Background: Heterotrophic single-cell oils (SCOs) are one potential replacement to lipid-derived biofuels sourced from first-generation crops such as palm oil. However, despite a large experimental research effort in this area, there are only a handful of techno-economic modelling publications. As such, there is little understanding of whether SCOs are, or could ever be, a potential competitive replacement. To help address this question, we designed a detailed model that coupled a hypothetical heterotroph (using the very best possible biological lipid production) with the largest and most efficient chemical plant design possible. Results: Our base case gave a lipid selling price of $1.81/kg for ~ 8,000 tonnes/year production, that could be reduced to $1.20/kg on increasing production to ~ 48,000 tonnes of lipid a year. A range of scenarios to further reduce this cost were then assessed, including using a thermotolerant strain (reducing the cost from $1.20 to $1.15/kg), zero-cost electricity ($ 1.12/kg), using non-sterile conditions ($1.19/kg), wet extraction of lipids ($1.16/kg), continuous production of extracellular lipid ($0.99/kg) and selling the whole yeast cell, including recovering value for the protein and carbohydrate ($0.81/kg). If co-products were produced alongside the lipid then the price could be effectively reduced to $0, depending on the amount of carbon funnelled away from lipid production, as long as the co-product could be sold in excess of $1/kg. Conclusions: The model presented here represents an ideal case that which while not achievable in reality, importantly would not be able to be improved on, irrespective of the scientific advances in this area. From the scenarios explored, it is possible to produce lower cost SCOs, but research must start to be applied in three key areas, firstly designing products where the whole cell is used. Secondly, further work on the product systems that produce lipids extracellularly in a continuous processing methodology or finally that create an effective biorefinery designed to produce a low molecular weight, bulk chemical, alongside the lipid. All other research areas will only ever give incremental gains rather than leading towards an economically competitive, sustainable, microbial oil.

Original languageEnglish
Article number57
JournalBiotechnology for Biofuels
Issue number1
Early online date4 Mar 2021
Publication statusPublished - 31 Dec 2021


  • Lipid
  • Single cell oil
  • TEA
  • Techno-economic analysis

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biotechnology
  • Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology
  • Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Environment
  • Energy(all)
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law


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