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Algae Based Fuel Is Not A Silver Bullet

Gina-Marie Cheeseman
| Tuesday February 23rd, 2010 | 7 Comments

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.


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  • ExxonMobil

    At ExxonMobil we agree there isn’t a silver bullet when it comes to meeting the world’s growing energy needs while also reducing the impact of energy use on the environment. All economic energy sources will be needed, and biofuels from algae is just one of these potential solutions.

    We also know that taking algae bio-fuels from the lab to broad commercial scale to the market place will be a tremendous undertaking, not without challenges; and it could require decades of work. But algae shows a lot of potential as it can yield greater volumes of biofuel per acre of production than crop plant-based biofuel sources. For example, algae could yield more than 2,000 gallons of fuel per acre of production per year as opposed to alternatives such as corn which would produce only 250 gallons per acre per year.

    Algae based biofuels also offer some other important environmental advantages. It can be grown using land and water unsuitable for plant or food production, which means we're not competing with the food supply. And growing algae actually consumes carbon dioxide.

    While significant work and years of research and development still must be completed we think algae-based fuels could help meet the world’s growing demand for transportation fuel while reducing greenhouse gas emissions

    You can find out more at http://www.exxonmobil.com/algae.

    Adrienne Fleming, ExxonMobil

  • http://www.envint.ca/ Martin Tampier

    I agree with the University of Virginia researchers. Too much pumping of water, too much fertilizer, too much personnel required. Current algae concepts don't work economically and are hardly as good as first-generation corn ethanol in terms of their GHG or energy balance. There needs to be a completely different concept, which may be called the 'new generation' – but I haven't seen that yet. See our own detailed 2009 report on the subject: http://www.bcic.ca/media-and-press/publications… (January 2009). Of course, time will tell. But I think we could save hundreds of millions of $$ by rooting out concepts from the beginning if they can be shown now never to result in cost-effective biofuels production, such as bioreactors.

  • Patrick

    Martin, are you saying that bioreactors dont work ??????

  • http://www.envint.ca/ Martin Tampier

    Of course they work, technically. They are in use today. They don't work, economically, to produce something of low value, such as biofuels. You can have a high-value co-product, but the problem then is to not saturate the market for this co-product, and that's a stretch with large-scale algae production.

  • joe

    There is no silver bullet for the oil problem. Like the Exxon rep said, biofuels will be just one part a solution. Personally I think we'll come to rely on electricity more, and biofuels will help cover the gap (and also help clean up industrial waste?).

    • mo

      Why is it that everyone seems to think that we will come to rely on electricity? Don't you realize that most electricity is made by coal fired powerplants which in most cases have just as much emissions as oil. Also Oil is used in the production of many other products that we use in our daily lives like asphalt, plastics, and complex polymers (including things like the polyester in your favorite clothing) that most people dont realize would exist if we were to stop utilizing oil.

  • mo

    Why is it that everyone seems to think that we will come to rely on electricity? Don't you realize that most electricity is made by coal fired powerplants which in most cases have just as much emissions as oil. Also Oil is used in the production of many other products that we use in our daily lives like asphalt, plastics, and complex polymers (including things like the polyester in your favorite clothing) that most people dont realize would exist if we were to stop utilizing oil.

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