Algae Based Fuel Is Not A Silver Bullet

Algae as fuel is the latest biofuel rage. On January 14 the Department of Energy (DOE) announced an investment of $44 million in algae-based fuels. Last summer, ExxonMobil Corp. announced a partnership with scientist Craig Venter’s Synthetic Genomics to develop algae based fuels.

However, there is a problem with algae-based biofuel.On January 19 the Environmental Science & Technology published a report by University of Virginia in Charlottesville which researched energy costs and environmental impacts of producing algae for fuel. Researchers then compared the results to corn, canola and switchgrass. The report found that algae farms need to use less fertilizer and freshwater.

Study co-author Andres Clarens said algae farming is still in its infancy. “Corn and canola we’ve been growing for a long time. We’ve gotten pretty good at it.” He added, “Nutrients are going to be the limiting factor. We’re humans. We need to eat dinner, and you can’t expect to have algae that provides a bunch of energy without feeding it nutrients.”

John Sheehan of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, former head of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s algae research program, said, “There aren’t any silver bullets.” Sheehan added, “The energy problem is the most fundamental, most difficult challenge we have faced for a long time. After 150 years of punching a hole in the ground and getting fuel to come out as a liquid, it is not going to easy.”

Mary Rosenthal, executive director of the Algae Biomass Association, responded to the report:

We appreciate and support the interest in algae among the scientific community, and agree that examination of the life cycle impacts of algae for fuel processes is important. However, we expect such research to be based on current information, valid assumptions and proven facts. Unfortunately, this report falls short of those standards with its use of decades old data and errant assumptions of current production and refining technologies.

“It’s absolutely right if you think of it as last generation algae,” said Riggs Eckelberry, chief executive of the algae biofuel company OriginOil,  of California. “But we’ve got to make this stuff viable now.”

“Identifying wastewater is a homerun for algae production, probably the best there is,” he said. “There are lots of nitrates, and algae love dirty water — they can remove toxins, such as medical drugs from that water.”

Clarens said algae companies did not provide recent data, and he invited companies to share more recent data. “Everybody talks about the next generation – what is the next generation?” he said. “I’d be happy to model it if somebody produces it.”

Rosenthal responded by calling Clarens, and he said there may be a follow-up study if algae companies make data available. “It sounds like that could happen, where we could work together and produce more research,” he said.

Gina-Marie Cheeseman

Gina-Marie is a freelance writer and journalist armed with a degree in journalism, and a passion for social justice, including the environment and sustainability. She writes for various websites, and has made the 75+ Environmentalists to Follow list by Mashable.com.