Algae Biofuels World Summit Wraps Up in San Francisco

An experimental algae pondThe Algae Biofuels World Summit concluded yesterday in San Francisco. The event was geared to active participants in the industry, and I had the opportunity to attend Monday’s all day pre-conference briefing highlighting key players in government, research, and business all pursuing the goal of scaling algal biofuels to a commercial enterprise level.

It is clear that algae is “hot” – but as is often the case with hot, there is no shortage of hype. A recurring theme throughout the day was the common mis-percepton of algae biofuel as “cheap and easy” and a one-size-fits-all solution to the world’s fuel energy needs.

Not so fast.

Hype, Hope, and Promise

The fact is the algae biofuels industry faces significant challenges rising above the level of experimental “boutique” fuel and achieving commercial scalability. As Jake Richardson writes in his recent post, there are several experimental projects showing promise for algae biofuels, but nothing is proven at a commercial scale and algae-based fuel will likely never offer a total solution or live up to the more wildly optimistic claims laid upon it.

That is not to say algae biofuels do not hold exceptional promise as an important – perhaps even crucial – component of a national and global fuel energy strategy. Even though algae is “hot”, cooler heads prevailed  at the briefing as professionals from all corners of the industry examined the realities and challenges of building a national scale biofuels industry (considered on the order of 20 to 100 billion gallons per year produced nationally).

Let’s examine five key points from the briefing. Check out my post on TriplePundit for more.

  • Productivity:

    Current claims of algae producing 15,000 gallons of biofuel per acre per year are, according to Dr. John Benneman of Benneman Associates, wildly unrealistic.The current peak productivity is more on the level of 2,000 to 2,500 gallons per acre/year. With genetically engineered strains, the yield could be increased by up to four times, says Benneman, but  he is quick to add that there should be an immediate moratorium on GE algal strains, due primarily to likely backlash of (once again) public mis-perception of the dangers of genetically engineered algal stains on the environment and human health.Benneman firmly believes there is no danger in pursuing GE strains of algae, beyond a mismanaged public relations effort in properly educating the public. Without highly controlled, genetically engineered strains of algae, productivity may not sustainably support a commercial scale operation of about 50 million gallons per year.

    But without an organized effort of educating the public on the realities of GE algae strains, continued research would likely be a “shot in the foot” for the industry.

  • Research and Development

    As in more of it. A lot more. The mantra throughout the day was for more R&D, more pilot projects, more land in production, and more basic science done with a fresh new cadre of scientists. It was suggested that more of our best and brightest college students should consider a career in Phycology instead of devising exotic investment instruments for Wall Street. No doubt that will make all of us better off.

  • Water

    Of all the issues brought up by the researchers, scientists, and business leaders at the briefing, water was arguably the most pressing issue of all. Evaporative loss from even small scale production runs into millions of gallons a day. Evaporation can be controlled with closed systems (photo-bioreactors) but I have yet to talk to anyone involved in algal biofuel research that considers closed systems economically viable at scale. The consensus is for simple open or raceway ponds, but water is a significantly limiting factor. Using brackish or seawater may hold promise, but issues then arise of what to do with the accumulated salt once the biomass is extracted.

    As Tony Michaels of Proteus Environmental Technologies said at the briefing, the controversy of “food vs. fuel” could easily turn to “water vs. fuel” if these water resource challenges are not adequately addressed.

  • Co-production

    Everyone at the briefing agreed that the likely path to economic viability for algae biofuel at scale was through co-location, co-processes, and co-production of products and services. Ben Cloud of XL Renewables stressed that the only workable business model for enterprise scale algae biofuel production may in fact mean producing something else in the beginning, and only after the operation sees profitability should it move into producing biofuel. Even with biofuel production, it is likely that a sound and sustainable model will include a host of co-generation, co-production, and co-services from a single location. There are a host of possibilities here, including:

    • CO2 mitigation
    • wastewater treatment
    • medicinal uses
    • nutraceuticals
    • bio-plastics
    • sources of food/protein (food and fuel)
    • biomass/process waste heat for generating electricity.
  • Regulatory Framework

    The Aquatic Species Act was launched in the 70’s under the Carter Administration to research the potential of using algae as an energy source. The program was abandoned in the 90’s under the Clinton administration with the conclusion at the time that algae biofuel could only be produced between $40-$70 a barrel. Oil at the time cost about $20/barrel.

    Fast-forward ten years and the economies of fossil vs. renewable fuel sources is turned on its head. At least enough for renewed interest from the Department of Energy, who commissioned a “roadmap” report for the algae biofuel industry. Philip Pienkos of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) is heading the team that prepared the draft report. Pienkos and other stressed the urgent need that a regulatory framework be set in place to administer new policies and standards for the infant industry.

    Currently no such policies or standards exist for an operation that combines both agricultural and industrial processes on one site. Pienkos feels one regulatory body should be created that combine functions of the USDA and EPA so the growing industry can safely and efficiently operate.

The potential for algae biofuels is apparent, but the clear-headed assessment this week makes clear that the devil is in the details. It is exciting to hear of new experimental projects and pilot plants producing what could be the next fuel source for a new energy economy. But we are not there yet, and much work remains so that wild-eyed optimism can be replaced with a realistically sustainable industry providing its share of the overall solution to the world’s fuel energy needs.

“…engineering studies do not conclude that we can or will actually be able to produce algal oil/biodiesel. They conclude that the R&D to develop such processes can be justified, at least until it can be demonstrated to be impossible” Dr. John Benemann, Benemann Associates.

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Tom Schueneman

is an online publisher, editor, and freelance writer. He is the founder of and the History Blog Project, as well as publisher and site director for the Tom also contributes to numerous environmental blogs, including TriplePundit, Ecopolitology, Sustainablog, and Planetsave.   Tom's work has led him to Europe, Africa, Latin America, Canada, the South Pacific, and across the United States. His home base is San Francisco, California.