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Algae Biofuels Dealt a Blow by BP funded EBI

The Energy Biosciences Institute -- funded by a $500 million grant from oil giant BP -- has released a "technoeconomic" report meant to cast a discouraging pall over the future of algal biofuels, chemicals, and plastics production. It is easy to see why BP might want to hold off the coming deluge of algal fuels -- at least for another few decades. There are still a lot of profits to be made in the old-fashioned crude oil business, once the lords of energy starvation are finally removed from office.

It is also true -- as the report states -- that growing pure algal monocultures for oil extraction is a difficult and costly enterprise, likely to require several more breakthroughs before becoming profitable and capable of scaling to industrial size. But did the report actually address the relevant and likely timeline for the early and middle evolution of algal energy, fuels, plastics, and chemicals? It does not appear that the authors of the report even came close to a realistic assessment of the likely evolution of algae for energy, fuel, plastic, or chemicals. Here's one look at EBI's report:

A new report from the Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI) in Berkeley projects that development of cost-competitive algae biofuel production will require much more long-term research, development and demonstration. In the meantime, several non-fuel applications of algae could serve to advance the nascent industry.

'Even with relatively favourable and forward-looking process assumptions (from cultivation to harvesting to processing), algae oil production with microalgae cultures will be expensive and, at least in the near-to-mid-term, will require additional income streams to be economically viable,' write authors Nigel Quinn and Tryg Lundquist of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), which is a partner in the BP-funded institute.

Their conclusions stem from a detailed techno-economic analysis of algal biofuels production. The project is one of the over 70 studies on bioenergy now being pursued by the EBI and its scientists at the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, and Berkeley Lab.

... Four key resources (suitable climate, water, flat land and carbon dioxide) must all be available in one location for optimal algal biomass production. The authors state that despite the need for all four resources, algal oil production technology has the potential to produce several billion gallons annually of renewable fuel in the U.S. However, achieving this goal, particularly at competitive capital and operating costs, will require further research and development.

The EBI report focuses on algal biofuels produced in conjunction with wastewater treatment as a promising cost-effective strategy to fast-track development of a practical production process. Besides providing the needed water and nutrients, use of wastewater in algae production provides the potential for income from the treatment service provided.

The areas the study identified as essential for R and D are in both the biology and engineering fields. The ability to cultivate stable cultures under outdoor conditions, while achieving both high productivities and oil content, is still to be developed. Despite the well-known rapid growth rate of algae, increasing the volume of algae oil produced per unit of surface area per year is a crucial goal. Oil-rich algae strains that are biologically competitive with contaminating wild species and that consistently grow well in various climates are needed. Other key steps to be improved are low-cost harvesting of microscopic algae cells and the extraction of their oil content, as well as dealing with the biomass residue remaining after oil extraction. 
The study suggests that it will take 10 years just to conclude their studies on the viability of large scale algal fuels. How convenient! 10 years is the time period for BP's funding grant to EBI. ;-)

But seriously, just a quick glance at a summary such as the one linked above shows a number of glaring deficiencies in EBI's analysis.

1. Near and mid-term successful utilisation for algal energy and fuels will depend upon algal biomass -- not algal oils. It will indeed take 10 years to develop economic and scalable means of algal oil extraction and diesel production from algal oil.

2. Algal monocultures are not necessary for rapid production of algal biomass. In fact, multiple synergistic cultures are apt to produce higher quantities of mass more quickly.

3. There is no shortage of seawater and relatively flat coastal plains for production of synergistic algal symbiots for rapid algal biomass production.

4. There is no shortage of CO2, when algal biomass is the object -- rather than algal oil -- of algal energy, fuels, plastics, and chemical production. CO2 is a byproduct of the entire operation.

5. Algal species bloom wildly under a range of climates -- depending upon the species combinations and the chemical and biological environment within these species happen to be growing. Different regions will naturally utilise different groupings of algal species and wastewater influent to suit the climate.

6. The topic of algal growth factors which trigger algal blooms has not been exhausted by any means. While simple chemicals such as phosphorus and CO2 act to stimulate algal growth, no doubt a large number of other less bulky and more subtle growth stimulants remain to be discovered.

A number of other problems hidden within the author's assumptions and methods will need to be teased out and analysed. But clearly the issue takes on an entirely different light when looking at algal feedstock as a hardy and prolific biomass rather than as an oil grown from fragile monocultures.

