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Why are we not Drowning in Algae Biofuel?

By Environmental News Network | Tue, 16 October 2012 22:16 | 7

Producing biofuels from algae is a concept dating back to the oil shocks of the 1970s. At the time, the US Government created an algae research program which analyzed the thousands of strains of algae in hope of offsetting the shortage of fossil fuels. In 1996, the Department of Energy shut down the program, concluding that algal biofuels could not compete with fossil fuels in cost. One decade later, President Bush declared that the US was addicted to oil. After that, the algae research program was started again, and capital began flowing into dozens of algae startups. So where is all the algae biofuel? Where is the "green crude" that was hyped up with so much potential? The answer is the same now as it was in 1996. Algae biofuel is expensive to produce and fossil fuel prices are still sufficiently low-cost.

According to a 2010 research study by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, producing fuel from algae grown in ponds at scale would cost between $240 and $332 per barrel. The current price of a barrel of crude oil is only about $92, no comparison.

Right now, the only hope for algae taking off is for crude price to go up. The algae industry has suffered from "fantastic promotions, bizarre cultivation systems, and absurd productivity projections," according to John Benemann, industry consultant and Ph.D. biochemist with over 30 years' experience working with algae. "Algae biofuels cannot compete with fossil energy based on simple economics... The real issue is that an oil field will deplete eventually, while an algae pond would be sustainable indefinitely."

Even with its economic disadvantage, it is hard to overlook algae's amazing potential. It is incredibly easy to grow and grow quickly. Any homeowner with a pool can attest to that. In days, algae reaches maturity, thriving in all waters: fresh, brackish, and saline. Algae is a terrific absorber of the greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide. They can be grown in arid and semi-arid areas so as not to compete with food crops for land.

Related Article: Drought Be Damned: First Results in for 'Tolerant' Corn

Most importantly, they yield more oil than other biomass feedstocks. In fact, it produces up to 30 times more oil per unit of land compared to oilseed crops like palm and soy.

The problem is the costs in the systems used to cultivate algae, harvest it, and extract its oil. Startups around the world are working on these problems, but the R&D is slow going. These companies are trying all different things, looking for the most cost-effective method. Some grow their algae in ponds, others in clear plastic containers. Some grow their algae in sunlight, others feed them sugars instead. Some use conventional breeding, others use genetic engineering.

The upshot is that from all the experimenting taking place, we will inevitably produce the world's first designer oil. Algae can be grown for a variety of purposes, from transportation fuel to oils for food, from oils for personal care products to industrial lubricants, perhaps even plastics.

Over time, algae costs will go down and fossil fuels will go up. Some algae startup may even come through with a real game-changing breakthrough. Then, hopefully one day, the age of green crude may begin.

By. David A Gabel of ENN.com

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Company: Environmental News Network

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  • Durwood M. Dugger on October 17 2012 said:
    Algae biofuels, any biofuels only have a chance at providing any significant offset to petroleum, if we can find a sustainable supply of NPK fertilizer. Worse, all current NPK fertilizer production is absolutely dependent on petroleum. Yeah, the stuff biofuel is supposed replace. Ever wonder why several major petroleum companies are supporting biofuels? The petroleum companies are the primary beneficiaries of the increased fertilizer demand and sales for biofuel production. What a vicious circle.
    We can make biofuels from waste products, but that isn't a complete answer. For biofuel feasibility and sustainability it's about how much biofuels could be made from wastes. Current estimates are that we might offset between 1-3% of our petroleum consumption with waste generated biofuels. However, revamping our waste infrastructure to support recycling is estimated to cost several trillion dollars and many decades to put in place.
    To provide any significant offset to petroleum biofuel production requires large amounts NPK fertilizers same as our food supply - and therein lies the rub. Biofuel fertilizer demand competes directly with food production fertilizer demand. Experts estimate a global biofuel industry could create four times more NPK demand than our current NPK food production demand. In less than a 100 years we have consumed nearly all of the cheap easily accessible phosphates for our NPK/food needs. Even after 40+ years of intensive phosphorus recycling research, there are no economic substitutes for those rock phosphates we now depend on - and remember you BIO 101 - nothing grows without phosphorus. Experts estimate by recycling our wastes to recover phosphorus we might offset less than 3% of our current rock phosphate demand through waste recycling. Recycling a good idea, but the numbers just aren't there - and while research should continue, we should align our expectations and planning with current realities.
    In 2011, according to the USDA Fertilizer Import/Export summary we imported 52% of our NPK fertilizers and 15% of the required phosphate components came from... Morocco. How, here's the real rub for biofuel feasibility and sustainability: How are we better off importing our fertilizers than we are foreign oil? If you think the foreign countries bent the US over the ole oil barrel for our SUV fuels, wait to you see what they do when we rely on them for out food and biofuel production fertilizers. How's that for intelligent foreign policy strategy? What? Are being led by total idiots?
  • NAA on October 17 2012 said:
    No Matter Who Wins The Presidency, Addiction to Foreign Oil Will Still Be a Problem
    This addiction is not a Republican or a Democratic issue.

