Cover Story


Cover Story: Research and Development of Biofuels

Biofuels in a nutshell

Biofuels can be broadly defined as any liquid or gaseous fuel derived from recently dead biological material or biomass including agricultural products, animal wastes and organic wastes. This distinguishes them from fossil fuels which are derived from long-dead biological material. Examples of biofuels are bioethanol, biodiesel and biogas. Today, the use of biofuels is increasing especially in automobiles.

Benefits of biofuels

As global climate change due to the greenhouse effect becomes a critical environmental problem, the world is making every effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. One of these measures is the use of other clean or renewable energy sources. Burning of fossil fuels generates carbon dioxide which is the major greenhouse gas. Biofuels offer the possibility of producing energy without a net increase of carbon released into the atmosphere because the amount of carbon dioxide absorbed by the plants during their growth is close to the amount of carbon dioxide released in the energy utilization process. Unlike conventional automotive fuels, biofuels do not produce pollutants such as sulfur dioxide and particulates. Moreover, biofuels are biodegradable and nontoxic, and hence cause less soil and groundwater contamination.

Apart from environmental protection aspects, biofuels can be a solution of energy security since fossil fuels are limited in availability. Other benefits of biofuels include giving better engine performance and a more economical means of solid waste treatment.

Algae biofuel

Biofuels were first used after the "energy crisis" in 1970s. They are basically made from crops high in sugar (e.g., sugar cane) or starch (e.g., corn) and vegetable oils (e.g., soybean). They are referred to as "first-generation" biofuels. As more non-food crops such as stalks of wheat, corn, wood and other waste biomass are used for making biofuels, these "second-generation" biofuels rapidly gain support from the industry. Recently scientists have begun to use algae to produce biofuels and algae fuel is referred to as "third-generation" biofuel.

At PolyU, our team of researchers, including Prof. Wing-tak Wong, Prof. Samuel Lo and Dr Joseph Yung from the Department of Applied Biology and Chemical Technology, has been studying the production of algae biofuel and has obtained promising results. As revealed by Prof. Samuel Lo, the use of algae for the production of biofuel has many advantages over other kinds of biomass. Algae biofuel production does not use crops and therefore will not divert food away from the animal or human food chain. There is a saying in Chinese "不與人爭糧,不與糧爭地,不與田爭水,不與畜爭飼,不與地球爭熱帶雨林" and algae are the biomass which best meets these criteria. Moreover, algae grow very rapidly and produce a much higher biofuel yield than all other biomass. This is the major reason for the prevailing algae biofuel research and development.

The kind of algae that PolyU's team is studying is microalgae. Microalgae are microscopic algae typically found in fresh water and marine systems. They are unicellular plants with high oil content and cellulose. There are different kinds of microalgae including diatom and dinoflagellate that can grow very fast. The species of diatom and dinoflagellate which are being studied by PolyU's team grow in sea water and have a greater potential for the production of biofuels because fresh water resources would be saved during the process of production.

In the process, researchers will harvest microalgae from the culture containers, break open their cell bodies, extract the oil contents and carry out the trans-esterification process to yield fatty acid methyl ester (FAME), which is the biodiesel. The remaining biomass after extraction can be further fermented to yield bioethanol.

Currently, PolyU's team is studying the optimal growth conditions of certain species of microalgae with a special interest in the conditions that induce sudden large scale algal bloom (the very rapid growth of algae within a short period of time). Other related research projects include the development of a process for the fast harvest of algae and the development of metal oxide based nano-catalysts for biodiesel synthesis. Since the size of these algae is very small (10 to 20 micrometers) and the culture density is also very low (about 0.3 to 5 grams per liter), harvest of these algae into semi-solid form from algal culture is a time- and energy-consuming process. Our team has devised a breakthrough technique applying chemical flocculants to facilitate the coagulation of algae cell bodies followed by centrifugation for fast recovery. For the synthesis of biodiesel, the traditional method employs strong acid or base as the catalyst for trans-esterification. This limits the production to batch type with the generation of a large amount of wastewater. The team has successfully developed a series of metal based nano-catalysts which can be recovered easily with minimal wastewater generation. Building on its initial success, the team is looking to conduct a pilot growth system of microalgae on campus for the preparation of large-scale production of biodiesel by the industry in the future.

