for the growth, harvestin g, oil extraction
and conversion to biodiesel.
Keywords: Microalgal Species; Cultivation; Harvesting ; Oil Extraction and Biodiesel Production
1. Introduction
Owing to the limited availability and associated envi-
ronmental problems with fossil fuel utilization, the re-
newable energy based biofuel viz biodiesel and bioetha-
nol are viewed as future substitute fuels for diesel and
gasoline respectively. Sugar based fuel alcohol produc-
tion is not feasible unless methods are developed to con-
vert lingo-cellulosic biomass into ethanol and there is no
competition with food supplies. The biodiesel from edi-
ble oils is also not a sustainable option due to heavy
competition with seed plants and accordingly, non-edible
oils like Jatropha , Pongamia, Neam oils etc. are ac-
corded top priority for biodiesel p roduction in India. The
plantations of Jatropha curcas are under cultivation on
large land area in the country and hopes are raised for
sustainable availability o f oil for conversion to biodiesel.
Apart from these non-edible oil resources, microalgae is
also becoming the focus as future source of biodiesel as
these are found exceedingly rich in oil that can be con-
verted to biodiesel using existing technology. Microalgae
are prokaryotic (e.g. Cyanobacteria, Cyanophyceae) or
eukaryotic (e.g. green algae) and diatoms (Bacillario-
phyta) that can grow rapidly and live in harsh conditions
due to their unicellular or simple multicellular structure
[1,2]. A study has estimated that mo re t han 50,0 00 mic ro
algal species exist, but only 30,000 are studied and ana-
lyzed as yet [3]. If grown properly, the microalgal based
biodiesel has potential to completely substitute diesel
without competing with the food and other supplies of
agricultural products.
The oil yield from some microalgae is reported to ex-
ceed 80% (on dry weight basis) compared to 40% - 50%
from edible/non-edible oil seeds. An average annual
productivity of micro algal biomass in a well designed
production system located in a tropical zone may be
about 1.535 kg·m–2 d–1 with biodiesel yield of 98.4 m3
per hectare. The other added advantage of microalgae is
that unlike other oil crops, they grow rapidly and double
their biomass within 24 h which could be as short as 3.5
h contrary to the time for oil crops (months together).
The present paper reviews the possibilities of using
different types of micro algal species as source of oil,
techniques for algal growth, harvesting, oil extraction
and conversion to biodiesel and its fu ture scope in India.
2. Literature Review
Advantage of using microalgae for biodiesel production
has been reported by a number of workers [4-11]. The
interest in microalgae for biodiesel started in 1970s dur-
ing the first oil crisis due to high oil yields. The average
oil yield is repo rted between 1% and 70% but under cer-
tain conditions, some species can yield up to 90% of dry
biomass weight [12]. The variation in fatty acid compo-
sition of oil from different algae species is reported by
opyright © 2012 SciRes. JSBS
several authors [13-17]. In fact, several studies have re-
ported the use of microalgae for the production of bio-
diesel and other by products [18-22].
Moheimani [23] studied the effect of pH on algal
growth in a plate photobioreactor. Kaewpintong [24]
found better growth of microalgae in an airlift bioreactor
due to better mixing of the microalgal culture. Thomas et
al. [25] studied the growth of microalgal species that
grow well in this medium containing carbon dioxide as a
carbon source and nitrate as a nitrogen source and deter-
mined the effect of nitrogen as well as the salt on the
chemical compositions of the algae. Ugwu and Aoyagi
[26] studied mass production of algae and have been
done to develop a photobioreactor for algal culture.
Weissman and Goebel [27] studied primary harvesting
methods for biofuels production.
Samson and Leduy [28] developed a flat reactor
equipped with fluorescence lamps for the growth of mi-
cro algal oil Further, Ortega and Roux [29] developed a
outdoor flat panel reactor using thick transparent PVC
materials. The design of vertical alveolar panels and flat
plate reactors for mass cultivation of different algae was
reported by Tredici and Materassi, Zhang et al., and
Hoekema et al. [30-32]. Hu et al., Eriksen and Wang
found that high dissolved oxygen (DO) levels can be
reached in tubular photobioreactors [33-35].