    It's an American problem, and algae is one solution. As former Shell CEO John Hoffmeister asked, "Why do we need political permission to get off of foreign oil?"


    FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

    PRLog (Press Release) - Oct 13, 2012 -
    The Environmental Protection Agency says that, so long as you follow the existing rules and regulations, they have no issues with algae production – it’s the companies that think they can break the rules and then blame Washington for their failures that are creating the problems we hear about.

    The Department of Energy's Biomass Program has been misguided for over 50 years – at the expense of the taxpayer. Instead of recognizing that the rooms full of algae technologies would have no value unless they could scale up for commercial production, they funded more and more research projects that made the technologies they just paid for obsolete!

    Grant recipients don’t like the National Algae Association – we expect results, not excuses. When you read about the third or fourth tranche of financing from the same group of investors, it usually means that they’ve listened to all the hype and now they’re too heavily invested, financially and morally, to allow the borrower to seek bankruptcy protection.

    We don’t need to be paying lobbyists for these efforts – the rules are in place and need to be followed, not changed before they’re implemented because ‘it’s too hard’ to follow them. And government funds should not be used to finance projects that they do not understand and/or do not follow their own existing rules and regulations.

    In these turbulent economic times and after over 50 years of algae research, why are so many researchers from the same universities, many of the same NREL and DOE Biomass employees, attending algae conferences using federal grant monies? What are the results? The taxpayer continues to hear that algae production is too expensive, cannot be done and we are years away from commercialization. If these funds were spent on deployment and not hotels, we would be much further along by now!

    NAA is proud of its efforts in promoting collaboration between the research community and the commercial algae production industry. Without any grant money from the government, NAA has been successful in promoting collaboration between researchers and producers, building commercial-scale algae production systems and testing them in a commercial environment. Many people want to get into commercial algae production but cannot afford the time or expense to attend algae conferences, so NAA will be announcing a new online commercial algae production certification course at our next event. This course will keep everyone up to date on commercial algae production methods and increase their skill set.

