Algae: the next miracle solution?

Just like hydrogen a few years ago, algae –to-biodiesel is the new hype launched by venture capitalists who want to make quick and big bucks (see today’s EurActiv story and the interesting – although a bit unbalanced – dossier). EU policymakers should keep a good dose of realism and try to understand the technology and its cost and sustainability implications better before falling for the “algae is good for the environment and energy security” trap.

The fact that fossil fuel giants like Shell and Exxon are jumping on the bandwagon does not change that. They have enough money to make some mistakes if the big promises of the next miracle solution for future oil production  would not deliver. It only shows these companies are starting to acknowledge that the end of the (traditional) oil era is upon us and it is time to look into alternatives (mostly forgetting renewables like solar and wind).
I do believe algae might play a role in future sustainable energy policies but a lot more research is needed before policymakers should get over-enthusiastic about this next silver bullet.

Here are a few of the sceptical voices in the algae hype:

  • Geoffrey Stiles has some answers to the question: why does Exxon invest in algae on his Energy Outlook blog.
  • Robert Rapier’s “Algal Biodiesel: Fact or Fiction” dates from 2007 but is still valuable and has good references to other sceptics.
  • The Oil Drum ran an excellent piece on “Cost viability and algae” in May 2009.
  • And, last but not least, there is the new (27 July)  LCA study published by a team of researchers in France in the ACS journal Environmental Science and Technology.

The conclusions of this last study deserve some highlighting as they prove my previous point:

Biodiesel production from microalgae is an emerging technology considered by many as a very promising source of energy, mainly because of its reduced competition for land. However the impact assessment and the energy balance show that algal biodiesel suffers from several drawbacks at the current level of maturity of the technology. In comparison to conventional energetic crops, high photosynthetic yields of microalgae significantly reduce land and pesticide use but not fertilizer needs. Moreover, production, harvesting, and oil extraction induce high energy consumption, which can jeopardize the overall energetic balance. It appears that even if the algal biodiesel is not really environmentally competitive under current feasibility assumptions, there are several improvement tracks which could contribute to reduce most of its impacts.”

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4 responses

  1. [...] some of the critical voices, see my post on my 3E Intelligence [...]

  2. Being a commercial producer of micro algae with several years of practical experience LGem believes biofuel from algae is just not going to work. Key is the negative nett energy yield. We were able to reduce energy consumption for pumping and aeration of our large scale (tubular) cultivation systems, but have to obey natural limits. Still the energy consumption for pumping and airation exceeds the energy yield by the algal biomass produces by a factor two. And other energy consuming parts of the production process (harvesting, drying, extracting, fertilzing) are not yet taken into account. There might still be some room to get the system more energy efficient, but a zero nett energy yield a “challanging target” to put it euphimisticly. Producing energy is far out of scope.

  3. It seems gentlemen and ladies that all the commentaries on this area of biofuel production utilising micro-algae developments rather than macro-algae. Whilst the major developments are – apparently – being directed to this area you have skirted over the macro-algae developments. These as you will be already aware are as near practically free of any lignin as micro-algae as the micro-algaes are, and it is this reason why they can be refined to produce such high quantities of refineable residues and ..biofuel Diesel petroleum/gasoline substitutes.

    It is also of interest that the discussions still refer to extracting the ‘oil’ fraction from the algaes when the potential to exact other fuel products, which are currently on offer from ‘ligno-cellulosic’ routes such as the ethanol’ or butanol route and the HMF or levulinic Acid route are equally as valid. Yes I agree that the expensive procedures of the GTL and the enzymatic processes and the comparators are expensive and appear to be more of a parasitic embellishment to the egos of the sponsors who gain more credence for spending huge amounts of research money (and then making equally huge blunders) rather than rather than go for projects that have developed through the traditional routes. Such is that currently coming to the market place utilising the very real developments of dilute acid hydrolysis without geo-engineered organisms as developed through the use of improved operational tangibles using the patented gravity pressure vessel developed by Genesyst and now being exploited in Holland the UK and Viet Nam and the USA is a reality. this is the now situation.

    We use transportation fuels (derived from King Oil) such as Diesel and petrol/gasoline as a matter of right or course. Most people forget though that this industry was equally a ‘fledging one’ and had it not been for the persistence of the various ‘oil magnates’ and their bullying of Governments in the early 1900s and in the run up to and in the First World War when nearly all the oil in the area was ‘owned’ (in reality taken) by European Countries as an asset and was effectively operated as Nationalised Companies owned by Governments – Anglo-Persian was such. The subsidies passed to oil companies over the years have been huge and totally out of court. (Yet even today they (today’s mega-rich Oil Companies) belly-ache over the costs of, for example, the price associated with carbon sequestering and storage systems brazenly seeking the European Union and other Gullible Countries and Governments to Finance and Subsidise these projects knowing full well that they can finance them from their own accounts!)

    What seems though to be at issue in this long-overdue debate about future oil use and its substitute is that the Oil Companies are so large that they have got the World over a Barrel so to speak. We need all forms of Non-Fossil fuels to be developed and indeed some of these developments will fail. I doubt though that the use of Macro-Algae will so fail and you in your reports might look again in this direction.

  4. Algae is renewable, does not affect the food channel and consumes C02. To learn more about the fast-track commercialization of the algae industry, you may want to check out the National Algae Association. It is the first algae trade association in the US.

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