3. Classification of Microalgae
Photosynthetic organisms growing in aquatic environ-
ments include macroalgae, microalgae and emergents
[36]. These primitive organisms with simple cellular
structure and large surface to volume ratio are able to
uptake large amount of nutrients. The photosynthesis in
microalgae is similar to higher plants but is more effi-
cient due to their simple cellular structure [37]. The mi-
croalgae can be classified on the basis of their pigmenta-
tion, life cycle and basic cellular structure as given in
Table 1.
The mass production of oil is focused mainly on mi-
croalgae of 0.4 mm dia of diatoms and cyanobacteria
rather than macroalgae e.g. Seaweed and is preferred for
biodiesel production due to its less complex structure,
fast growth and high oil content. Research & Develop-
ment is also carried out to use the seaweeds for bio-en-
ergy, perhaps, due to higher resource av ailability [39,40].
Botryococcus braunii, Chlorella, Dunaliella tertiolecta,
Gracilaria, Pleurochrysis carterae, Sargassum, are some
of the microalgal species currently studied for their suita-
bility for biodiesel production [41-43].
4. Algae Oil Extraction Techniques
Oil extraction from algae is one of the costly processes
that can determine the sustainability of algae-based bio-
diesel. Oil extraction methods can be broadl y classified as:
Each of these methods has drawbacks:
The mechanical press generally requires drying of th e
algae, which is an energy intensive step.
The use of chemical solvents poses safety and health
Supercritical extraction requires high pressure equip-
ment that is both expensive and energy intensive.
Table 2 compares oil yields of microalgae with other
oil feedstocks. It is seen from that there are significant
variations in biomass productivity, oil yield and biodiesel
productivity. Microalgae are more advantageous due to
higher biomass productivity, oil and biodiesel yield.
The table shows that low, medium and high oil content
micro-algae have high oil yield/ha/year and hence higher
biodiesel productivities (l/ha/yr) which is much more
than the productivities of oil seed crops. This is one of
the most important reasons that microalgae have attracted
the attention of researchers in India to scientifically grow,
harvest, extract oil and convert it to biodiesel.
5. Technology for Growing Algae
The following technologies are used for the production
of algae:
Table 1. Classification of microalgae [38].
S No Name of microalgae Known speciesStorage material Habitat
1 Diatoms (Bacillariophyceae) 100,000 Chyrsolaminarin (polymer of car bo hydrates)
and TAGs Oceans, fresh and brackish water
2 Green algae (Chlorophyceae) 8000 Starch and TAGs Freshwater
3 Blue-green algae (Cyanophyceae) 2000 Starch and TAGs Different habitats
4 Golden algae (Chrysophyceae) 1000 TAGs and carbohydrates Freshwater
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. JSBS
Table 2. Comparison of microalgae with other biodiesel feedstocks [44-53].
Oil feedstocks Oil content
(% dry wt. biomass) Oil yield
(L oil/ha/year) Land use
(m2/year/L biodiesel) Biodiesel productivity
(L biodiesel/ha/year)
Oil Seeds
Microalgae (low oil conte nt ) 30 58,700 0.2 61,091
Microalgae (medium oil content) 50 97,800 0.1 101,782
Microalgae (high oil content) 70 1,36,900 0.1 142,475
Corn/Maize (Zea mays L.) 44 172 56 179
Hemp (Cannabis sativa L.) 33 363 26 378
Soyabean (Glycine max L.) 18 636 15 661
Jatropha (Jatropha curcas L.) 28 741 13 772
Camelina (Camelina sativa L.) 42 915 10 952
Canola/Rapseed (Brassica napus L. )41 974 10 1014
Sunflower (Helianthu s annuus L.) 40 1070 9 1113
Caster (Ricinus communis) 48 1307 8 1360
Palm oil (Elaeis guineensis) 36 5366 2 5585
5.1. Open Pond System
Cultivation of alg ae in open p onds is studied ex tensively.