    The algae technologies that are sitting on shelves at universities, NREL and the DOE will never have any value. They must be proven in a commercial environment. We need a Manhattan-like algae project bringing the researchers, government, industry and investment together to get the job done. NAA is changing the conversation from all research to commercialization and deployment. In order to get off of foreign oil, become energy independent and create new jobs – “we all need to be working together”. NAA has the platform to make this happen! Let's put all the egos aside and finally get the job done!
  • Dai Jones on October 17 2012 said:
    I believe that the author may have got the numbers slightly wrong. There again I may not have my facts right, but I believe I do. Companies are now producing a ton of algal biomass at $240. A ton of algal biomass is approximately 4 BOE for $60 a barrel.
  • MrColdWaterOfRealityMan on October 18 2012 said:
    Algae will continue to be no more than a minor energy player. It is merely an inefficient solar energy collector whose output is chemical rather than electrical, and it requires not just the same amount of sunlight that a solar panel would, but a rather elaborate life support system as well. While the direct conversion to chemical energy gives it some advantage over other systems, the scaling of support requirements make it completely untenable as a large scale power source.
  • John Milledge on October 19 2012 said:
    The current concerns about fuel cost and global warming have resulted in micro-algal biomass cultivation currently receiving a great deal of attention as a potential source of biofuel and there are now over 50 algal biofuel companies, but none, as yet, producing commercial-scale quantities at competitive prices and the process of producing fuel from algae would appear to be currently uneconomic [1, 2]. Estimates for the reduction in cost of production needed for algal biofuel to become economic vary from a reduction of a factor of five up to a reduction of two orders of magnitude [3-5].
    Bioenergy was initially seen as an “easy solution” to energy and environmental issues as the organic carbon within the biofuel was produced via photosynthesis from carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. When biofuel is burnt the carbon dioxide is returned or recycled to the atmosphere. If the amount of carbon dioxide used in the production of bioenergy is equal to the amount released into the atmosphere there would be no increase or decrease in the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, a situation often called carbon neutral. Unfortunately, it is now understood that the effect of the production and use of biofuels is more complex. Biomass growth requires not only solar energy, but energy for planting, harvesting, processing, transport and production of fertilisers. These energy inputs and the resultant greenhouse gas emissions can be considerable and in some cases the energy may greater than the energy in the fuel. Energy return on energy investment (EROEI or EROI) is the ratio of the energy produced compared to the amount of energy invested in its production. This simple ratio can be useful in assessing the viability of fuels. A ratio of less than one indicates that more energy is used than produced and a EORI of 3 has been suggested as the minimum that is sustainable [6]. “Energy balance EORI or net energy gain is central to any evaluation of biofuels” [7].
    A number of Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs) have been carried out and indicate the production of algal energy and biodiesel in particular are marginal in terms of energy balance, global warming potential (GWP) and economically [8]. A recent LCA on the production of biodiesel and biogas from two species of micro-algae found that even with “the most optimistic assumptions” there were very large energy deficits in the production of micro-algal biofuels [9].
    LCAs depend on modelling assumption and this is particularly true of micro-algal biofuel system where there is a lack of long term full scale operational data. Although it important to distinguish between modelling assumption and modelling errors [10] the assumption used in many LCAs have been and can be challenged leading to a considerable degree of uncertainty in the validity of micro-algal biofuel LCAs. Not only have a wide range of assumption been used in LCAs of micro-algal biofuel, but a variety of functional units and boundary conditions have been used. In what was termed a Meta-model of Algae Bio-Energy Life Cycles (MABEL) the data in six LCAs was converted to a standard functional unit of 1000 L biodiesel, together with a set of standardised boundary conditions for the production of biodiesel, with the co-production of bioelectricity from anaerobic digestion of residual non-lipid biomass [11]. The study found, from the 6 LCAs, that the net energy ratio, the inverse of energy return on energy investment, ranged from one, no return on the energy invested, to a two with twice the energy output as biodiesel and electricity generated by anaerobic digestion as was invested in the production process [11].
    Nearly 70 years of sometimes intensive research on micro-algae fuels and over two billion dollars of private investment since 2000[13] have not produced economically viable commercial-scale quantities of algal fuel and suggests that there are major technical and engineering difficulties to be resolved before economic algal biofuel production can be achieved.


