Algae-based Fuels Could Cut Foreign Oil Use by 17%


According to a team of researchers at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, algea-based biofuels could replace up to 17 % of America’s petroleum imports each year, without a significant impact on fresh water use.

The issue of where the water necessary to grow the algal components for the fuel is (arguably) the greatest singles source of controversy surrounding algea based fuels, but the PNL researchers note that raising even large amounts of algae in the humid climates of the Gulf Coast, Southeastern Seaboard and Great Lakes regions would require very little “new” water use.  Addressing the issue of water, Mark Wigmosta (the project’s hydrologist and lead author of the study) dismissed excessive water-use concerns, explaining that “algae has been a hot topic of biofuel discussions recently, but no one has taken such a detailed look at how much America could make — and how much water and land it would require — until now.”

Algea biofuels are made by extracting and refining the fats and lipids within algae, which are ideal biofuel stock because they grows quickly and thrive in everything from seawater to sewage.

These biofuels could go a long way toward meeting the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) without getting drawn into dubious “food for fuel” arguments.  The EISA requires that bio-based fuels replace more than 10 % of our current petroleum consumption by 2022.

SourcesWater Resources Research and PNNL, via Wired.

About the Author

I've been in the auto industry 1997, and write for a number of blogs in the IM network. You can also find me on Twitter, at my Volvo fansite, or chasing my kids around Oak Park, IL.
  • They could use the water that normally would have been used to refine gasoline, or that would otherwise be pumped down into oil wells in order to increase the amount of oil they can get out of a well (“produced water”).

    From the EPA, up to three-quarters of a Trillion gallons of water is used each year just in the refining process (some would say this is a gross under-estimate):

    “Significant quantities of water—primarily for processing and cooling— are needed to produce fuel. Refineries use about 1 to 2.5 gallons of water for every gallon of product, meaning that the United States, which refines nearly 800 million gallons of petroleum products per day, consumes about 1 to 2 billion gallons of water each day to produce fuel (USDOE, 2006).”

    Add all the water that is polluted or contaminated by the oil industry every year (like a big chunk of the Gulf of Mexico last year), and the amount of water needed for algea-based fuels is just a tiny blip in what oil is already doing to our water.

    • Great link Nixon. I did the math to figure out how many kWh they used per gallon of gasoline. It is incredible to realize that they are using 7kWh for every gallon of gas they refine. And that is assuming that all 42 gallons per barrel are refined.

      That is 7kWh for refining alone! That doesn’t include the energy used to find it, drill it, transport it, store it….OR all the energy needed to create the other chemicals that go into the refining process.

      Then you throw in all the water we waste, 2.5 gallons of water for every gallon of gas….pathetic!!!

      What a waste, and we pay foreign powers for the privilege!!! Way to support the good ol USA! Woo hooo!!!

    • Great post!

  • Hey Nixon,

    I assume you’re the same Nixon who is usually commenting over at ABG?

    Anyway, great link to that epa report on refining. I don’t know which stunned me more, the water usage, or the BTUs it takes to refine the petroleum!

    • ABG?

      • Hey Dave. Yup, I’m the same guy. The crazy thing about this report is that none of the oil refineries are required to actually track and report these numbers. They are based upon voluntary self-reporting. If we actually required full disclosure by law instead of relying upon voluntary disclosure, I’m sure the numbers would actually be higher.

        Jo Borras – ABG is another green autoblog website where I used to post, but don’t anymore. I felt they were more interested in page hits for ad revenue than correct and accurate content. Then I found through a survey of the most popular green car websites….

  • The US taxpayer has spent over $2.5 billion on algae research. Nothing has been commercialized to date by any university. The REAL question is: Does the DOE really want the US off of foreign oil or do they want to continue giving grants for research to keep algae researchers employed at US universities for another 50 years???

    • That $2.5 billion is a drop in the bucket compared to what was spent on GPS technology, and it was years before that was commercialized. The same goes for a number of other DARPA/defense projects and even projects that start out as “pure” research.

    • $2,500,000,000 / 300,000,000 Americans = $8.33 per person.

      I’m happy with my investment so far.

      • Tyler Massie

        Ditto. Any technology with the potential to wean us off of foreign oil is worth looking into. That 17% is quite an impressive figure.

  • Algae is the best biofuel crop. Notthat others aren’t a good idea but Algae really rocks out man.

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  • The US taxpayer has spent over $2.5 billion dollars on algae research at universities for the last 50 years. To date nothing has been commercialized at any universities.

    The REAL question is: Does the DOE really want to get off of foreign oil or do they want to continue funding grants to algae researchers to help keep them employed at universities for another 50 years???

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