Open ponds can be categorized into natural waters (lakes,
lagoons, ponds) and artificial ponds (containers). The
most commonly used system includes shallow big ponds,
tanks circular and raceway ponds. The major advantage
of open ponds is that they are easier to con struct and op-
erate than the closed systems. The major constraints are
poor light utilization, large evaporative losses, diffusion
of CO2 to the atmo spher e and r equirement of large areas.
The attack by predators and other fast growing hetero-
trophs restricts the commercial production of algae in
these systems. The biomass productivities are lower due
to lack of proper stirri ng .
The “raceway ponds” provide better circulation of al-
gae, water and nutrients using paddlewheels on regular
frequency. The shallow ponds are also used to allow the
algae to be exposed to sunlight. Such ponds are operated
in a continuous manner with CO2 and other nutrients
constantly fed to the pond with circulation of the re-
maining algae-containing water at the other end.
Their advantages are their simplicity, low production
and operating costs. The contamination with bacterial
strains and maintenance of optimum temperature are the
main difficulty in large pond area.
5.2. Closed Ponds
Control of environment in closed ponds is much better
but there are costlier and less efficient than open pond
system. The closed system allows more species to grow,
control the temp., increase the CO2 resu lting in increased
algae growth.
5.3. Photo Bioreactor
Photobioreactor (PBR) is a translucent closed container
making use of light source. A PBR can be operated in
“batch mode”, but with a continuous stream of sterilized
water containing nutrients, air and carbon dioxide. As the
algae grows, excess culture overflows and is harvested.
Its advantage is that microalgae in the “log phase” are
produced with higher nutrient content. The maximum
productivity occurs when the “exchange rate” is equal to
the “doubling time” of the algae. Such systems can be
illuminated by artificial light, solar light or by both.
Naturally illuminated systems with large illumination
surface areas include open ponds, flat-plate, horizon-
tal/serpentine tubular airlift and inclined tubular photo-
bioreactors, while large scale photobioreactors are artifi-
cially illuminated (either internally or externally) using
fluorescent lamps. Some other photobioreactors include
bubble column, airlift column, stirred-tank, helical tubu-
lar, conical, type etc.
6. Harvesting of Algae
Algal harvesting consists of recovery of biomass from
the culture medium that constitutes about 20% - 30% of
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. JSBS
the total biomass production cost. Most common har-
vesting methods include sedimentation, centrifugation,
filtration, ultra-filtration or combination of flocculation-
flotation. Flocculation is used to aggregate the microalgal
cells to increase the effective particle size and hence ease
the sedimentation, centrifugal recovery and filtration [54].
These techniques are summarized in Table 3.
High-density algal cultures can be concentrated by
chemical flocculation or centrifugation using aluminum
sulphate, ferric chloride etc to coagulate and precipitate
the cells to settle down at the bottom or to float to the
surface. Algal biomass is finally recovered by siphoning
off the supernatant or skimming the cells off the surface.
Once the algae is harvested and dried, several methods
like mechanical solvent extraction and chemical methods
can be applied for oil extraction, the choice of which
depends upon the particle size of algal biomass. However,
solvent extraction is usu ally applied to get hig h oil yields
from algae.
The oil yields from different microalgae are given in
Table 4 which shows that Nannochloropsis species has
highest while Tetraselmis suecica minimum oil yield.
7. Physicochemical Properties of Oil
To assess the potential of biod iesel as a substitute of die-
sel fuel, the properties of biodiesel such as density, vis-
cosity, flash point, cold filter plugging point, solidifying
point, and heating value were determined. A comparison
of these properties of biodiesel from microalgal oil with
diesel and ASTM biodiesel standard is given in Table 5.
It can be seen that most of these parameters comply with
the limits established by ASTM related to b iodiesel qual-
ity. The microalgal biodiesel showed much lower cold
filter plugging point of –11˚C in compared to than diesel
while the viscosity and acid value is higher than diesel.
The Table 5 shows that the fuel properties of micro-
algal biodiesel are comparable to diesel fuel.
