Industrial production of biodiesel feasible within 15 years

Aug 13, 2010

Within 10 to 15 years, it will be technically possible to produce sustainable and economically viable biodiesel from micro-algae on a large scale. Technological innovations during this period should extend the scale of production by a factor of three, while at the same time reducing production costs by 90%. Two researchers from Wageningen UR (University & Research Centre) believe this to be possible. In their article in Science (published 13 August), they provide a detailed explanation of the route that needs to be taken.

By producing microscopically small algae in bulk in large-scale installations, Europe should be able to become independent of fossil fuels in a sustainable way. Algae could even contribute to the sustainable production of food. To cultivate algae on a large scale, fertilisers (nitrogen and phosphates) could be extracted from manure surpluses and wastewater, with CO2 coming from industrial residues. The energy source for algae is sunlight. Biodiesel and an almost unlimited quantity of protein and oxygen are the sustainable products of this process. The amount of fresh water consumed in algal cultivation is minimal because seawater can be used.

In a nutshell, that is the idea put forward by Professor René Wijffels and Dr Maria Barbosa of Wageningen UR in their perspective article An Outlook on Microalgal Biofuels in Science.

Sunlight and wastewater

Both authors demonstrate in their article that, according to calculations on energy consumption in transport in Europe, almost 0.4 billion m3 biodiesel would be needed to replace all transport fuels. The cultivation of micro-algae requires 9.25 million hectares of land - equal to the surface area of Portugal - assuming a yield of 40,000 litres of per hectare, to supply the European market.

Algae produce the maximum quantity of oily substances when growing under stress. Such conditions can for instance be induced by a shortage of nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphate.

Algae are much more efficient at converting sunlight and fertilisers into usable oily substances than agricultural crops such as oilseed rape. It is not even necessary to have full sunshine for algal cultivation, which is why it is possible to design reactors that look like vertical plates, on to which the light shines from one side. In this way, it is possible to produce 20-80,000 litres of oil per hectare. In comparison, one hectare of oilseed rape or oil palm yields only 1500 or 6000 litres, respectively.

Financial aspects

The 5000 tonnes of algae (dry matter) now produced annually in the whole world has a value of €250/kg. The price is so high because algae can make rare (and therefore expensive) substances like carotenoids and omega 3 fatty acids that are converted into high-quality products such as food supplements. That is extremely expensive when compared with the palm oil (cost price €0.50 /kg) used as a fuel. However, palm oil and other fuel crops are controversial. To investigate whether the use of algae as biofuels is feasible, a feasibility study was carried out on scale enhancement in algal cultivation. This showed that presently the cost price could be reduced to €4/kg. By making use of residues such as wastewater and CO2 from exhaust gases, by improving the technology and by shifting production to sunnier countries, it would even be possible to reduce the price to one-tenth of that level, namely, €0.40 /kg.

Even then, however, the production of bioenergy from algae would not be financially viable. To achieve that goal, the whole algal biomass would have to be utilised. This consists of roughly 50% oil (40 cents/kg, thus), 40% proteins (yielding 120 cents/kg) and 10% sugars (100 cents/kg). This causes the value to rise to €1.65/kg which is enough to run production on a large scale.


Algal proteins offer interesting possibilities. If all transport fuels were to be replaced by algal oil on a European scale, 0.3 billion tonnes of protein would become available as well. That is 40 times more than the amount of protein in the soya that Europe imports each year. Thus, algae would allow us to produce food and feed proteins as well as sufficient quantities of biofuel.
In order to manufacture biofuels from agricultural crops such as oilseed rape, 10,000 litres of fresh water are required to produce each litre of fuel. This is an incredibly large volume. By cultivating algae in seawater, it is possible to achieve the same result with just 1.5 litres of fresh water/kg of product.
With the aid of sunlight, algal growth requires 1.3 billion tonnes of CO2 (Europe produces 4 billion tonnes/year, mainly from fossil fuels) and 25 million tonnes of nitrogen (wastewater and fertilisers contain 8 million). In other words, algal cultivation would not normally compete with food production.

A sustainable pilot-study facility AlgaePARC (Algae Production and Research Centre) will soon be starting up in Wageningen. Here it will be possible to study the scaling up of algal production and to compare various technologies, taking into account energy costs for building, production and logistics during the production of biofuels from algae.

Algae need to be interesting as a food source for fish and shellfish farming within five years. Five years after that, it should be possible to achieve applications such as providing protein sources in foods as well as basic chemicals for the manufacturing industries. Then, in 10-15 years’ time, biofuels should be available.

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3 / 5 (3) Aug 13, 2010
This will never happen. Scaling these 'in principle' ideas to such massive scales required to replace existing and rising energy requirements is fraught with enormous practical problems and will never happen, especially in a marine environment.
1 / 5 (1) Aug 13, 2010
?????? is this process more efficient than current solar cells. What is the energy conversion efficiency of algae? This all seems quite polly-annish.
3 / 5 (3) Aug 14, 2010
This a typical example, where people claim to save then world (or in this case Europe) with one (simple) idea. You find the same estimations for biogas from grass or for biofuels from wood material.... Only to name two example from many. It will never work in the claimed way.
5 / 5 (1) Aug 14, 2010
DamienS and michaeltb: Why will it never happen ?
Do you have any knowledge of micro algae since you are so certain ?
1 / 5 (1) Aug 14, 2010
I alluded to the reason - it's just too massive a scale to be managed effectively and the marine environment is particularly unforgiving. Many similar schemes have been touted before, but when it comes to upscaling small pilot plants, all sorts of problems crop up which makes it either physically infeasible and/or uneconomic.
2 / 5 (1) Aug 14, 2010
This is an exciting area of research, and it will become even more attractive as costs decline and fossil fuels become more expensive. Diesel-from-algae production is probably more practical in the southern U.S. than in Europe, where sunshine and cheap land are more plentiful. Production from marine bases hold vast potential in the equatorial zones, but there are so many scientific and commercial problems that need to be resolved first by land-based diesel-from-algae.
3 / 5 (1) Aug 14, 2010
There was an article on here not long ago about using genetically modified algae that exude the oil on their own, and thus do not need all of the processing proposed here. I think we should be looking further into that, since processing costs can be significant.
I agree that the southern US is an ideal place for algae farming, and American industrial-style farming is some of the best in the world, so large scale production seems more likely here.
As for conventional solar, I doubt very much that in the next 10-20 years, we will have solved solar's crippling problems: the need to use very expensive and relatively inefficient panels made of rare materials, the lack of suitable energy storage technologies, and highly weather-dependent energy production.
1 / 5 (1) Aug 17, 2010
The cultivation of micro-algae requires 9.25 million hectares of land - equal to the surface area of Portugal - assuming a yield of 40,000 litres of biodiesel per hectare, to supply the European market.

I see one reason why this idea will not progress very far.
not rated yet Aug 18, 2010
Too massive a scale to be managed effectively? So I guess that would apply to existing oil companies production as well? Or is that easier to manage?
And who said it had to be in a marine environment? All they said was sea water could be used. Ever hear of something called a pump?
Why do people insist that any solution MUST be a 100% replacement for the status quo? Couldn't this be a good, solid solution for replacing 10% of transportation fuel needs? Combine that with greater engine efficiency, some electrification, more mass transit, and you've cut your CO2 output by 75%. No that's no good it can't replace EVERY DROP OF OIL.