The Potential of Algae to Fuel the World

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algae bloom in river
Algae, such as this bloom on a river near Chengdu, China, is plentiful. But turning it into usable biofuel is a challenge.
(cc) eutrophication&hypoxia

“We take algae, CO2, water and sunlight, and then we refine it.” So explained Cynthia Warner in an interview for The Guardian this month. Mrs Warner is the Chief Executive Officer of Sapphire Energy, a San Diego-based company founded in 2007 which has developed what they believe to be an industry redefining product: Green Crude Oil.

Mrs Warner confidently states that, “Algae has the potential to change the world, by reducing carbon dioxide emissions and enabling almost any country to make its own oil.” Sapphire’s goal is to produce approximately 100 barrels a day (or 1.5 million gallons a year) of oil, once construction of the “green crude farm” is completed next year.

Sapphire is just one of hundreds of companies worldwide that believe that biofuels derived from algae, so called “4th generation biofuels” represent perhaps the most promising long term solution to a global energy shortage. Completely sustainable, unlimited in supply, and with the added benefit of being fed on Carbon Dioxide—the bogeyman of man-made pollutants—algae would appear to be a win-win-win biomass.

However, there are problems. Currently there is no clear agreement on how to cultivate algae most effectively. Some companies grow algae in ponds, others grow them in clear plastic containers, and others keep their algae away from sunlight, feeding them sugars instead. Moreover, the actual production of oil by algae companies is minimal. Sapphire’s annual production target of 1.5 million gallons for 2014 compares to U.S. daily oil consumption of 19.1 million gallons. Even algae’s most enthusiastic advocates say that commercialization of algal biofuels is at least 5 to 10 years away.

The biggest obstacle remains cost. In a 2010 technology assessment, researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory estimated that producing oil from algae grown in ponds at scale would cost between $240 and $332 per barrel, two or three times as much as current crude oil prices. The algae business has suffered from “fantastic promotions, bizarre cultivation systems, and absurd productivity projections,” says John Benemann, an industry consultant and Ph.D. biochemist.

Perhaps more worrisome, government scientists say the environmental benefits of algae remain unproven. Writing in American Scientist, Philip T. Pienkos, a speaker at the upcoming World Biofuels Markets conference in Rotterdam, and his colleagues at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, say that current life-cycle assessments of algae have shown “unpromising energy returns and weak greenhouse gas benefits.”

Yet the algae dream remains alive, and even skeptics believe that one day algae will realize its potential as an energy producer. It is therefore critical that the algae industry remains a strong voice in the biofuels debate and engages with the entire energy industry to promote their technology and quash what they see as misconceptions.

The topic will be debated at length at World Biofuels Markets in Rotterdam, the world’s largest biofuels conference and exhibition which will once again dedicate one day to algae. During this conference the algae and aquatic biomass industry will be critically analyzed through the voices of both proponents and skeptics.

World Biofuels Markets, organized by Green Power Conferences, will be held on March 12th to 14th, 2013 in Rotterdam, Netherlands. The dedicated Algae and Aquatic Feedstocks day will take place on March 14th.

Find World Biofuels Markets and related events on our Renewable Energy Conferences and Expos page.

Read Algae For Entrepreneurs: Small Business Applications of Algae from Amazon.

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