Skip to comments.Large-Scale Algae Biofuels Currently Unsustainable, New Report Concludes
Posted on 10/30/2012 9:36:13 PM PDT by neverdem
A report out today from the National Research Council (NRC) of the U.S. National Academies says that large-scale production of biofuels from algae is untenable with existing technology, as it would require the use of too much water, energy, and fertilizer. To improve matters, the report's authors suggest that the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), which supports much of the research in the field, should conduct assessments of proposed technologies that examine sustainability at all stages of fuel production, including growing or collecting algae and harvesting their oil and converting it into transportation fuels.
Efforts to make biofuel from algae have been under way for more than 3 decades, and have picked up considerable steam in recent years. Algae's big advantage is that unlike traditional biofuels, such as ethanol made from corn kernels or sugar, algae wouldn't compete for agricultural land with food crops. It also has the potential to produce as much as 10 times more fuel per hectare, according to the DOE's 2010 National Algal Biofuels Technology Roadmap.
But there are many different approaches to growing algae, such as growing the microscopic plants in shallow outdoor ponds, or in enclosed plastic tubes called bioreactors. And the industry is far from settled on a single approach. No matter what the strategy, however, the NRC committee concluded that current technology scaled up to produce 39 billion liters a year—approximately 5% of U.S. transportation fuel needs—would require an unsustainable level of inputs. Current technologies, for example, need between 3.15 liters and 3650 liters of water to produce the amount of algal biofuel equivalent to 1 liter of gasoline, the panel concluded. (That's potentially less than the estimated 5 liters to 2140 liters of water required to produce a liter of ethanol from corn, but more than the 1.9 liters to 6.6 liters of water needed to produce a liter of petroleum-based gasoline.) Growers would also have to add between 6 million and 15 million metric tons of nitrogen and between 1 million and 2 million metric tons of phosphorus to produce 39 billion liters of algal biofuels. That's between 44% and 107% of the total use of nitrogen in the United States, and between 20% and 51% of the nation's phosphorus use for agriculture.
The good news is that there's still plenty of potential for improvement. "The committee does not consider any one of these sustainability concerns a definitive barrier to sustainable development of algal biofuels because mitigation strategies for each of those concerns have been proposed and are being developed," the report concludes. The use of water and added nutrients, for example, could drop markedly if engineers come up with ways to efficiently recycle used water and nutrients, perhaps even using nutrient-rich wastewater from agricultural or municipal sources. But for algal biofuels to reach their full potential, researchers will need to integrate these and other advances and ensure that at each stage algae is converted to fuels in the most sustainable way possible.
Is that unsustainable subsidy free, or unsustainable after bleeding the taxpayers?
I thought so.
Maybe they should look first at all the Clarifiers before new “green” programs. There are a lot of BTUs in BS (including human).
A lot of things that use government subsidies are unsustainable, and this is news....
Let the private sector figure it out, if someone can make a bio-reactor pump out enough “green fuel” that is costs less than regular fuel then like the man who invented a better mousetrap the world will beat a path to their door...
Today, if you invent a better mousetrap, the government comes along with a better mouse.
Algae is kinda like that. You can see that there's a good idea buried in that green slime but when anyone tries to make it perform...reality rears its ugly head and bites them.
All a person has to do is turn thousands of square miles into algae ponds and then harvest the slime and turn it into oil. No problem, afterall it worked on a test pond.
“Son, you have a lot of room to improve”.
I thought one of the side benefits of using algae was to clean up some of the algal blooms in places like the Gulf.
If we're just gonna fill the landscape with ponds filled with scum then what's the point? We're already doing too much of that in Washington, D.C.
This is really important technology to master if we are ever to go into space.
Algae consume light energy, carbon dioxide, nitrogen (human urine), and water and produce hydrocarbon (food and fuel) and oxygen.
For a long space flight, algae could close the loop in supporting humans.
Furthermore, in the event that excess co2 is a real problem, then algae would help close the loop there too.
Thanks for the link.
The only thing “ Green “ about Green energy is the mount of money that is invested into it.
It didn’t this story for me to know algae is a loser for fuel. I know nothing at all about it, but I saw Obama touting it a while back and that’s all the info I needed.
There is actually great promise in reclaiming the energy in the sewage reclamation plants.
Neither of those approaches appeals to me. Large bags floating on the ocean on the other hand look to me like a neat way to get free "land," plenty of sun, and free agitation. Containment from the environment would be a snap with a fresh-water-only plant at sea. If the weather gets rough, just sink the whole system to about a hundred feet down. When it's done, pump it into a tanker with the reactors on board. Use the dry waste for aquaculture.
Farm soil kinda needs that material flow.
Seeing as phosphorus is undesirable in the oil itself one would think that would be a closed loop requiring a one-time supply, that is, unless we wanted that phosphorus for something else such as animal feed, in which case it would be replacing an existing material flow.
I once was looking at investing in bio-fuels thinking it may be the next big thing. After much research and commonsense, I decided not to simply because it would take too much area to grow the algea. The same problem with solar and wind energy sources - huge land areas that have no infra-structure with lines to consumers. We’ve seen how well those renewable fuels have worked out, as in bankruptcy.
Thanks for the link.