Report Analyzes Economic Viability of Algae Biofuels

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Algae a Viable Biofuel?

Reporter Madeleine Key talks about a recent report that claims algae biofuel production to be far from cost-effective.

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After conducting an economic analysis of algae biofuel production in the U.S., four researchers at the Energy Biosciences Institute have concluded that despite heavy investment from multiple industries, numerous scientific and technological advances are needed to transform this type of energy production into a viable and cost-competitive option.

The report, released by the institute on Oct. 25, analyzes different algae biofuel production scenarios that vary in farm size and type of biofuel output, taking into account costs associated with each particular method. Although microalgae are cultivated on small-scale farms throughout the world for use in the nutraceutical industry, the assessment reveals significant barriers to the widespread use of algae as a renewable energy source, said Nigel Quinn, the principal investigator of the report and a group research leader at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

According to Quinn, large amounts of carbon dioxide, water, nutrients, cheap land and sunlight are needed to harvest oil from algae, and although all of these elements can be found together, they rarely exist in adequate quantities. The report states that even at the cheapest estimated mode of production, the cost of oil harvested from algae cannot compete with other forms of renewable energy.

"There's no point in expending a lot of fossil fuel to produce a small amount of renewable fuel," said Tryg Lundquist, the lead author of the report and an affiliate of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, in an e-mail.

Although some of the problems associated with algae biofuel production are common to all forms of renewable energy - such as scaling operations so they satisfy a significant percentage of energy needs - the report advocates for extensive research and development in nearly all aspects of algae biofuel production.

Lundquist said in the e-mail that increasing the productivity and reliability of microalgae cultures - which are susceptible to boom and bust cycles as well as disease - through strain selection and genetic modification would help make the process more viable.

Even if renewable biofuel energy production is improved, satisfying Americans' "tremendous" consumption of fuel will remain a challenge, Lundquist said.

"Energy conservation is still going to be essential to make any progress towards balancing our supply and demand," he said in the e-mail.

Both researchers said the findings are consistent with previous studies, although the report differs in its explicit and detailed economic analysis.

According to Quinn, the large amount of investor interest in algae biofuel production and the growing attendance at the annual algae biomass summit are indicators that research breakthroughs are near.

"With that much brain power pushed toward a problem, eventually there's going to be a solution," he said.


Contact Madeleine Key at [email protected]

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