Algae Biofuels 10 Years From Viability

Algae isn’t nearly ready for prime-time as a biofuel, according to a new study, and until it is the industry will need to seize upon non-fuel applications that could help make it cost-effective.

The Energy Biosceience Institute (EBI) at UC Berkeley came to this conclusion after what it called a “detailed techno-economic analysis” of algal biofuels production. Although more than “100 companies in the United States and abroad are now working to produce algal biomass and oil for transportation fuels,” the Institute’s press release said, “most are small and none has yet operated a pilot plant with multiple acres of algae production systems.”

Algal biofuels researcher

image via Sandia National Laboratories

The report found that even under best-case scenarios, oil produced from algae will remain excessively expensive in the “near-to-mid-term.” Another challenge is that the industry is highly dependent on availability of suitable climate, water, flat land and carbon dioxide, all “available in one location.” When everything comes together — perhaps 10 years of research, development and demonstration from now, “algal oil production technology has the potential to produce several billion gallons of renewable fuel” in the United States.”

To bridge the gap, the report recommends a focus on co-products — for instance, producing algal biofuels in conjuction with wastewater treatment. Another possibility cited was animal feeds.

Would you like to get EarthTechling’s Green News Buzz delivered to your inbox weekly? Sign up by November 12, 2010 and you could win a Voltaic Solar Fuse Solar Charger from EarthTechling.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

  • anonymous

    Major University Admits Hard Science
    Problems Relating to Algae Have Been Solved

    Arizona State University Senior Vice President Rick Shangraw recenty said “…algae will “deliver soon” because…most of the hard science problems science problems regarding algae have been solved…Now…it’s largely an engineering problem.”

    The REAL question is: Does the DOE really want to get the US off o foreign oil or do they want to continue giving grants (taxpayer money) to algae researchers to keep them employed for ANOTHER 50 YEARS?

  • Also Anonymous

    I completely agree with “Anonymous” above. The wrong people are working on the problem. Phycologists understand algae. They don’t have much expertise in machine design. If the government wanted algae based biofuels, they would have actually done a valid review of the commercial scale technologies submitted for Algae Commercialization grants. They utterly lacked the internal expertise to give anybody a fair shake. So, the money went to Cash for Clunkers and companies that could afford lobbyists & peddled influence. We would be building our 2nd full scale production facility about now if the government had not yet again lied to us all.