Environment
Study of wolves will help scientists predict climate effects on endangered animals — Scientists studying populations of grey wolves in the USA's Yellowstone National Park have developed a way to predict how changes in the environment will impact on the animals' number,…
Climate sensitivity to CO2 more limited than extreme projections — A new study suggests that the rate of global warming from doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide may be less than the most dire estimates of some previous studies - and, in fact, may…
Saving Da Vinci's Last Supper from air pollution — Having survived long centuries, political upheaval, and even bombings during World War II, Leonardo Da Vinci's masterpiece Last Supper now faces the risk of damage from air pollution…
After 25 years, sustainability is a growing science that's here to stay — Sustainability has not only become a science in the past 25 years, but it is one that continues to be fast-growing with widespread international collaboration, broad disciplinary composition…
Markets drive conservation in Central Africa — Certification has shown that commercial forestry can co-exist with conservation objectives in the Congo Basin, according to conclusions reached at an international seminar 'Forest management…
Great Plains river basins threatened by pumping of aquifers — Suitable habitat for native fishes in many Great Plains streams has been significantly reduced by the pumping of groundwater from the High Plains aquifer - and scientists analysing…
Rivers may aid climate control in cities — Speaking at the URSULA (Urban River Corridors and Sustainable Living Agendas) Conference, in Sheffield, Dr Abigail Hathway, of the University of Sheffield, will demonstrate how rivers…
Vultures dying at alarming rate — Vultures in South Asia were on the brink of extinction until Lindsay Oaks and Richard Watson, from The Peregrine Fund in the US, undertook observational and forensic studies to find…
Predicting future threats for global amphibian biodiversity — Amphibian populations are declining worldwide, and their declines far exceed those of other animal groups: more than 30% of all species are listed as threatened according to the Red…
Study shows deforestation causes cooling — Deforestation, considered by scientists to contribute significantly to global warming, has been shown by a Yale-led team to actually cool the local climate in northern latitudes, according…
Where am I? > Home > News > Environment

Algae for biofuels: Moving from promise to reality, but how fast?

Science Centric | 3 November 2010 12:08 GMT
Printable version A clip for your blog or website E-mail the story to a friend
Bookmark or share the story on your social network Vote for this article Decrease text size Increase text size
DON'T MISS —
New research examines the excessive reactive nitrogen entering the environment
New research examines the excessive reactive nitrogen entering the environment — While human-caused global climate change has long been a concern for environmental scientists and is a well-known public…
Biomass-degrading fungus reveals capabilities for improved biofuel production
Biomass-degrading fungus reveals capabilities for improved biofuel production — The bane of military quartermasters may soon be a boon to biofuels producers. The genome analysis of a champion biomass-degrading…
More Environment

A new report from the Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI) in Berkeley projects that development of cost-competitive algae biofuel production will require much more long-term research, development and demonstration. In the meantime, several non-fuel applications of algae could serve to advance the nascent industry.

'Even with relatively favourable 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,' write authors Nigel Quinn and Tryg Lundquist of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), which is a partner in the BP-funded institute.

Their conclusions stem from a detailed techno-economic analysis of algal biofuels 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.

The algae biofuels industry is still in its early gestation stage, the new report notes. Although well over 100 companies in the U.S. and abroad are now working to produce algal biomass and oil for transportation fuels, most are small and none has yet operated a pilot plant with multiple acres of algae production systems. However, several companies recently initiated such scale-up projects, including several major oil companies such as ExxonMobil (which a year ago announced a $600 million commitment to algae biofuels technology), Shell (with a joint venture project, 'Cellana,' in Hawaii), and Eni (the Italian oil company, with a pre-pilot plant in Sicily).

The U.S. Department of Energy has funded several R and D consortia and pilot projects, and one 300-acre demonstration project in New Mexico, by Sapphire Energy, Inc. The U.S. Department of Defence is supporting several fast-track projects. In the United Kingdom, the Carbon Trust has initiated a 10-year effort to develop algae oil production, engaging a dozen universities and research laboratories, while the European Union recently funded three 25-acre pilot projects.

Most of these projects use the raceway, open pond-based algal production technologies, which were analysed in the EBI Report. These projects hope to show that it is possible to mass culture algae with current or near-term technology within the technical and economic constraints required for biofuel production.

