USU researchers: Algae biofuel can help meet energy demand

By Utah State University | June 05, 2014

Microalgae-based biofuel not only has the potential to quench a sizable chunk of the world’s energy demands, say Utah State University researchers, it’s a potential game-changer.

“That’s because microalgae produces much higher yields of fuel-producing biomass than other sources of alternative fuels and it doesn’t compete with food crops,” says Jeff Moody, who completed a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from USU in May.

With USU faculty mentors Chris McGinty and Jason Quinn, Moody published findings from an unprecedented worldwide microalgae productivity assessment in the May 26, online Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The team’s research was supported by the U.S. Department of Energy.

Despite its promise as a biofuel source, the USU investigators questioned whether “pond scum” could be a silver bullet-solution to challenges posed by fossil fuel dependence.

“Our aim wasn’t to debunk existing literature, but to produce a more exhaustive, accurate and realistic assessment of the current global yield of microalgae biomass,” Moody says.

With advisor Quinn, assistant professor in USU’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Moody began building simulations and generating data. As the project progressed, the engineers realized they needed expertise outside their discipline. They recruited McGinty, associate director of USU’s Remote Sensing/Geographic Information Systems Laboratory in the Department of Wildland Resources, for help in developing the sophisticated spatial interpolations and resource modeling needed to develop their large-scale model.

“Visual representations of physical and biophysical processes are very powerful tools,” McGinty says. “Adding the geospatial interpolation component brought the data into focus.”

Using hourly meteorological data from 4,388 global locations, the team determined the current global productivity potential of microalgae.

“Our results were much more conservative than those found in the current literature,” Quinn says. “Even so, the numbers are impressive.”

Algae, he says, yields about 2,500 gallons of biofuel per acre per year in promising locations. In contrast, soybeans yield approximately 63 gallons; corn about 435 gallons.

“In addition, soybeans and corn require arable land that detracts from food production,” Quinn says. “Microalgae can be produced in non-arable areas unsuitable for agriculture.”

The USU researchers estimate untillable land in Brazil, Canada, China and the United States could be used to produce enough algal biofuel to supplement more than 30 percent of those countries’ fuel consumption.

“That’s an impressive percentage from renewable energy,” says Moody, who soon begins a new position as systems engineer for New Mexico’s Sandia National Labs. “Our findings will help to justify the investment in technology development and infrastructure to make algal biofuel a viable fuel source.”




3 Responses

  1. Algenol Biofuels



    Algenol Biofuels leads the way in turning algae fuel into the next big biofuel, and the advantages are clear. Algenol Biofuels’ patented technology enables the production of the four most important fuels (ethanol, gasoline, jet, and diesel fuel) for around $1.27 per gallon each by using proprietary algae, sunlight, carbon dioxide and saltwater at production levels of approximately 8,000 total gallons of liquid fuel per acre per year. A yield that far exceeds the approximately 420 gallons of ethanol, per acre/per year produced by corn. Algenol’s novel, low-cost techniques have the added benefit of consuming carbon dioxide from industrial sources, not using farmland or food crops and being able to provide freshwater. As a result, the fertile farmland currently used to grow corn for fuel can be used to grow food, instead. You can learn more about Algenol Biofuels at or

  2. Terry Olson



    Would heat help the algae to grow? Are these algae farms linked to power plants and their heat source. This is an great application! How many acres are needed to make it profitable?

  3. Eddie



    I have followed the Algae oil promise for a number of years and it still amazes me when another University jumps on board and proclaims a new study proving Algae will solve 30% of a country's fuel consumption. Great news if you want to create open ponds by flooding millions of acres. Better yet, let's build hundreds of million gallon storage tanks and grow a high oil yielding heterotrophic algae strain in the dark and feed it a cheap source of sugar. If anyone dares to venture into algae, they really need to look at the Economics of growing Algae. Can they make a profit from a Dollar per gallon of oil? Will they achieve 5,000 gallons per acre? Big numbers are promised by the Algae groups and I hope they can achieve $1.27 a gallon.. . The conclusion our Investment group came to was why not grow algae strains that have a Nutritional food value to mankind and build a Marketing Plan around a product selling for $50.00 a gallon. Of course, this doesn't solve the Fossil Fuel dilemma but from a human standpoint, algae oil is a wonderful supplement. Don't believe me? Fish eat algae and humans consume fish oils to get the algae oils. The next time a University dabbles in Algae Research, they need to ask their Business College to conduct a financial analysis and see if they agree fuel is the best place to start.


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