8. Biodiesel Production from Algal Oil
Out of the four oil modification methods, the most prom-
ising method to overcome the problem of high viscosity
is transesterification which is a multi step reaction con-
sisting of three reversible steps, where triglycerides are
converted to diglycerides, diglycerides to monoglyc-
erides and monoglycerides to esters (biodiesel) and glyc-
erol as by-product.
Transesterification of Microalgal Oil to
Transesterification does not alter the fatty acid composi-
tion of the feedstocks and hence the composition of bio-
diesel. The effect of FFA on biodiesel yield and adoption
of suitable transesterification process is reviewed in Ta-
ble 6 which indicates that selection of base or acid-base
catalyzed process and other conditions is based on the
FFA contents of the oil and accordingly the time and
other parameters of conversions are selected.
Table 3. Algal harvesting techniques.
S. No. Algae harvest method Relative cost Algal species
1 Foam fractionation Very high Scenedesmus, Chlorella
2 Ozone flocculation Very high
3 Centrifugation Very high Scenedesmus, Chlorella
4 Electrofloatation High
5 Inorganic chemical flocculation High Oxidation ponds
6 Polyelectrolyte flocculation High Dunaliella
7 Filtration High Spirulina, Coelastrum
8 Microstrainers Unknown Spirulina
9 Tube settling Low Micractinium
10 Diecrete sedimentation Low Coelastrum
11 Phototactic autoconcentration Very low Euglena, Dunaliella
12 Autoflocculation NA Micractinium
13 Bioflocculation NA Micractinium
14 Tilapia-enhanced sedimentation NA Scenedesmus, Chlorella
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. JSBS
Table 4. Oil from different microalgal species [7].
Type of microalgae Oil content (% dry wt. basis)
Botryococcus braunii 25 - 75
Chlorella sp. 28 - 32
Crypthecodinium cohnii 20
Cylindrotheca sp. 16 - 37
Dunaliella primolecta 23
Isochrysis sp. 25 - 33
Monallanthus salina >20
Nannochloris sp. 20 - 35
Nannochloropsis sp. 31 - 68
Neochloris oleoabu n d ans 35 - 54
Nitzschia sp. 45 - 47
Phaeodactylum tricornutum 20 - 30
Schizochytrium sp. 50 - 77
Tetraselmis suecica 15 - 23
Table 5. Comparison of properties of micro algal biodiesel
with diesel and ASTM biodiesel standard.
Properties Biodiesel from
microalgae oil Diesel fuel ASTM biodiesel
Density (kg·L –1) 0.864 0.838 0.84 - 0.90
(mm2·s–1, cP at 40˚C) 5.2 1.9 - 4.1 3.5 - 5.0
Flash Point
(˚C) 155 60 Min 100
Solidifying point
(˚C) –12 –50 to 10 -
Cold filter plugging
point (˚C) –11 –3.0
(max –6.7) Summer max 0,
Winter max < –15
Acid value
(mg KOH·g–1) 0.374 Max 0.5 Max 0.5
Heating value
(MJ·kg–1) 41 40 - 45 -
H/C ratio 1.81 1.81 -
Table 6 reviews the different types of transesterifica-
tion reactions depending on the presence of free fatty
acids (FFA) contents in the oil.
Table shows that very little wo rk is available on trans-
esterification of microalgal oil to biodiesel. Depending
upon the FFA contents in oil, the base catalysed process
is applied to the oil with FFA < 1% while two step proc-
esses is applied to high FFA oils as per details reported in
our paper [70, 7 1] .
It is reported that biodiesel from oils with a high FFA
has higher cetane number and energy contents, but lower
cloud and pour points and higher viscosity. These result
shows that the fatty acid profile of the oil influences the
quality of the biodiesel considerably. Table 7 gives the
fatty acid profile of some of the vegetable oil used for
biodiesel production. The vegetable oil and their bio-
diesel with high content of oleic acid are the most suit-
able biofuel due to their greater stability and better fuel
Oxidation stability, an important issue in the biodiesel
due to the presence of polyunsaturated compounds, is
influenced by factors such as presence of air, heat, traces
of metal, peroxides, light, or structural features of the
compounds, mainly, the presence of double bonds [74].
