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Algal Biofuel is Currently Unsustainable, but Technology can Change That

“Algal biofuels are not quite ready for prime time,” says Joel Cuello, co-author of a new report evaluating the alternative fuel’s current drawbacks and its potential.

Increasing the production of biofuels made from algae to meet at least 5 percent of US transportation fuel needs would place unsustainable demands on energy, water, and nutrients, according to the report from the National Research Council, or NRC.

However, these concerns are not a definitive barrier for future production, and innovations that would require research and development could help realize algal biofuels’ full potential.

“In other words, if scaled up today, the resources that have to go into production would not be sustainable,” says NRC committee member Joel Cuello, a professor in the University of Arizona department of agricultural and biosystems engineering.

“However, in our report we say that this not a show stopper, because there are technology combinations that can be designed and developed to make the production process more environmentally sustainable.”

For algal biofuels to contribute a significant amount of fuel for transportation in the future, the committee says, research and development would be needed to improve algal strains, test additional strains for desired characteristics, advance the materials and methods for growing and processing algae into fuels, and reduce the energy requirements for multiple stages of production.

What will it take?

Biofuels derived from algae and cyanobacteria are possible alternatives to petroleum-based fuels and could help the US meet its energy security needs and reduce greenhouse gas emissions such as carbon dioxide.

Algal biofuels offer potential advantages over biofuels made from land plants, including algae’s ability to grow on non-croplands in cultivation ponds of freshwater, salt water, or wastewater.

Related Article: Increasing the Efficiency of Platinum Use in Fuel Cells

The number of companies developing algal biofuels has been increasing, and several oil companies are investing in them. Given these and other interests, the National Research Council was asked to identify sustainability issues associated with large-scale development of algal biofuels.

Cuello says if current methods were to be scaled up to meet the 5-percent goal, algal biofuel production would consume too much water, energy, and nutrients to be environmentally sustainable at this point. Additional concerns voiced in the report are the amount of land area needed for algae ponds and uncertainties in greenhouse gas emissions over the production life cycle.

“For example, to produce those 10 billion gallons of biofuel, you’d need about 33 billion gallons of water,” Cuello says. “That is a huge concern.”

“Resource consumption is very dependent on which technology components you combine and how you combine them to constitute a biofuel production pathway that is both environmentally sustainable and economically viable,” he explains.

Most of the current development involves growing selected strains of algae in open ponds or closed photobioreactors using various water sources, collecting and extracting the oil from algae, or collecting fuel precursors secreted by algae, and then processing the oil into fuel.

All the factors

“Our report brings awareness to address the concerns of making production not only commercially viable but environmentally sustainable,” he says. “In my opinion, you can’t divorce the two. As a matter of fact, most efforts aiming at lowering the production costs is to make the process more sustainable in terms of energy, water, and nutrient use.”

Related Article: New Pressure Cooking Technique Turns Algae to Crude Oil in a Minute

To produce 10 billion gallons of algal biofuels, 6 million to 15 million metric tons of nitrogen and 1 million to 2 million metric tons of phosphorus would be needed each year if the nutrients are not recycled, the report says. These requirements represent 44 percent to 107 percent of the total nitrogen use and 20 percent to 51 percent of the total phosphorus use in the US.

“The most effective way of addressing the challenges our report identified would be in an integrative approach addressing all the factors together—water, nutrients, energy, land use, and greenhouse-gas emissions,” Cuello says.


“There is the biological component—the algae, and the engineering aspect—cultivating, harvesting, and processing ,“ he adds, “and there has to be a conversation between the two. For example, you could have high-yielding algae that excrete the oil or its precursor, which would eliminate the need for harvesting the algae biomass in the first place.”

Similarly, by using wastewater from agricultural or municipal sources to grow and feed the algae, one could address both the water and the nutrient issue, and lower the energy demands in the process as well.

Cuello points out that the report should not come as a surprise to experts. “All of the federally funded research projects on algal biofuels are, at least indirectly, already working to address these concerns that we identified and explicitly stated because people have been aware of these challenges—though perhaps not with the degree of process integration that is required.”

The report was sponsored by the US Department of Energy to aid the agency in its decision-making process regarding sustainable algal biofuel development.

The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council make up the National Academies. They are private and independent nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology, and health policy advice under an 1863 congressional charter.

