Algae Cost Parity
The Pentagon announces a major breakthrough: algae cost parity with oil. The DARPA-backed project surprises many industry insiders and could be a game changer for the growing algae biofuels industry.
The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) is reporting that its development of algae biofuels is well ahead of schedule. Last week, the Pentagon claimed that it could be cost competitive with fossil fuels within months, surprising many industry insiders who believed cost-competitive algae was years away.
The claim comes from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which helped to develop the internet and satellite navigation systems. Susan Goldberg of The Guardian reports that DARPA’s research projects have already extracted oil from algal ponds at a cost of $2 per gallon and it is now on track to begin large-scale refining of that oil into jet fuel, at a cost of less than $3 a gallon by 2013.
Consuming 60 to 75 million barrels of jet fuel a year, the US military is desperately in search of a cheap, low-carbon fuel alternative to wean itself off foreign oil. The breakthrough holds promise for the aviation industry as well, which has struggled with oil price volatility and high prices (read here and here).
In an interview with the DoD Information Service last year, Barbara McQuiston, special assistant on energy at DARPA noted:
When you’re in the field, in places like Afghanistan, all your energy has to be brought in right now. What we think about is what sort of technology could you have to make yourself tactically independent so that you could generate energy from where you are? …Instead of having this single dependency – fossil fuels, and conserving what we have to slow down the rate at which we consume it, moving more towards the ability to create energy, manage energy, and have a stronger point in its energy security for the future, not only for our military but for our nation as well.
Algae has many environmental benefits as well. Unlike corn-based ethanol, algal farms do not compete with food supplies. Some strains are being grown on household waste and in brackish water (with potential to remediate municipal water systems). Because algae draws carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, it is theoretically carbon neutral.
For more on the algae story, read here.