Algal Biofuels Not Ready For Scale-Up | October 29, 2012 Issue - Vol. 90 Issue 44 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 90 Issue 44 | p. 9 | News of The Week
Issue Date: October 29, 2012 | Web Date: October 26, 2012

Algal Biofuels Not Ready For Scale-Up

Report finds shortcomings in present technology but cause for long-term optimism
Department: Government & Policy
News Channels: Environmental SCENE
Keywords: Algae, Algal biofuel, National Research Council, sustainability

Using today’s technologies and knowledge, a scale-up of fledgling algal biofuel production sufficient to meet even 5% of U.S. transportation fuel demand is unsustainable, says a report released last week by the National Research Council (NRC). The report examines the efficiency of producing biofuels from microalgae and cyanobacteria with respect to energy, water, and nutrient requirements and finds that the process falls short.

The energy from algal biofuel, the report finds, is less than the energy needed to make it. In terms of water, at least 32.5 billion gal would be needed to produce 10 billion gal of algae-based biofuels, the report states. The study also finds that making enough algal biofuels to replace just 5% of U.S. annual transportation fuel needs would require 44–107% of the total nitrogen and 20–51% of the total phosphorus consumed annually in the U.S.

NRC conducted the study at the request of the Department of Energy, which for nearly 20 years had a robust program to develop biofuels from algae. The program ended in 1996 when DOE concluded algal biofuels were unlikely to be cost-competitive with petroleum, the report says. “Fast-forward to 2012 and with advances in genetics and engineering we are back to the future in considering if algae can be an economic and sustainable alternative,” the report says.

Despite the shortcomings of current technology for algal biofuels, the report does not consider sustainability to be an insurmountable barrier and notes that better mitigation strategies might be developed. More R&D is needed before “the promise of sustainable development of algal biofuels has any chance of being realized,” NRC reports.

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © American Chemical Society
Carl Hensman (October 26, 2012 1:29 PM)
How about a direct link to the report?
T Vincent (October 26, 2012 2:48 PM) provides more information and is worth reviewing by anyone with serious interest in the topic.
lax-goalie (October 26, 2012 3:59 PM)
No link to the actual report?
Pontus Fyhr (October 29, 2012 4:36 AM)
Very interesting indeed!

Is the full article available online? A link would be most appreciated!
Rachel Pepling, Online Editor (October 29, 2012 2:48 PM)
Sorry for the delay in posting the link to the report, folks. The story's been updated with it.
David Becher (November 18, 2012 11:53 AM)
Amoco Chemical looked at this in the early 1980s and reached the same conclusions but concluded the issues were not easily surmountable. To produce on a commercial scale production would require land areas on the scale of the state of Arizona which is the 6th largest in terms of area in the US. It is doubtful that further study would make significant improvements. However this opens the door for the federal government to continue major R&D funding to find a way. Research projects do not die easily.

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