Panel members, who serve as volunteers, are chosen by the academies for each study based on their expertise and experience and must satisfy the academies’ conflict-of-interest standards. The resulting consensus reports undergo external peer review before completion.

By. Daniel Stolte-Arizona

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  • SA Kiteman on November 12 2012 said:
    Much as I like the concept of algae based biofuels, I can't help but think that nuclear ammonia may be a better option; especially for the navy. Each strike group could have an AON or the like to continuously make ammonia fuel on site. properly designed, the reactor/synthesizer could be used by the Army for in-camp fuel creation too.
  • naa on November 12 2012 said:
    Who Says Algae Production For Fuel Is Unsustainable?

    Source: National Algae Association
    Dated: Nov 04, 2012

    National Algae Association disputes the National Research Council's recent claims about the need for more research. Their study may be based on out-dated, inaccurate and possibly incomplete information provided by the DoE's Biomass Program.

    It is well known in the algae production industry that algae raceway ponds have been unsustainable -
    starting with the DOE's Aquatic Species Program years ago. The researchers knew this before the industry
    emerged, but saw the opportunity to continue to conduct their research using federal funds instead of
    looking into other more productive enclosed growing systems. The universities counted on the federal
    funds as part of their budgets. If they admitted their failures, the money would have gone away.

    Every open-pond has daily contamination issues and very low production levels. The emerging algae
    industry moved away from raceway ponds over 6 years ago to vertical enclosed growing systems which
    have much greater production levels, recycle majority of water used and without most of the contamination
    issues. Even companies that have designed, built and supplied equipment to raceway ponds over the years
    admit that ponds are riddled with problems; some have even filed their own patents on vertical enclosed
    growing systems right after building raceway ponds.

    There are thousands of strains of algae, hundreds are very well suited for commercial algae production. We
    can study them till the end of time. We can spend billions of dollars trying to create the biggest and best strains; the Environmental Protection Agency's rules are well-established and there are plenty of
    well-established strains and growing situations that fall well within their regulations.

    The Department of Energy's 2010 National Algal Biofuels Technology Roadmap proved that the land area
    needed for algae was diminimus compared to the land mass requirements to grow other feedstocks for other
    alternate fuel products such as corn and soy; we have proven that the land mass requirements for enclosed
    vertical systems is significantly less than for the raceway ponds. We have also learned there is a huge
    learning curve between growing algae in a lab and growing, harvesting and extracting commercially on
    acreage and/or inside buildings.

    NAA is the first organization to lead an effort to develop plans and specifications for 100-acre commercial algae farm build-outs. We were successful not only in lowering CAPEX and OPEX by 50%-60% over the last 6 years, but by clearly identifying the variables that make each algae growing facility different, and incorporating them into our financial models. It is NAA's opinion that years of research on each of the ariables - water, CO2, energy requirements, and the like, is a total waste of time and money, neither of which we have to spare, because they are site-specific.

    NAA has tried to educate the Department of Energy's Biomass Program about these issues for years. It is
    unfortunate that the Biomass Program is led by researchers who are totally clueless about how to do
    anything other than fund research grants! They are trained only to do research, and they have no interest in or motivation to do anything else. They have no business, engineering, water processing or commercial construction experience and have never been bestowed with any non-research task, let alone the task of commercializing the algae production industry. The federal funds are, by congressional mandate, required to be given to institutes of higher education, tribal lands, and consortia including them. Despite bringing the fact that the funds have been needed to test existing algae technologies sitting on shelves for scalability , the leaders of the DOE BiomassProgram have not just been reluctant to redirect any funds for commercial production, they have failed to do so.

    The DOE Biomass Program told the NAA that we needed to hire a lobbyist to change the congressional
    mandate if we wanted it to change. Shouldn't that be their job? Shouldn't they be responsible for and
    accountable to make sure their own programs keep up with the needs? Why do we need lobbyists for more
    algae research? How is the research funds being spent? Salaries, benefits, travel, conferences or is it for actual equipment or research? Most impotantly is what are the results?

    A past grant recipient announced a few years ago that "all algae technology hurdles have been met and the only thing left is engineering and scale-up". The reward for that announcement was being awarded more
    funding for research. The funding will allow the recipient to continue to pay salaries, purchase equipment and travel to (and pay for) conferences where information cannot be shared because of restrictions on the grant.

    NAA asked the DOE to take 10% of the funds they have spent on algae research and allocate it

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