“Why does Honda take on Algae research?” Seeking an answer, we’ve visited Honda R&D’s Innovative Research Excellence, Power Unit & Energy team where the researchers have a humble determination to solving issues of the environment and humanity. Two researchers have shared their passion about why researching algae is vital for Honda to achieve carbon-neutrality.
Joined Honda in 2007. After researching the fermentation process in bioethanol manufacturing, Tsukagoshi is involved in renewable material and CO2 conversion technology reasearch. He currently is taking on CO2 capture / conversion / sequestration technologies, aiming to realize carbon neutrality.
Joined Honda in 2007. After spending some years in chemical material analysis in quality control and then the development of resin components for cars, Fukushima began research on algae culture technologies in 2013. She transferred to her current department in 2020 and became in charge of Honda DREAMO development.
Why is Honda researching algae?
Tsukagoshi We are researching technologies to achieve carbon neutrality by using CO2 in the right way. Reducing CO2 emissions is important, but so is absorbing CO2. To reduce net CO2 emissions to zero, we are developing several measures of converting, removing or reusing absorbed CO2. One of these is algae.
Algae grows by absorbing CO2, and can be converted into bio-fuel.
A lot of energy now depends on fossil fuels. Energy for mobility is one, and much of our electricity is created by burning fossil fuels. Our society is built upon fossil fuel because it is cheap.
Honda also has provided mobility powered by fossil fuels, such as motorcycles, automobiles and jet planes, for the joy and freedom of mobility.
But now, this has to change in response to global warming. We need new technology to change society, and one of those is what we are now researching.
Electrification in the auto industry is accelerating.
Tsukagoshi I believe we should electrify where we can. In Honda’s case, it is a multifaceted business with products covering many categories, so it would be challenging to electrify everything we have. Short distance surface mobility such as motorcycles and automobiles are easy to electrify, but high-output mobility such as jet aircraft and boats are more difficult. We still need fuel in areas where electrification is difficult, which means alternative fuels such as synthetic and bio fuels.
Honda manufactures not only motorcycles and automobiles, but boats and jets as well, so we have to think of methods other than electrification.
Honda’s products are used all over the world by various customers. The environment differs completely between developed and developing nations, so we cannot just produce EVs and call it a day. We need to find the right combination of electric, hydrogen, synthetic and bio fuels according to the region and its usage.
So it’s not just about reducing CO2 emissions through electrification and hydrogen use?
Tsukagoshi Ideally, we should not emit CO2 at all, but in cases where that is difficult, it would be better to use sustainable fuel in conjunction with capturing and reusing CO2 to reduce the total environmental impact.
We call it carbon recycling, where we consider CO2 as a resource that can be recirculated.
For example, capturing CO2 as it comes out of factories is one method. But capturing 100% of the CO2 from its source is not practically possible. So we could use Direct Air Capture (DAC) technology to capture the escaped CO2.
We could bury the captured CO2, or convert it to fuel.
Capturing CO2 and converting it to fuel would be a double win.
Tsukagoshi Right. So, we are considering how to utilize algae.
I’ll now hand it over to Nozomi, project leader of Honda DREAMO algae.
Fukushima-san, please tell us about the advantages and possibilities of algae.
Fukushima First, algae is an excellent absorbing agent of CO2.
Between algae researchers, there is a theory that the reason dinosaurs went extinct was indeed algae. When dinosaurs roamed the Earth, there was an explosive increase in algae, which absorbed all the CO2 and suddenly increased oxygen. So, that’s why the dinosaurs went extinct. Seriously though, that’s how much algae can absorb CO2.
How is DREAMO different to algae?
DREAMO has a higher cell division speed, which means it grows faster.
In fact, DREAMO cells divide about once every five hours, so on a good day, it can divide five times in a day. This means one algae divides into two, which then divides into four, and eight, and sixteen, and 32, and so on.
Each gram of algae absorbs 2g of CO2. The more the algae, the more CO2 is absorbed, so DREAMO, which can divide faster, can absorb more CO2.
Some algae only multiply once per month. We were focused on CO2 absorption, so we researched division speed as a priority.
How will the grown algae be utilized?
Fukushima There are many ways the algae can be utilized. Biofuel and bioplastic resins are quite useful for automobile purposes. We are also considering nutrition supplements, health and beauty supplements, and pharmaceuticals.
So, can algae-derived material be used as car components?
Fukushima Yes, bio plastic is definitely in our scope. The factories keep on telling us they want to make car components soon.
Compared to fossil fuel-derived plastic, algae-derived fuels and resins are more expensive.
That is an issue, but we also think that it could be viable as a business by utilizing everything: using its constituents as ethanol, and whatever remains for food and supplements.
There are many possible uses, so we would like to team up with other related industry partners to expand those possibilities even more.
Well, I now see what makes algae so attractive, and its possibilities.
Fukushima Thank you. I’m so glad.
Algae has another advantage. It can be grown in a desert, or areas that suffer from salt damage.
Some biofuels are made from sugar cane or corn, but these cannot be grown when there is high salt content in the land, or in a desert. By using a DAC system that condenses CO2, DREAMO can be cultivated even in a desert or a coastal area.
Our DREAMO is a very tough algae. We have developed a cultivation system that has a higher culture medium reuse efficiency, and can be reused many times over by adding some water (the amount contained in captured algae) and nutrients. We can continue cultivating DREAMO for three months using the same culture medium.
If the land is used to create fuel, instead of being used to create food, we would starve. A big advantage of algae is that we do not have to face that choice.
It was surprising to hear that Honda is involved in algae research.
Fukushima I joined Honda because I wanted to research algae. I’ve always loved algae. I thought Honda’s challenging spirit would allow me to do this research.
I had a different job when I joined Honda, but I always wanted to research algae, so when I had the chance, I made my case to the CEO. He gave me the green light on the spot.
I started the research alone, but we gradually have more members now.
Two years ago, a research group for CO2 capture and conversion was set up. Before ourt team had to make our case about CO2, but now we have strong allies.
It must have been a hard journey.
Fukushima We had absolutely no success for the first three years, and we were nearly closed down. But I didn’t want to stop the research, so I found the departments that would need biofuel, and approached all of them.
The Motorcycle Division was the most responsive to us. They made the case to keep us going, telling top management that they needed the technology, and would definitely use it. They were really cool.
Electrification is progressing in the motorcycle industry, but EV bikes would be more expensive. Especially in countries such as India and Southeast Asia where bikes are a necessity of life, there would not be many who could afford EV bikes. I think biofuel would be useful in preventing people from losing their mobility lifeline to the electrification wave.
Tell us about the future of DREAMO.
Fukushima We work every day to cultivate DREAMO, hot or cold, come rain or shine or snow.
Why? Because DREAMO not only captures CO2, but can be turned into food, and by creating new jobs in developing nations, may be able to help people who are starving or in need.
I believe that since Honda is making cars that emit CO2, it is our responsibility to capture CO2.
With global warming due to more CO2 in the atmosphere, there will be more natural disasters such as droughts, and people in developing nations will suffer. I want to do what I can, so I can be proud in front of anyone.