Algae Missing from DOE’s Billion Ton Update

By Barry Cohen | October 03, 2011

President Obama recently said, “The country that leads on clean energy will lead the global economy in the 21st century. We have to be part of this change, or we will be left behind.”

We are not only being left behind, but we can’t even see it for the dust in our eyes. They “get” algae in Australia and China, and they are doing it. We get it in the U.S., and what are we doing? Countries around the world are coming to the U.S. to shop for algae production systems, knowing that the technologies exist, and knowing that the companies in the U.S. are financially starving—and knowing that the government agency bestowed with the duty to develop alternative fuels to strengthen national security has failed miserably. The failure is so apparent that the team bestowed with leadership of this initiative will not respond to emails or return phone calls in this, an administration assuring total and complete transparency, responsibility and accountability.

Former Queensland premier Peter Beattie agreed with President Obama, describing biofuels as a driver today, and the main driver by 2030. “Fuel security, emissions, economic development, the arguments for biofuels are true, and a given,” Beattie said. “We have moved beyond that now. The aviation industry, for example, has said that biofuels are critical to its long-term success.” He referred to the “American obsession with energy independence,” saying, “The U.S. Navy will have to find eight major suppliers around the world [for its Green Strike Force] and we are here in a geographic sector in the South Pacific all by ourselves. We can be a major supplier to the Green Fleet, which is scheduled to be fully operational by 2016.”

Bill Lyons, Boeing research general manager, recently said the crucial threshold for production was producing 600 million gallons of sustainable aviation biofuels by 2016. “If we get there, we know that we have made this commercial,” he said. Boeing is the same company that, according to Canadian Business Online, in May 2010 joined with U.S government agencies, Chinese research institutions and state companies, including Air China Ltd. and PetroChina Ltd., to develop biofuels for use by Chinese airlines based on algae or oily nuts. According to the press release, Al Bryant, Boeing vice president for research and technology in China, said, “The first flight in China using biofuels could happen this year, and the fuel could be in use in commercial aviation in three to five years ... Four test flights using biofuels have been flown successfully in the United States… Today we've proven it can be flown,” Bryant said. “It's a matter of scaling it up so it can be commercialized.” When asked why the initiative was taking place in China rather than in the U.S., Bryant said, “They've made the decision to move faster.”

U.S. companies have been entering into agreements with companies in China, Australia, Israel, Poland and throughout Europe. One company leader said, “China is currently the largest producer of algae in the world; it is also the largest consumer. Leaders clearly see the benefits of further developing this industry for both proteins and fuels to meet their domestic needs and, potentially, for export.”

The U.S. DOE released its Billion Ton Update in August, 2011, which supplemented its 2005 “Biomass as Feedstock for a Bioenergy and Bioproducts Industry: The Technical Feasibility of a Billion Ton Annual Supply.” Algae projects have not been ignored: algae research programs have been funded at numerous universities and government labs, and several grant recipients received their full grant amount but completed less than 50 percent of their projects. The DOE’s Biomass Program conducted a National Algal Biofuels Technology Roadmap Workshop in December 2008 and released the results, the “National Algal Biofuels Technology Roadmap,” in May 2010. While it lists perceived challenges, nowhere in the Roadmap does it give one reason why algae should not be pursued, and most, if not all, of those challenges have since been met. Algae received $78 million in support from the DOE in last January alone, but where is algae in the update?

Microcrops rate exactly two comments, one of which is to explain that algae is excluded from the study. How can the DOE take a survey of biomass available in 2030—with serious policy and public investment implications—without taking any view on algae?

Author: Barry Cohen
Executive Director, National Algae Association
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