Algae Fuel Passes Another Crucial Test

By Mary Rosenthal | October 07, 2013

The big test of any advanced biofuel is whether it can be produced cost competitively, in a way that reduces greenhouse gases and delivers more energy than it requires, while its inputs such as land, water and nutrients can be provided sustainably. For years, we have known that algae is one feedstock that can theoretically meet all those requirements.

In August, the theoretical gave way to real-world data, and the news is even better than expected.
For the first time, researchers conducted a life-cycle analysis (LCA) of pilot-scale operations at an algae-to-fuel facility, and found substantial reductions in greenhouse gases over petroleum and a sustainable energy return. They also found that algae-based fuels from the pilot plant are on par with commercial-scale, first-generation biofuels. It concluded that greenhouse gas reductions and energy returns are set to increase even further once economies of scale in production take hold.

This latest peer-reviewed LCA, published in Bioresource Technology, examines the cultivation and hydrothermal liquefaction technologies at Sapphire Energy’s Green Crude Farm. This report reinforces a clear trend in the algae industry: During the past few years, the environmental and energy performance of algae-derived fuels has continued to get better. 

In 2011, the U.S. EPA qualified algae under the advanced biofuel provisions of the renewable fuel standard after finding that algae-based biodiesel could reduce emissions by more than 50 percent compared to conventional fuels.

Last fall, the National Research Council report on the sustainability of algal fuels in terms of land use, water and other factors definitively concluded that sustainability concerns are not a barrier to future growth.

The big advantage of this latest analysis is that it addresses one significant drawback of previous studies. Up until now, most peer-reviewed research relied on theoretical production estimates or data available only in the public sphere. Now, a look at one of the first real world operations has given us proof that algae-derived fuels can indeed be produced sustainably and competitively.

Meanwhile, the energy return on petroleum fuels has been getting worse. Decades ago, you could expect petroleum to yield 100 times the energy it took to extract the stuff. Today, gasoline will yield as low as four to five times the energy, and prices are near 10-year highs. Furthermore, given that finding new sources of oil is increasingly energy intensive, we can expect the energy return to steadily decrease. Talk about diminishing returns.

What does this mean? When the benefits of algae-derived fuel and other advanced biofuels are getting better and the benefits of fossil fuels are being eroded to record lows, you know change is coming.
The pilot-scale demonstrations of algae-to-fuel technologies we see today will give way to full-scale production in the next couple of years. Nobody expects fossil fuels to become easier to extract, or to somehow become carbon neutral. And nobody expects gas prices to fall. It all points to a competitive future for advanced biofuels.

We know it’s not a question of “if,” and we can see that the “when” is getting closer every day.

Author: Mary Rosenthal
Executive Director, Algae Biomass Organization