In the quest to find a readily available source of clean, renewable energy, many eyes have glanced longingly at the possible benefits of what’s perhaps the most humble biofuel of them all: algae.  A new report published by University of Virginia scientists, however, argues that while algae is capable of producing high energy output, there are some serious environmental concerns that accompany its production.

The study, “Environmental Impacts of Algae-Derived Biodiesel and Bioelectricity for Transportation,” was published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology. It finds that algae would produce considerably more transportation energy than biomass crops such canola and switchgrass for every hectare planted. In addition, algae can also be harvested on poor-quality land that cannot be easily used to produce food crops such as corn.

UVA algae scientists
image via University of Virginia

From an environmental impact standpoint, however, there are concerns regarding algae-based fuel as compared to other biomass sources. In the production of algae-based biodiesel more energy – in the form of petroleum-powered processes – is consumed than with other biofuels, the report says. Additionally, algae-based biodiesel and bioelectricity production processes also require substantial amounts of water and emit more greenhouse gases.

The report also asks important questions about the end result of biomass fuel generation. Since the creation of electricity from biofuels requires fewer steps and is more efficient than the production of liquid fuels, the report concludes, it’s a more favorable option to use biofuels to power electric cars rather than internal combustion-driven autos. For the next phase of their research, the team plans to monetize environmental costs and benefits associated with production of the various biofuels.

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