    1. Pienkos, P.T. and A. Darzins, The Promise and Challenges of Microalgal-derived Biofuels. Biofuels, Bioprod, Bioref, 2009: p. 431-440.
    2. St John, J. Algae Company Number 56: Plankton Power. Greentech Media 2009 08 04 10/12/2009]; Available from: http://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/plankton-power-another-algae-biodiesel-maker-emerges.
    3. Wijffels, R.H., Potential of Sponges and Microalgae for Marine Biotechnology. . Trends in Biotechnology, 2007. 26(1): p. 26-31.
    4. Kovalyova, S. European body sees algae fuel industry in 10-15 years. Reuters 2009 6 3 03/06/2009]; Available from: http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE5526HY20090603.
    5. Bruton, T., et al., A Review of the Potential of Marine Algae as a Source of Biofuel in Ireland, 2009, Sustainable Energy Ireland: Dublin.
    6. Clarens, A.F., et al., Environmental Impacts of Algae-Derived Biodiesel and Bioelectricity for Transportation. Environmental Science & Technology, 2011: p. nu
  • john milledge on October 19 2012 said:
    There are now over 50 algal biofuel companies, but none, as yet, producing commercial-scale quantities at competitive prices and the process of producing fuel from algae would appear to be currently uneconomic 1, 2. Estimates for the reduction in cost of production needed for algal biofuel to become economic vary from a reduction of a factor of five up to a reduction of two orders of magnitude 3-5.
    Bioenergy was initially seen as an “easy solution” to energy and environmental issues as the organic carbon within the biofuel was produced via photosynthesis from carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. When biofuel is burnt the carbon dioxide is returned or recycled to the atmosphere. If the amount of carbon dioxide used in the production of bioenergy is equal to the amount released into the atmosphere there would be no increase or decrease in the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, a situation often called carbon neutral. Unfortunately, it is now understood that the effect of the production and use of biofuels is more complex. Biomass growth requires not only solar energy, but energy for planting, harvesting, processing, transport and production of fertilisers. These energy inputs and the resultant greenhouse gas emissions can be considerable and in some cases the energy may greater than the energy in the fuel. Energy return on energy investment (EROEI or EROI) is the ratio of the energy produced compared to the amount of energy invested in its production. This simple ratio can be useful in assessing the viability of fuels. A ratio of less than one indicates that more energy is used than produced and a EORI of 3 has been suggested as the minimum that is sustainable 6. “Energy balance EORI or net energy gain is central to any evaluation of biofuels” 7.
    A number of Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs) have been carried out and indicate the production of algal energy and biodiesel in particular are marginal in terms of energy balance, global warming potential (GWP) and economically 8. A recent LCA on the production of biodiesel and biogas from two species of micro-algae found that even with “the most optimistic assumptions” there were very large energy deficits in the production of micro-algal biofuels 9.
    LCAs depend on modelling assumption and this is particularly true of micro-algal biofuel system where there is a lack of long term full scale operational data. Although it important to distinguish between modelling assumption and modelling errors 10 the assumption used in many LCAs have been and can be challenged leading to a considerable degree of uncertainty in the validity of micro-algal biofuel LCAs. Not only have a wide range of assumption been used in LCAs of micro-algal biofuel, but a variety of functional units and boundary conditions have been used. In what was termed a Meta-model of Algae Bio-Energy Life Cycles (MABEL) the data in six LCAs was converted to a standard functional unit of 1000 L biodiesel, together with a set of standardised boundary conditions for the production of biodiesel, with the co-production of bioelectricity from anaerobic digestion of residual non-lipid biomass 11. The study found, from the 6 LCAs, that the net energy ratio, the inverse of energy return on energy investment, ranged from one, no return on the energy invested, to a two with twice the energy output as biodiesel and electricity generated by anaerobic digestion as was invested in the production process 11.
    Nearly 70 years of sometimes intensive research on micro-algae fuels and over two billion dollars of private investment since 200012 have not produced economically viable commercial-scale quantities of algal fuel and suggests that there are major technical and engineering difficulties to be resolved before economic algal biofuel production can be achieved.
    1. P. T. Pienkos and A. Darzins, Biofuels, Bioprod, Bioref, 431-440 (2009).
    2. J. St John, in Greentech Media (Greentech Media Inc, 2009).
    3. R. H. Wijffels, Trends in Biotechnology 26 (1), 26-31 (2007).
    4. S. Kovalyova, in Reuters (Thomson Reuters, 2009).
    5. T. Bruton, H. Lyons, Y. Lerat , M. Stanley and M. B. Rasmussen, 2009.
    6. A. F. Clarens, H. Nassau, E. P. Resurreccion, M. A. White and L. M. Colosi, Environ. Sci. Technol., null-null (2011).
    7. D. A. Walker, Annals of Applied Biology 156 (3), 319-327 (2010).
    8. S. A. Scott, M. P. Davey, J. S. Dennis, I. Horst, C. J. Howe, D. J. Lea-Smith and A. G. Smith, Current Opinion in Biotechnology 21 (3), 277-286 (2010).
    9. L. F. Razon and R. R. Tan, Appl. Energy 88 (10), 3507-3514 (2011).
    10. A. F. Clarens, E. P. Resurreccion, M. A. White and L. M. Colosi, Environ. Sci. Technol. 45 (2), 834-834 (2011).
    11. X. Liu, A. F. Clarens and L. M. Colosi, in LCA XI Conference (Chicago, 2011).
    12. R. F. Service, Science 333, 1238-1239 (2011).
  • SA Kiteman on November 08 2012 said:
    Want a replacement for petroleum? Nuclear ammonia is the best option I've seen so far.

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