The Kaolin Algae Pits of Lorient

The French government wants you there
By Peter Brown | October 03, 2011

The port of Lorient on the Golf de Morbihan in Brittany, France, is one of the major French seaports, a former military naval base and during WWII it was the site of Germany’s largest U-Boot refuel, refit and rearm facility. It is a resilient and gritty city that has suffered much, learned a lot and insists on being one of the major centers for France’s renewable energy technologies with an emphasis on wind and water. Around Lorient are small fishing villages and very high technology sailing boats, one of them currently holds the sailing speed record.

It is also a city that has seen its share of failures usually at the hands of outside investors with big ideas, large promises and short attention spans. Each blighted project becoming the apple in the eye of a local entrepreneur who will attempt to make happen what others could not. Such a project is the biodiesel algae project taking place in the hills above the city in abandoned kaolin quarries that have spawned not only a whole colony of promising algae but also a development project called SafeOil that has expressed the intention of harvesting the algae and making an experimental run at producing biodiesel from open air algae production.

Kaolin is a naturally occurring, soft white clay that is used extensively in the paper industry, and is essential for creating fine ceramics. It is also used in medicine, cosmetics and other industrial applications. The name is derived from the Chinese Kao-Ling, where it was first mined centuries ago.

Brittany is an energy poor region in France, there are no nuclear power plants, nor would they be accepted, there is no coal, petroleum, biofuels or other energy production available, which is why the government is very open and receptive to energy projects and the region is developing a reputation for audacious wind power projects. In 2007, an American company was invited to review the area and, because of the farming and animal infrastructure, consider starting a biodiesel facility. During the course of the meetings we noticed repeated references to the closing of the kaolin quarries. This was the period when algae, food or fuel, deforestation, carbon credits and greenhouse gasses were becoming industry and popular press buzzwords.

Putting it all together, and after a meeting with IFREMER, France’s world famous Ocean and Sea research group, the discussion about algae became ever more pointed and a visit to the site was organized. There, on 400 hectares within sight of the ocean and far from habitation, the site was enchanting because the quarries have filled with water and there are more than 20 of these ponds within the complex. Some are quite deep, but all contain kaolin residue in suspension and therein lies the astounding properties of the algae ponds of Lorient.

Early on IFREMER conducted a site study to see what the effect of the kaolin would have on the development of algae strains and they came to a number of fascinating conclusions. It seems that native algae in the ponds throve when surrounded by heavy concentrations of kaolin whereas filtered water from the ponds, with the majority of the kaolin removed, showed very little algae propagation.

The tests in seawater and brackish water were so promising that several companies became interested in pursuing the project with Veolia actually contributing research funds. But as the financial situation deteriorated around the world, and algae research moved into the large bioreactor direction, the budding Kaolin project was slowly forgotten by all but a group of diehard local people who founded Safeoil. The project itself brought together Imerys, the actual owners of the quarries, one of the world leaders in industrial minerals with extraction facilities worldwide. Their interest started with kaolin and rapidly expanded to the biodiesel and other algae derived products. Sarp Industries, a division of Veolia, took an early interest in the project since it marries well with their recycling and biofuels production strategy, their involvement at this time is under review. Veolia’s early interest in biodiesel worldwide was derived from its very large fleet of diesel-powered equipment from waste recuperation trucks through pumping and other industrial applications.

The project itself is part of two new efforts to progress beyond the research stage; the first is the fact that it is part of the Pole Mer Bretagne, a competitive cluster that is part of the greater French effort to integrate research projects from all over France and their territories such as Martinique and Tahiti. Safeoil is also part of the greater research effort on algae assembled under the “Livre Turquoise,” a weighty compendium of all the algae projects presently under consideration for funding in France. The country has fallen behind in the production of algae-based research as well as in the production of biodiesel. The efforts to expand that shortcoming are unfortunately modest at this point, but the efforts are based on a very simple principle—if you build it, industry will come—so World Class research is available from IFREMER, Green Stars, INRIA and others to both facilitate and attract outside investors to promising technologies.

France’s recent decision to cut tax incentives for biodiesel in the upcoming years is considered a genuine benefit for the algae industry. It is anticipated that using a feedstock that requires no arable land, can be produced in vast quantities using an existing infrastructure for relatively low cost with high annual yields will justify the initial research efforts. The decision to cut the tax incentives was based on petroleum achieving price parity with biofuels and penalties to fuel producers will make up the difference, since the EU requirement as well as the French requirement for 7 percent biodiesel blends are still in place. 

Meanwhile, up in the hills above Lorient, some of the algae in the ponds showed up to 50 percent oil content, well above any other open pond research. The harvesting and oil extraction question was briefly reviewed before the project went into hibernation. At that point, the plan was to use pumping systems to develop a two-tiered approach to the algae development: the first directly into the quarries under “natural “conditions; the second by developing a series of large tanks and pumping combinations of fresh and sea water to develop the optimum growing medium.

“What this group really needs is the presence of a large cash infusion and new blood. All the elements are in place to remove the results and apply them to places like Cornwall in the U.K., the Ukraine or any other area where food-versus-fuel is an issue and land is expensive, “says Nicolas Teisseire, Audelor’s regional Development Officer. “We have watched over this unique site for five years now and everyone who has worked there tells me that it offers a unique opportunity for crucial algae development.”

The oil-bearing algae of Lorient is a unique algae research site, and any company interested in furthering the research will be enthusiastically supported by the French government, local businesses and acquire valuable European access to a flourishing biodiesel market. It will also open the door for industrial production of algal biodiesel from similar sites around the world.

Author: Peter Brown
President, International Procurement Tools
(408) 426-5585


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