Algae biofuel is something of a dream renewable fuel source: it can thrive on non-agricultural land, use wastewater and absorb carbon dioxide. But development of cost-competitive algae biofuel production will remain a dream for years to come, according to a new report from the Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI) in Berkeley.
“Even with relatively favorable and forward-looking process assumptions (from cultivation to harvesting to processing), algae oil production with microalgae cultures will be expensive and, at least in the near-to-mid-term, will require additional income streams to be economically viable,” said authors Nigel Quinn and Tryg Lundquist of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
They drew the conclusion after carrying out a detailed techno-economic analysis of algal biofuel production. The project is one of the over 70 studies on bioenergy now being pursued by the EBI and its scientists at the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, and Berkeley Lab.
Research and development
Currently there are over 100 companies worldwide developing algal biomass and oil for use in transport but all of these small operations have yet to operate a pilot plant with multiple acres of algae production systems. There are exceptions, though. Exxon Mobil has committed $600 million to the technology while Shell and Italian oil company Eni have also algae-related fuel projects in the pipeline.
The U.S. government has also funded several projects and in Europe the EU has funded three 25-acre pilot projects. All of these projects have one common goal: to prove that it is possible to culture algae on a mass scale with current or upcoming technology within the technical and economic limits required for biofuel production.
The report also notes that global resource availability will be a major controller of algae production. These include suitable climate, water, flat land and carbon dioxide, which must be available in one location for “optimal algal biomass production”.
The potential for this type of renewable energy is encouraging. The U.S. alone could produce several billion gallons annually. But to get there the industry will have to carry on with the homework.
Article by Antonio Pasolini, a Brazilian writer and video art curator based in London, UK. He holds a BA in journalism and an MA in film and television.