Algae biofuel can help meet world energy demand, researchers say

May 26, 2014 by Mary-Ann Muffoletto
At a pilot plant facility at Coyote Gulch outside Durango, Colo., microalgae is grown for biofuel production. In a recent paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Utah State University researchers reveal findings of an worldwide assessment of microalgae productivity potential. The team’s research was supported by the U.S. Department of Energy. Credit: Solix BioSystems.

(Phys.org) —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 traditional fuel feedstocks and it doesn't compete with food crops," says USU mechanical engineering graduate student Jeff Moody.

With USU colleagues Chris McGinty and Jason Quinn, Moody published findings from an unprecedented worldwide microalgae productivity assessment in the May 26, 2014, 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 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 and lipids," Moody says.

With Quinn, assistant professor in USU's Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, and McGinty, associate director of USU's Remote Sensing/Geographic Information Systems Laboratory in the Department of Wildland Resources, Moody leveraged a large-scale, outdoor microalgae growth model. Using meteorological data from 4,388 global locations, the team determined the current global productivity potential of .

"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 contrast, soybeans yield approximately 48 gallons; corn about 18 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 researchers estimate untillable land in Brazil, Canada, China and the U.S. 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," Moody says. "Our findings will help to justify the investment in technology development and infrastructure to make algal biofuel a viable fuel source."

Explore further: Microalgae-derived biogas a promising alternative to fossil fuels

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User comments : 15

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Scottingham
3 / 5 (3) May 26, 2014
I've heard this all before. Missing key details:
Their process for turning the algae into the biofuels
Which biofuels
Which strains of algae?
tommo
3.7 / 5 (3) May 26, 2014
Have worked on using algae to purify wastewater with the intended consequence of gaining the biodiesel for years now, the priority is recycling the water and algae clean water really well so make that possible rather cheaply compared to using chemicals. The need is the time it takes is about 2.5-days so requires photo-bioreactors to grow 24x7 and insulated to work in the Arctic in winter for towns there, ponds don't work. Since these can be small and stacked they take up less land footprint and better conservation of heat, everything is piped in.

It's a good idea, Phoenix, AZ, produces 10-million gal/day in effluent, that's 20,750-tons daily in algae nutrients and worth about 3-million gal/day in biodiesel and you get the 10M gal/day of water back.

This estimate uses Spirogyra, very common species and only 11% oil ... so conservative on production output, easy to grow. There are many ways now to harvest and process the algae for the oil, refining & tweaking that for use in vehicles.
jeffry_helms
5 / 5 (1) May 26, 2014
Any bio-engineered plant does not belong in the water--did anyone think about if the algae gets into the lakes and streams and rivers etc.-----the future implications are drastic--like no water or species on this planet but the algae!!!!
mtwocats
4.7 / 5 (3) May 27, 2014
Hemp is a much more practical biofuel. It outproduces pretty much everything else and produces both biofuel mass as well as pure oil. It has been shown to be able to replace pretty much all plastics and building materials. Hempcrete is carbon negative and gets harder and more solid over time. We already have the technology for a hemp based biofuels industry and the only thing stopping us is Big Oil, Big Pharma, and the DEA.
howhot2
5 / 5 (1) May 27, 2014
Biofuels are one of the tri-ad of a renewable zero carbon energy system; Biofuels. wind and solar. Of the biofuels, I see the Algae engineering as on of the most promising of the sources of for replacements to oil chemistry. There are already promising replacements for Jet Fuel from Algae. Similarly, big equipment that runs exclusively on diesel could be carbon neutral just by using Algae. If America's total supply of diesel was derived from Algae, a large portion of CO2 production would be neutralized.

Algea farming is an excellent idea, one whose time has come.
ekim
not rated yet May 27, 2014
Any bio-engineered plant does not belong in the water--did anyone think about if the algae gets into the lakes and streams and rivers etc.-----the future implications are drastic--like no water or species on this planet but the algae!!!!

We haven't beaten nature at it's own game during the thousands of years of domesticating plants and animals. Most of the organisms we have created fail miserably when released into the wild, or quickly revert back to their original forms. Nature has had millions of years to try countless combinations, and you believe we can somehow better that?
alfie_null
1 / 5 (1) May 27, 2014
Hemp . . .