By. Al Fin

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  • Durwood M. Dugger on January 17 2012 said:
    Your assumption that BP gains economically by interfering with biofuels is very naive. BP is a leading producer of natural gas which is used through the Haber process to make nitrogen for NPK fertilizers essential to all at scale biofuel development including algae. BP also stands to gain from the rise in fuel consumption by related industries which it controls through the price of fuels such as the mining of phosphates. Both the cost of phosphate and and phosphate reserves are determined by the cost of fuel for mining them. As fuel prices rise the amount of economically minable phosphate reserves decrease. Thus the confluence of peak oil (whenever it occurs) on peak phosphate - both have an estimated reserves now of about 50 years.

    So the big problem with biofuels is economic, not technical - that they are dependent on the petroleum - the commodity they are trying to replace. At least three major mass balance analysis studies (U of Kansas, MIT, RAND Corp.) of biofuels have - in addition to the one you site have concluded that biofuels - including algae are neither renewable, or sustainable and that a significant biofuel industry would compete directly with food crops for NPK fertilizers. Biofuels aren't a solution to petroleum replacement - by enlarge - biofuels are petroleum. You might also note that Exxon is similarly cutting back on biofuel funding for apparently the same reasons.

    Algae certainly has a role in the human future, but industrial biofuel production isn't likely one of them. I suggest you read the following refs:







  • Joseph F. Mitsch on January 17 2012 said:
    Algal oil is here to stay and the military industrial complex will be the main force behind algal r&D and even practical use. Do not look to the private sector they are to timid to invest in anything right now. The U.S. Navy is doing more to develop the Alga oil industry than most people know. Copy cat Navies around the world will attempt their own Algae oil industry, thank you Iran.

    Do not lament the slow pace of private investment, they are only waiting for the tax payer to do all of the heavy lifting like DARPA did for the Internet.

    The navy plans to test more ships on algal fuel next year as part of its "green fleet" initiative and has pledged to cut 50% of its conventional oil use a year by 2020. Maersk hopes to achieve similar cuts in the same time. 50 % reduction of...Maersk uses more than $6bn of bunker fuel a year for its 1,300 ships, and the US navy, the world's biggest single user of marine fuels, burns around 40m barrels of oil a year. So there is 20 million barrels of Algae oil....you bet there will be lots of R&D.
  • Non-linear thinker on January 18 2012 said:
    Using linear thinking and extrapolation is not the optimal way to imagine the future. Most, if not all, true breakthroughs (think about the Internet explosion based on packet data vs. circuit data networks and a 10x reduction in cost) happen with quantum leaps of technology-enabled cost reductions, followed by mass adoption that ensure another 10x cost reduction.

    Algae biofuels will be developed with technology that is not based on the 1950`s water management, but rather on the latest scientific theories, and will suprise us all when this comes to light. Soon...
  • fat algae on January 18 2012 said:
    Solydra story is opening a huge can of worms at the DOE LOAN GURANTEE LOAN PROGRAM. Its not just about the Solar loan guarantee program. Look at all the millions in fees collected by the DOE LOAN GUARANTEE PROGRAM with projects 20% completion. Also, an audit needs to be done on DOE GRANTS to individuals from the DOE that are now working in provate industry. There needs to be an audit on each individual loan program for amount funded and results!

    The US taxpayer has spent over $2.5 billion dollars over the last 50 years on algae research. To date, nothing has been commercialized by any algae researcher.

    The REAL question is: Does the DOE BIOMASS PROGRAM really want the US off of foreign oil or do they want to continue funding more grants for algae research to keep algae researchers employed at univesities for another 50 years?

    In business, you are not given 50 years to research anything. The problem is in the Congressional Mandate that says the DOE can only use taxpayer monies on algae research, NOT algae production in the US. So far, research has not got the US off of foreign oil for the last 50 years!
  • tired of oil companys running the country & world on January 18 2012 said:
    the previous writer talks of the solydra scandal & says its time for an investigation, I agree but instead of investigating a company that went out of business, how about we start investigating the oil companys. $535 million to solydra doesnt sound like much when you understand that today, yesterday, tommoro, & the next day & the day after that we will give the oil & gas companys one billion dollars every day in 2008 the same year everything collapsed we gave those corporations $450 billion. how come none of the tv net works want to talk about that ?. Well it wouldnt have anything to do with all those neat ads would it where BP sits on a beach in the gulf of texico cooking up weenies over a big tar ball fire? Im sick & tyred of these dam oil companys, there paying off most of the crooks in washington paying off the elections writing energy policy enviormental policy, defence policy & have taken over the world its time for americans to wake up! And also the previous writer fails to know that solazmes already sold the navy 100,000 gallions of algae fuel. Algae already happening!

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