BIOMASS HUB

global bioenergy supply chain intelligence

Algae Biofuel

biofuel from algae

What is algae biofuel?

Algae biofuel is considered a third generation biofuel, a category which generally includes non-plant biomass feedstocks like genetically modified organisms (GMOs).  Unlike earlier generation biofuels where sugars are typically extracted from the plant (e.g. corn, sugarcane, cellulosic) or oilseeds processed into biodiesel, algae converts inputs into lipid oils, which can then be refined or “upgraded” to biofuel.  Most algae fuels are generally considered “fungible” with petroleum (drop-in compatible) and can be used for the production of typical fuels without disruptive changes in processes or infrastructure.  Algae oil can be used to make a range of fuels, but is most commonly associated with the production of biodiesel and aviation biofuels.

Why use algae?

Algae were first researched in earnest in the wake of the Arab Embargo (mid 70′s) by the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colorado under the now defunct Aquatic Species Program (ASP). Algae, which are a large and diverse group of simple organisms ranging from unicellular to multicellular forms, are incredibly efficient at making oil.  They can thrive in different types of water, including: fresh, brackish, seawater, water from saline aquifers, produced water (water that is produced along with oil and gas), or wastewater from treatment plants.  This flexibility distinguishes algae from other biofuels feedstocks, which in most cases rely solely on freshwater inputs that compete with potable drinking water and strategic aquifers (see Biofuels and the Growing Specter of Water Wars).

How is algae biofuel made?

Generally speaking, algae biofuel is just refined lipid oils that are extracted from the algal biomass.  In some cases, however, making biofuel from algae oil may involve the fermentation of sugars, the direct production of ethanol-grade biofuel from macroalgae, or producing methane from raw algal biomass.  To produce algae biofuel as a competitive bulk commodity, the production process must be optimized to reduce costs and obtain consistent yields.  Producing algae biofuel generally involves three key steps:

  1. The cultivation of algae (typically in raceway ponds or photobioreactors)
  2. Harvesting and extracting the algal biomass
  3. Extracting algae oils from the algal biomass

Currently, the market for biofuel from algae is dominated by microalgae, which lends itself to rapid growth and genetic modification.

Why make biofuel from algae?

Increases in the price of oil, concerns over greenhouse gas emissions, competing demands between foods and other biofuel sources (i.e. food vs. fuel, ILUC, and sustainability) have ignited interest in algaculture (farming algae) for the the production of algae fuel.  Algae biofuel has many advantages over first generation biofuels, namely, it can be produced at scale without excessive impingement on arable land, freshwater supplies, or petroleum-based inputs.  Algae can provide secondary benefits as well, including wastewater remediation for municipal water systems as well as the utilization of carbon emissions from stationary sources.

What are the advantages of algae biofuel?

Algae biofuel moves beyond many of the challenges facing first and second generation biofuels due to its potential to scale-up the production of renewable fuels without placing significant demand on scarce resources.  Some of algae’s key advantages includes:

  • High per-acre productivity (capable of producing 2 to 20 times more oil per acre than leading oilseed crops)
  • Non-food-based feedstock
  • Ability to grow on non-arable land, including deserts
  • Utilization of a wide variety of water resources (including wastewater and seawater)
  • Capability of producing a wide range of fuels and valuable co-products

What are some of the obstacles to algae biofuel?

Despite the many benefits of producing biofuel from algae, there are significant obstacles still facing the nascent commercial algae biofuel industry.  The primary obstacle is cost (see Algae Cost Parity), which can very considerably across different production processes.  To be competitive with petroleum-based fuels, biofuels should equal or beat the cost level of fossil fuels.  To this end, algae holds great promise, but the break-even point is predicted to still be about five to fifteen years away (based on publically available information). Secondary obstacles include the energy balance related to produce algae fuel and over-hype, which can create unrealistic expectations among investors.

How much does it cost to produce algae biofuel?

According to Solazyme’s S-1 filing with the Securities & Exchange Commission, its lead algae strain for fuels and chemicals could make a crude oil for under $3.44 per gallon at commercial scale using sugarcane feedstock.  Ultimately, the commercial viability of producing biofuel from algae is going to depend on improving the economics of cultivation, extraction, and production.

Who uses algae biofuel?

Currently, the commercial airline industry and military have shown the greatest interest in algae biofuel to date, but algae’s greatest promise rests in its potential to replace a significant share of the petroleum fuel market.  These parties require a cheap, sustainable, and reliable renewable fuel source to reduce expenses and mitigate their acute vulnerability to petroleum supply chains (see Aviation Biofuels).

Who makes algae biofuel?

There are a number of startup companies aiming to commercialize the production of biofuel from algae.  Companies like Solazyme (NASDAQ: SZYM) and PetroAlgae (OTCBB: PALG) have filed the most recent IPOs.  Other leading algae biofuel companies include Sapphire Energy, Algenol, Aurora Algae, Cellana, and Synthetic Genomics.  OriginOil and Algae.tec are aiming to commercialize innovative production processes.

What is the market outlook for algae biofuel?

There is no question that algae’s potential is huge, but cost remains a critical barrier to increased commercialization of algae fuel, leading many ventures producing algae oil to recently shift gears in search of revenue in high-value, low-volume co-product markets.  Pike Research, a cleantech market research and consulting firm, notes in its “Algae-Based Biofuels” report released in Q4 2010 that:

[D]espite limited production to date, the scale-up potential of algae is substantial compared to other non-food based feedstocks.  Although regulatory and policy uncertainty as well as competition from co-product markets will inhibit algae-based biofuels production initially, the cleantech market intelligence firm projects that the value of renewable fuels derived from algae will reach $1.3 billion by 2020.

Image: Flickr/BugMan50

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