Prospect of biofuels in Hong Kong

Hong Kong relies heavily on fossil fuels as its main source of power generation, and this accounts for a high level of greenhouse gas emissions. As commented by Prof. Samuel Lo, "Hong Kong needs a more balanced energy policy with a reasonable proportion of other clean or renewable energy sources." Apart from solar panels and windmills, biofuels are set to be another source of clean energy that can be used more comprehensively in Hong Kong. Globally speaking, millions of gallons of biodiesel are used in Europe and the US every year. In Hong Kong, waste cooking oil is collected from certain caterers by some recycling companies and biodiesels are produced on a very small scale for industrial use. As there is great potential for the local development and use of biofuels, it is necessary for the Government to demonstrate greater support for the production and application of biofuels locally.


Activities and Development on Campus

Committee on course to drive campus sustainability

As announced by the Senior Management in November 2011, the Campus Sustainability Committee recently formed is ready to engage in promoting sustainability in planning, development and operation of the campus environment and facilities. Other sustainability initiatives in education, research and community service activities will also be developed by the committee. Comprising senior members of PolyU, such as the Vice Presidents, Faculty Deans and Heads of Departments, the committee directly reports to President Prof. Timothy Tong on campus sustainability issues. 

PolyU champions launch of nationwide Green University Network

As its founding member, PolyU joined the China Green University Network in June 2011. This network is currently composed of eight universities―PolyU, Tongji University, Tianjin University, Zhejiang University, South China University of Technology, Chongqin University, Shandong Jianzhu University, Southern Yangtze University, and two research institutes―China Architecture Design & Research Group and ShenZhen Institute of Building Research. The objective of this network is to enhance the communication and collaboration among different universities in creating new technologies for energy conservation, carbon reduction and the sustainable development of green campuses.

Students' green designs showcased at Eco Expo Asia

In October 2011, a selection of green plastic products designed by students of our Department of Mechanical Engineering was showcased at Eco Expo Asia 2011. At the invitation of the Hong Kong Trade Development Council, 10 ingenious product prototypes designed by PolyU students on the theme of "Educating our Next Generation on Green Development–Industry / University Education Programme" were displayed at the international trade fair on environmental protection.


PolyU alumni contributed to promoting a greener Hong Kong

On 27 November 2011, about 1,200 enthusiastic PolyU alumni, together with their friends and family members, planted more than 5,000 shrubs and saplings at Jordan Valley Park, Kowloon with a view to making Hong Kong a greener place.

An annual event held for the seventh time, "Greening Hong Kong by PolyU Alumni 2011" was jointly organized by PolyU, the Federation of PolyU Alumni Associations and the Leisure and Cultural Services Department.

The activity not only helped to promote a greener living environment in Hong Kong, but also served to educate our younger generation on environmental care and sustainable development.

Sharing towards a safer and healthier life

The Annual Experience Sharing Seminar 2011 for Departmental Health & Safety Officers (DHSOs) and Departmental Environmental Coordinators (DECs) was held on 24 November 2011. About 70 representatives from various departments of the University took part in the seminar to share their experience and ideas on safety and health, as well as environmental protection issues.

As one of the guest speakers, Mrs Mimi Cunningham, Director of Human Resources and Sustainability, Hong Kong Jockey Club, shared her experience in the development of a sustainability strategy. With the commitment of its senior management, Hong Kong Jockey Club, together with its stakeholders, strives for the benefits of the community. Participants at the seminar had the chance to share its experience in staff engagement, low-carbon menu, recyclable betting tickets and other social events.


Green concert to raise fund for research on renewable energy

PolyU is the co-organizer of the Konica Minolta Green Concert to raise public awareness of environmental protection and energy conservation, featuring the green image, sports, music and charity. Before the concert was staged on 27 November 2011 at KITEC, a Power Generating Challenge was held from 21 to 26 November 2011 on the PolyU campus. Participating enterprise and school teams generated a total of 40 kW/h of electricity through cycling to coincide with the carbon-free theme of the concert. Money raised at the event was donated to the University to fund its renewable energy research.

