Outdated Algae Data Is Misleading

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In a recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Virginia and published in Environmental Science & Technology, the authors claim that algae causes more harm to the environment than traditional biofuel crops like corn.

However, in this study, the researchers used algae production data from at least a decade ago.

In response, Andres Clarens the lead author of the study said he used the most recent data that he could, which was about 10 years old. Algae biofuel companies keep their research a closely guarded secret, he said.

The absence of up-to-date data is comparable to trying to conduct a study on modern Internet usage by using information from the mid-1990s. This research method would obviously be faulty considering that Internet usage of the 1990s barely resembles the way the internet is used today.

Similarly, the field of algae research has experienced many breakthroughs and advances in the past decade just as the Internet has seen a drastic evolution in its use.

In a recent press release, the Algal Biomass Organization pointed out this fact, as well as several other assumptions and flaws within the UVA study itself. Some of the flaws include:

  1. Assumptions about algae growth systems. The report uses a first generation, raceway-style pond system as its benchmark. Many leading algae companies abandoned that approach years ago and have a variety of more advanced cultivation systems, some of which are unrelated to the methods the authors sought to assess.
  2. Assumptions about co-location. By assuming the production facility is not co-located with a large CO2 emitter, calculations for sourcing CO2 are flawed, resulting in a higher attribution of CO2 for algae plants. Most commercial-scale algae projects are being developed alongside major emitters in order to beneficially reuse CO2 that will take the place of equivalent carbon emissions from petroleum fuels.
  3. Assumptions about water use. The study assumes fresh water and non-potable salt water are equal. A sustainable industrial algae production model uses non-potable, non-agricultural water in the process of making liquid fuels.
  4. Assumptions about nutrient use. Because the report does not look at the full algae fuel cycle, ignored is the opportunity to consider the ability of algae producers to recycle nutrients and avoid such a substantial burden.
  5. Assumptions about energy use. Because the authors admittedly did not consider the full algae fuel cycle, which allows energy reuse through biodigester biogas combustion coupled with the carbon recycling from all of the aspects of biodigestion, the report errantly gives a higher emissions burden.

One example that highlights the problems with the first assumption is algae fermentation systems like those developed by Solazyme. According to a study published in March 2009, fermentation technology seems to be the most likely growth technology to become commercially viable in the short-term. However, the fermentation method and the one studied by UVA researchers are so drastically different that the study’s conclusions cannot be applied to the other.

Additionally, the study does not consider companies like Seambiotic, an Israel-based company that has been successfully operating a pilot algae growth program that harnesses CO2 emissions from a co-located coal power plant. By teaming up with CO2 emitters, algae companies can cut down on the costs associated with obtaining necessary carbon for algae growth.

Also, while the study does reference wastewater as a potential source of water, it doesn’t mention that there are entities like Algae Wheel and NASA currently looking into, and even using this method.

Overall, it is surprising that the study would ignore all these facts, among many others, when they went about conducting their study.

By using outdated data, the study cannot be considered an accurate snapshot of the algae biofuel field. It is better to look at it as showing where the field once was and remember that things have only advanced from that point.

Article by Jonathan Williams appearing courtesy Celsias.

photo: t2ll2t

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About Author

Walter’s contributions to CleanTechies over the past 4 years have been instrumental in growing the publications social media channels via his ongoing editorial and data driven strategies. He is the founder and managing director of Sunflower Tax, a renewable energy tax and finance consultancy based in San Diego, California. Active in the San Diego clean technology community, participating in events sponsored by CleanTech San Diego, EcoTopics, and Cleantech Open San Diego, Walter has also been a presenter at numerous California Center for Sustainability (CCSE) programs. He currently serves as an adjunct professor at the University of San Diego School of Law where he teaches a course on energy taxation and policy.

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