Biodiesel produced from oils with high concentrations of
saturated fatty acid, has better stability. Therefore, vege-
table oils rich in linoleic and linolenic acids such as soy-
bean and sunflower tend to give methyl ester fuels with
poor oxidation stability (Table 7) whereas nonpoly-
unsaturated fuels, such as palm and olive methyl ester
generally show good stability [75].
9. Status of Biodiesel Producti on from
Microalgal in India
As mentioned above, the microalgae have the highest oil
yielding potential which is about 6 - 10 times more than
vegetable oil. The algae production can be increased
utilizing waste water from domestic and industrial sec-
tors that contain considerable nutrients necessary for its
growth. Further, the stability of biodiesel from micro-
algae is the added advantage of fuel characteristics which
persist for longer period of time unlike biodiesel from oil
seed crops.
Extensive work has been done by Indian scientists on
utilization of microalgae for food and the pharmaceutical
applications. The lists of organizations/institutions who
are working on various aspects of microalgae such as
microalgae collected from natural vegetation which is
used for the production of biogas and biofuel in India are
given in Table 8.
10. Conclusions
The microalgae are considered as one of the most pro-
mising feedstocks for future bio-diesel production in
India. The advantages of microalgae are their wide-
spread availability, higher oil yields and reduced pres-
sure on cultivable land. The difficulty in efficient bio-
diesel production from algae lies not only in the extrac-
tion of the oil, but also developing an algal strain with a
high lipid content and fast growth rate.
Once the microalgal oil starts to be unavailable the ap-
plication of type of transesterification well established
conversion process may be suitably used for converting
to biodiesel which has fuel properties similar to petro
diesel. Apart from technologies developed for algal cul-
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. JSBS
Table 6. Effect of FFA on biodiesel yield and application of transesterification pr oc e ss.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. JSBS
Table 7. % FFA in vegetable and micro algal oils [72,73].
S. No. FFA Contents Micro-algal (P. tricornutum) Oil % Jat r o p ha curcas Oil % Palm Oil %
1 C16:0 15.5 16.4 42.6
2 C16:1 17.3 1.0 0.3
3 C18:0 0.3 6.2 4.4
4 C18:1 1.3 37.0 40.5
5 C18:2 2.2 39.2 10.1
6 C18:3 0.9 - 0.2
7 C20:0 - 0.2 -
8 C20:1 - - -
9 Others 62.5 - 0.7
10 SFA* 21.2 22.8 4.4
11 UFA** 78.8 77.2 94.9
*SFA—Saturated Fatty Acid, **UFA—Unsaturated Fatty Acid.
Table 8. Status of R & D work on microalgae in India.
S. No Institution/Organization Work on microalgae
specific species R & D area Reference
1 University of Madras, Chennai Sargassum Cultivation [76]
3 University of Madras, Chennai Seaweeds Biogas production [77]
4 University of Madras, Chennai Botryococcus braunii Cultivation in open raceway pond [78]
5 Central Food Technological Research
Institute (CFTRI), Mysore Botryococcus braunii Isolation and charac terization of hydro c arbon [79-81]
6 Vivekananda Institute of Alga l Technology
(VIAT), Chennai Microalgae a Development of technology to treat industria l
waste water [82-84]
7 Cen t r al R i ce Research Instit ut e ( CR RI),
Cuttack, Orissa Chlorella vulgaris Production [85]
8 Vivekananda Institute of Alga l Technology
(VIAT), Chennai Micro algae a Biofuel pr o duction from di a t om species [86]
9 Alternate Hydro Energy Centre, Indian
Institute of Technology, Roorkee Microalgae Conversion of M icroalgal oil to bi odiesel [87]
tivation, harvesting and oil extract. The transesterifica-
tion processes are reviewed. Algal biodiesel stability is
relatively better than seed oil based biodiesel. The status
of R & D on microalgae biodiesel is also covered in this
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