One of the newest, most viable forms of clean energy could beat all other existing options

[USA] Worldwide oil prices are subject to quite a bit of volatility and are often affected by political disputes and controversies. When we consider these facts, in conjunction with the amount of pollution generated by burning petroleum products for fuel, it’s no surprise that scientists and governments are trying to explore alternative forms of energy.

One of the newest, and seemingly most viable forms of clean energy, could be poised to outperform all of the existing options, including solar: algae biofuel.

Algae are found throughout the Earth’s oceans, where they employ photosynthetic processes to create energy using sunlight. Some types of algae produce oils that they use to store energy, which means that certain algae can be grown and then harvested to produce biofuel: a net carbon-neutral process.

Although other crops, such as corn and soybeans, have been used to produce biofuel in the past, algae offer several advantages over them. According to the US Department of Energy, algae yields are between 10 and 100 times as high as those of traditional biofuels. What’s more, algae can grow in marginal or brackish agricultural areas, meaning that production can be ramped up significantly without competing with food crops for land and other resources.

The global market for biofuel was estimated at about $100 billion in 2013. Many believe that the size of this market could almost double within the next few decades. According to scientist and entrepreneur Craig Venter, it would take a land area three times the size of the United States to replace all the fuel used in transportation in the U.S. with corn-derived biofuel. By contrast, it would only take an area the size of Maryland to do so using algae.

The U.S. Department of Energy is pouring money into efforts to promote the viability and efficiency of using algae as a fuel. It has announced $18 million in funding towards this end, and Just Energy in Ohio has pushed for more state level funding for research into methods to more efficiently grow, process and extract the oils from algae. Efforts are underway throughout many other countries as well.

Researchers in the Netherlands are experimenting with growing multiple species of algae together to achieve synergies that aren’t possible with monocultures. Australia saw its first testing of a commercial algae fuel production facility last year in Whyalla. Canadian researchers have used specially grown algae to actively clean up oil sands. In Sweden, chemical company Perstorp is trying out different growing conditions and algae species to identify ones that show potential as biofuel.

Employees load bags onto a Boeing 737-800 running on algae-based biofuel in Houston. Continental (owned by United Continental Holdings Inc.) flew the nation's first passenger jet powered by biofuels.
Employees load bags onto a Boeing 737-800 running on algae-based biofuel in Houston. Continental (owned by United Continental Holdings Inc.) flew the nation’s first passenger jet powered by biofuels.

Algae has already been used successfully in a number of commercial areas. In 2011, United Airlines ran the first passenger flight powered solely by algae products. In Hamburg, Germany, a unique residential structure, called the “BIQ House,” uses bioreactors filled with algae to generate heat and biomass without requiring any electricity to be added from outside the system. The success of these trial projects as well as the support of big names like Craig Venter and Japanese PM Shinzo Abe might well serve to propel algae-based fuel solutions even further.

What’s holding algae back from wider mainstream adoption is price. Estimates from the Biofuels Digest in late 2014 suggest that the price of algae biofuel is around $7.50 per gallon. Although the price of gasoline and other fuels changes quite frequently, it tends to be much less than this figure. Experts believe that algae fuels must reach around $3 per gallon to be able to successfully compete with oil-based products.

It’s hard to speculate on whether algae or any other type of biofuel could completely displace oil.

If any of them could do it, it would most likely be algae, assuming that it can someday be produced at competitive prices. The arable land requirements of other types of biofuel made from food crops place a hard limit on the amount of fuel that could be sourced in this way, and we must also consider the effect on food prices as more farmland is devoted to the production of fuel.

A Florida-based company called Algenol has an ambitious target of producing several types of fuel using algae at $1.30 per gallon. This company’s processes actually consume salt water and generate freshwater, a useful byproduct of its production model. Tokyo-based Euglena, named after a species of algae, received a special Prime Minister’s Award for its work producing foodstuffs, cosmetics and fuel from algae.

Craig Venter’s company Synthetic Genomics is active in efforts to use genetic manipulation of algae to increase fuel production, reduce atmospheric CO2 and grow food for human consumption. What all these companies have in common with each other and with many other algae firms is the fact that they’re trying to create other usable products while at the same time generating fuels.

Now that there’s serious interest and investment in algae-derived fuels, it’s highly likely that advancing technology will be able to reduce prices to a level necessary for market success. If this occurs, we could see algae having a greater impact on sustainability, carbon dioxide reduction and clean energy generation than wind, solar and hydroelectric combined.


Photo: Pierre Calleja, manager of French firm Fermentalg, specializing in ichthyology, checks microalgae bred in his laboratory in Libourne, southwestern France.

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