Once the technologies are developed, global resource availability will be a major controller of algae production, the report states. Four key resources (suitable climate, water, flat land and carbon dioxide) must all be available in one location for optimal algal biomass production. The authors state that despite the need for all four resources, algal oil production technology has the potential to produce several billion gallons annually of renewable fuel in the U.S. However, achieving this goal, particularly at competitive capital and operating costs, will require further research and development.

The EBI report focuses on algal biofuels produced in conjunction with wastewater treatment as a promising cost-effective strategy to fast-track development of a practical production process. Besides providing the needed water and nutrients, use of wastewater in algae production provides the potential for income from the treatment service provided.

The areas the study identified as essential for R and D are in both the biology and engineering fields. The ability to cultivate stable cultures under outdoor conditions, while achieving both high productivities and oil content, is still to be developed. Despite the well-known rapid growth rate of algae, increasing the volume of algae oil produced per unit of surface area per year is a crucial goal. Oil-rich algae strains that are biologically competitive with contaminating wild species and that consistently grow well in various climates are needed. Other key steps to be improved are low-cost harvesting of microscopic algae cells and the extraction of their oil content, as well as dealing with the biomass residue remaining after oil extraction.

The report's analysis includes five conceptual facilities for algae pond biofuel production, four of them 250 acres in size and one of 1,000 acres. All used municipal wastewater as the source of both water and nutrients, with some emphasising production of oil, while others have wastewater treatment as their main priorities. Biofuel products included either biogas and oil or just biogas production, with the biogas used for electricity generation. The hypothetical location was the Imperial Valley in southern California, where the only major microalgae farms in the continental U.S. are presently located. In the scenarios, productivity peaks in the summer months but is essentially nil in the coldest winter months, with light and temperature being the main limiting factors.

Engineering designs and cost analysis for the various cases were based on projecting current commercial microalgae production and wastewater treatment processes at much larger scales. They assumed higher productivities due to plausible technological advances. The estimated capital costs for a 250-acre biofuel production system emphasising oil production were about $21 million, with annual operating costs at around $1.5 million, to produce about 12,300 barrels of oil, giving a break-even price per barrel of oil of $330 (based on an 8 percent capital charge). Increasing the scale of the system to 1,000 acres reduced the break-even price to about $240 per barrel. These prices considered wastewater treatment credits, which reduced costs about 20 percent. Other facilities that maximised wastewater treatment produced fuel at lower cost due to greater treatment revenue. However, the availability of wastewater would greatly limit the national scale of this lower-cost fuel production.

Other co-products, specifically animal feeds, could help offset costs, but these products are of relatively low value or have very limited markets. 'Wastewater treatment is the only realistic co-product for (algal) biofuels production,' the report states. 'Only through intensive, continuous, large-scale research with outdoor ponds can we hope to progress in a reasonable time frame.'

The EBI scientists conclude that 'algal oil production will be neither quick nor plentiful - 10 years is a reasonable projection for the R, D and D (research, development and demonstration) to allow a conclusion about the ability to achieve, at least for specific locations, relatively low-cost algal biomass and oil production.'

Source: DOE/Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory


Leave a comment
The details you provide on this page [e-mail address] will not be used to send unsolicited e-mail, and will not be supplied to a third party! Please note that we can not promise to give everyone a response. Comments are fully moderated. Once approved they will be posted within 24 hours.
Expand the form to leave a comment

RSS FEEDS, NEWSLETTER
Find the topic you want. Science Centric offers several RSS feeds for the News section.

Or subscribe for our Newsletter, a free e-mail publication. It is published practically every day.

New source for biofuels discoveredNew source for biofuels discovered

— A newly created microbe produces cellulose that can be turned into ethanol and other biofuels, report scientists from The University of Texas at Austin who say the…

Are Ice Age relics the next casualty of climate change?Are Ice Age relics the next casualty of climate change?

— The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) recently launched a four-year study to determine if climate change is affecting populations of a quintessential Arctic denizen:…

Revolutionary carbon dioxide maps zoom in on greenhouse gas sourcesRevolutionary carbon dioxide maps zoom in on greenhouse gas sources

— A new, high-resolution, interactive map of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels has found that the emissions aren't all where we thought. 'For example,…

NWF urges protection for polar bearsNWF urges protection for polar bears

— At a hearing on Capitol Hill today, the National Wildlife Federation urged immediate action to protect America's polar bears from the impacts of climate change by…

Popular tags in Environment: climate · ecosystem · nitrogen · pollution