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Biofuels from Algae – Dr. Richard Sayre Separates the Promise from the Hype

Thomas Schueneman | Wednesday October 22nd, 2008 | 1 Comment

The Donald Danforth Plant Science Center taps Dr. Richard Sayer to study algae-based biofuelLast August Dr. Richard Sayre was named director of the Enterprise Rent-A-Car Institute for Renewable Fuels at the Danforth Plant Science Center. Dr. Sayre is one of the nation’s leading researchers in plant biology and genetics. His past research includes work with BioCassava Plus, a project funded with grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation aimed at alleviating hunger and malnutrition in third world countries.

Danforth Center president Dr. Roger Beachy sees the appointment of Dr. Sayre as a means of significantly advancing the work of the Danforth Center and Institute for Renewable Fuels:

“Attracting a researcher of Dr. Sayre’s caliber speaks volumes about the work we have done over the last decade – and the pioneering work we will do in the future.”

I had an opportunity last month to discuss with Dr. Sayre his new post at the Danforth Center and what he sees as both the promise and hype of algae-based fuels. 

Research into algae as an energy source isn’t new. In 1978 president Jimmy Carter initiated the Aquatic Species Program under the Department of Energy. Early work with algae conversion yielded enormous promise, but that promise hinged on the price of oil. With “Reagan Revolution” turning its back on Carter’s attempt to address long-term energy issues, and the price plunge of crude oil throughout the 80’s and 90’s, the economics for bringing algae-based biofuel to market just wasn’t there. As the 1998 close-out report (pdf) for the Aquatic Species Program stated, biodiesel from algae would only become cost effective if oil prices rose to twice their 1998 levels.

But even in the early days of algae research, using relatively low-tech methods of extracting biofuel from algae, researchers were able to produce energy at a cost equivalent of $65 per barrel. Dr. Sayer told me that advances in technology since then will yield cost efficiency at least 20 times greater than that.

Welcome to the 21st century.  

The third generation of biofuel

The first generation of biofuels represent those derived from feedstocks such as corn; the second generation comes largely from cellulosic sources such as switchgrass and forest residues like sawdust. Dr. Sayre and his team of 10 researchers at the Enterprise Institute complements the larger body of biofuel research done at the Danforth Center by focusing on the “third generation” of algae-based biofuel.

High energy density is both the blessing and the curse of fossil fuel, and one of the principal challenges in developing biofuel to replace it. A challenge that shows the most promise of being met by this third generation of biofuel. Algae-based fuel has an energy density per acre of land greater than that from any other source of biofuel, and herein lies, as Dr. Sayre told me, one of the main areas of promise in his research at the Danforth Center. Of all biofuels, algae-based fuel offers the most potential of replacing fossil fuels on a wide scale to power cars, trucks, and aircraft.

The promise and the hype

Algae likely represents one of the most promising avenues for biofuels development. As Dr. Sayre explained, beyond the advantage of greater energy density, algae does not compete with the food supply, requires less land and water than other biofuel sources, emits less carbon dioxide than burning biofuels from from corn or cellulose, and can be harvested year around.

There isn’t much else going on with algae than simply harvesting sunlight and carbon to grow, to which almost all of the organism’s energy is devoted. Through genetic engineering, algae strains can be developed that are even more energy efficient and adaptable to local growing conditions. Some are engineered specifically to gobble-up stack gases as we wrote of here in a previous post.

Current targets for cost efficiency are now at $45 a barrel, well below that of oil, even with its current slide below $70 a barrel. But costs are still one of the challenges to realizing the full potential of algae-based biofuel. Dr. Sayre told me that at least half the cost of producing biofuels from algae is in the process of harvesting and extracting oil.

Harvesting algae in photobioreactors, says Dr. Sayre, diminish the economic viability of algae, and he sees the best methods for harvesting, not surprisingly, as the simplest – such as using simple paddle wheels in open ponds or devising a means of “milking” the oil from algae, leaving the organism intact.

Beyond these challenges, Dr. Sayer also spoke of the pure hype surrounding algae biofuels. He noted some blogs reporting the potential harvest of fuel produced per unit of land as much as 100 times what is physically possible.

Certainly with the promise comes the hype (to which we can all testify, especially as we live through the election of 2008), but Dr. Sayre remains focused on the true potential – the real promise – of algae to provide a means of eventually replacing fossil fuels and being a key component in the new energy economy.

More on the work done at the Danforth Plant Science Center:

 

 

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