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Hemp will solve all our problems (or at least let us forget about them).

Every time I read yet another of these hemp-is-a-panacea comments I find myself wishing the author would either disclaim or admit as a source of bias, his personal use of the plant for its psychotropic properties.
antialias_physorg
3.7 / 5 (3) May 27, 2014
Hemp . . .

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Hemp will solve all our problems (or at least let us forget about them).

It's like with all the biofuel (and, indeed, all renewable sources of energy)... we need to stop thinking in overly simplistic terms of "there's one singular source that will solve all our problems".

It's going to be a mix for the foreseeable future and it's going to require a bit of finesse to integrate that mix into a working whole. But it's not like we lack the brainpower (or the economic ability) to do it in a relatively short time.

So anyone who argues that technologies (like the one presented in the article) aren't good enough to supply all our needs is missing something fundamental in their thought process.
rockwolf1000
5 / 5 (1) May 27, 2014
Hemp . . .

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Hemp will solve all our problems (or at least let us forget about them).

Every time I read yet another of these hemp-is-a-panacea comments I find myself wishing the author would either disclaim or admit as a source of bias, his personal use of the plant for its psychotropic properties.


Hemp has little to no psychotropic properties as it has very little THC. http://en.wikiped...iki/Hemp

More likely to get a headache than anything else by smoking it. Either that or puke your brains out from coughing too much by trying to smoke a 5 lb joint that might be enough to get you a small buzz.
Hemp does hold much promise in a number of areas but it is being held back by anal morons who continue to think "Reefer Madness" was a documentary.
stopalgaeresearch
4 / 5 (1) May 27, 2014
Algae is one solution to help the US get off of foreign oil. It is amazing how there is more interest in growing hemp in the US than growing algae to help the US become energy independent.
stopalgaeresearch
2 / 5 (1) May 27, 2014
$2.5 billion dollars have been spent on algae research not one algae researchers has ommercialized anything to date. The real question is to be asked is does the US really want to become energy independent or do we want to keep algae researchers employed ay universities for another 60 years?

Past algae research grant recipients have stated publicly 5 years ago that "all algae technology hurdles have been met. It;s all engineering and scaale-up going forward". Additional research is NOT needed.
rockwolf1000
not rated yet May 27, 2014
Algae is one solution to help the US get off of foreign oil. It is amazing how there is more interest in growing hemp in the US than growing algae to help the US become energy independent.


Hemp is more, much more than just an energy solution. Hemp could turn the pulp and paper industry upside down, hemp seeds have been described as nature's perfect food, hemp can be used to make clothing/material, hemp can......
Straw_Cat
5 / 5 (1) May 28, 2014
$2.5 billion dollars have been spent on algae research not one algae researchers has commercialized anything to date. The real question is to be asked is does the US really want to become energy independent or do we want to keep algae researchers employed ay universities for another 60 years?

Past algae research grant recipients have stated publicly 5 years ago that "all algae technology hurdles have been met. It;s all engineering and scale-up going forward". Additional research is NOT needed.


Here's one of several new businesses which have indeed scaled things up. This plant has 300 'wet acres' going now.
http://www.sapphireenergy.com/

Ongoing research may help find new algae strains with higher fat contents. It's a small price to pay for moving forward.

Better than subsidizing petroleum as heavily as we do through phony tax-dodging instruments like 'oil depletion allowances'.

antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (2) May 28, 2014
One advantage of algal powerplants: It's easy to 'upgrade' once more efficient algae become available.
This is something that shouldn't be overlooked, as some investors have shunned investing in solar power plants for fear that more efficient solar cells are "just around the corner" which would allow competitors to produce at lower cost (same for wind).
ForFreeMinds
1 / 5 (1) May 28, 2014
Articles such as this are propaganda IMHO, simply because they do not report on the economics of the technology. Sure biofuels provide energy, but at a price which isn't mentioned. Until the technology is ready for commercial production (without government subsidies) it will be just an area of research with the possibility a breakthrough that results in benefits exceeding the costs.