Algal biofuel dream turns out to be a damp squib

Posted: August 11, 2017 by oldbrew in Energy, ideology, research
Tags: ,


Another green dream has crumbled in the face of inconvenient reality, defeated by biology, as Yahoo News reports. Research shows it is neither commercially nor environmentally sustainable, unless the equivalent of three Belgiums and a mountain of fertilizer can be found.

Modern biofuels have been touted as a greener alternative to petrol and diesel since the early 1900s. It seems like a good idea on paper, and they do work – but their use and production doesn’t come without problems.

The first generation of biofuels – mainly ethanol made from plant crops – and second generation, derived from plant and animal waste streams, both had environmentalists and others concerned about the competition for land and nutrients between biofuels production and food production.

It was with a lot of hope, and hype, that production of the third generation of biofuels was started. Unlike their predecessors, these biofuels are derived from algae, and so in theory the food vs fuel dilemma of crop-based biofuels would be solved.

Fossil fuel oil and gas originated from ancient algae in large measure, so the concept here is to replicate the essence of the creation of fossil fuels, albeit accelerated and optimised with modern chemical engineering. It was claimed that using algae would be much more efficient than creating biofuels from terrestrial plants and that the technology would make use of poor quality land not able to grow other crops.

Millions of dollars, euros and other currencies have been spent trying to get the algal marvel to work. Much of the money has been directed at refining the engineering process, electrically lighting the crop – which grows in a liquid suspension – harvesting and draining it. The solution to optimisation was seen as primarily technological non-biological, though species selection and growth conditions were also acknowledged as important factors.

Damp squib

However, it turns out that the hype has been misplaced. Our research has found that the production of algal biofuels is neither commercially nor environmentally sustainable.

The attainable production levels are a fraction of those that were claimed. The amount of biofuel produced from prolonged culture of algae in pilot-scale systems is actually not too dissimilar from those of terrestrial plants: around 5,000 to 10,000 litres per hectare per year.

Continued here.
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Original report: Algal biofuel production is neither environmentally nor commercially sustainable | The Conversation

  1. Curious George says:

    “Millions of dollars, euros and other currencies have been spent trying to get the algal marvel to work.” Looks right to me – even with government money. Couple of millions is not a lot of money to test a bright idea. Not every bright idea works.

    To spend billions (not millions) on solar parks in sunny Germany or UK is a crime. This is not about testing a new technology; it is about forcing unproven technology down everybody’s throat. And government ministers’s nephews laugh all the way to the bank.

  2. BoyfromTottenham says:

    Quelle surprise!

  3. oldbrew says:

    U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)
    Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO)
    2017 Project Peer Review
    Microalgae Biofuels Production on CO2 from Air

    An additional two to three-fold improvement is needed to
    enable year-round outdoor pond cultivation using only air
    CO2, at little to no reduction in productivity
    [33 pages]

  4. David Springer says:

    Exxon just published a breakthrough in Nature that doubled production.

    More breakthroughs will follow of course, this is just the beginning.

  5. oldbrew says:

    Ability to scale up to industrial levels, and costs are key issues.
    We already have affordable fuel.

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