PolyU home to the first lighting-study laboratory in Hong Kong

The Department of Building Services Engineering (BSE) of PolyU recently started collaborating with a lighting company, Ledartist, in research on sustainable lighting design. The laboratory for the study of lighting, the first of its kind in Hong Kong, commenced operation on 24 October 2011 in Kwun Tong.

Light pollution has been a serious problem in Hong Kong. The brightness of the bustling city at night is on average 100 times that of the countryside. Dr Chung Tse Ming, Associate Professor of BSE, has estimated that the light pollution in Hong Kong can be reduced by 50% with appropriate lighting design.

Pointing the way towards more energy-efficient buildings

The "Finding the Right Path to Real Building Energy Use Reductions" seminar was held by the Department of Building Services Engineering (BSE) of PolyU on 12 December 2011. Delivered by Prof. William Bahnfleth (professor and Director of the Indoor Environment Center in the Department of Architectural Engineering of Pennsylvania State University), the seminar highlighted issues relating to the achievement of real energy use reductions in buildings.


Resources Conservation

Doing our part to recycle on campus

The Used-items Collection Campaign was held on campus from 22 to 23 November 2011. The campaign was jointly organized by PolyU Staff Association and the Community Recycling Coop of the Industrial Relations Institute. The Institute is a government-approved charitable organization in Sham Shui Po. Many similar campaigns held on campus since 2008 have generated enthusiastic response from PolyU staff and students.

A total of 1,170 kilograms of used items were collected in the above event. All in good condition, collected items included electrical appliances, clothes, shoes, bags, stationery, books, household goods, and bedding and furniture items, etc. They have been sold to the needy at very low prices. The event has not only helped the low-income people in Hong Kong, but also spread the message of cherishing and sharing resources.


Pollution Control

PolyU efforts to keep indoor air clean win recognition

Indoor air quality (IAQ) is an area in which PolyU has long strived to achieve and maintain high standards. This year, the IAQ in all the offices, classrooms and libraries on campus was certified as Good Class under the Government's IAQ Certification Scheme for Offices and Public Places.

Under the scheme, air quality parameters were measured in indoor areas by a government-accredited IAQ certificate-issuing body. The parameters cover temperature, relative humidity, air movement, and concentrations of air contaminants such as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, respirable suspended particulates, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, formaldehyde, total volatile organic compounds, radon and airborne bacteria. For further details of the scheme, please visit:

PolyU transport service for staff goes electric

To promote sustainable living and minimize air pollution on the road, PolyU is using "Mycar" as one of the official vehicles for providing transport service to our staff members. "Mycar" is the electric vehicle developed by PolyU in collaboration with the trade. Subject to the speed limit, this vehicle currently provides transportation service on campus and in nearby areas.



No more idling engines

The Motor Vehicle Idling (Fixed Penalty) Ordinance already came into operation on 15 December 2011. Pursuant to this legislation, drivers are prohibited from leaving their vehicle engines idling for more than 3 minutes in any 60-minute period. Drivers contravening the prohibition are liable to a fine of $320. This legislation applies to all roads including private roads and car parks all year round except for certain exempted conditions. For more details of this legislation, please visit the website of EPD at


News and Tips

PolyU HKCC honoured in U Green Awards 2010

The Hong Kong Community College (Hung Hom Bay Campus) won the Most Favorable Green Campus–Tertiary Institution Category in the U Green Awards 2010 organized by U Magazine. Based on public voting results, U Green Awards honour individuals or institutions that have taken an active role in environmental protection.

Making the best use of waste glass bottles

Recycling is one way to conserve valuable resources and landfill space in Hong Kong. Apart from paper, plastics and metal, glass can also be recycled.

Hong Chi Association launched a Glass Bottle Recycling Campaign to collect waste glass for recycling. Glass bottles collected are delivered to a local plant and crushed for the manufacture of construction material such as pavement bricks.

Collection points are set up throughout Hong Kong, Kowloon and the New Territories at private estates, commercial premises, non-government organizations, Hong Chi service units and various public places. For more details of the collection points, please check out the following website:

With the exception of glass mirrors, lamp bulbs and glass bottles for perfumes or chemicals, glass bottles once used for containing wine, beer, water and soft drinks are acceptable.