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Are Algae Biofuels a Realistic Alternative to Petroleum?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Researchers at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have found that nearly 14 percent of land in the continental United States, or roughly the combined area of Texas and New Mexico, could be used for converting algae to transportation fuels.

In 2008, the U.S. Department of Energy estimated that for algae fuel to replace all the petroleum fuel in the U.S., it would require about 30,000 square kilometers of land, or about half the land area of South Carolina. Therefore, this finding illustrates the potential of algae-based fuels, and for that matter, the potential any alternative energy source that requires vast amounts of land.

“Our main driver was to look at how much land would be available for installing large algae pond systems,” said Dr. Erik Venteris, a spatial modeling engineer at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the lead investigator of the study.

Algae pond facilities require between 1,000 and 1,200 acres of land for one facility, said Venteris. The facilities he envisions would hold up to one million gallons of algae biodiesel per facility.

Where the 14 percent of available land is located is a major concern, however, according to Dr. Richard Nelson, a professor in the Center for Sustainable Energy at Kansas State University. This number includes low-slope, non-protected land. Much of the desert land in Arizona and other parts of the southwest are flat and available, but the amount of infrastructure and resources available in these areas remains a question mark.

Venteris’s study took into account not only areas that were currently available with a low-slope, but also areas that would be cheap to purchase from their current owners.

“The first candidates that I think about are where we have agricultural land that is no longer productive,” said Dr. Stephen Mayfield, the director of the University of California, San Diego’s Algae Center for Biotechnology.

Mayfield said there is tons of agricultural land sitting idle because it has been “salted out” of production. These unproductive lands would be more valuable holding algae facilities, and Mayfield cites California’s Imperial Valley as a good site for algae ponds since its only current use is storing agricultural runoff, and algae can grow in both ocean and wastewater. However, lands in California have some of the highest prices of acquisition, according to Venteris’s study.

The cheapest land that Venteris found was the arid lands in the West, but two types of land stood out to him as good contenders for algae biofuel facilities: marginal croplands and southern woodlands.

Marginal croplands, or lands that netted the least amount of profit, are useful because the owners have a high incentive to sell their land. Also, this land has been used for agriculture and should share similar climate and resource characteristics that would promote algae growth.

Southern woodlands have relatively cheap wood, flat land, and plenty of water and soil resources, but backlash from environmental groups is a major concern with using these lands since it would require cutting down trees.

Venteris emphasized the use of marginal croplands before woodlands, and Mayfield believes that woodlands should not be considered until other options have been exhausted. Mayfield believes that the algae facilities should first be constructed in places that already have the optimal climate conditions, resources, cost, and infrastructure. The U.S. has CO2 pipelines across the country, so Mayfield believes it would be “trivial” to build pipelines once algae-based fuels become more prominent.

Finding a market for biodiesel is another issue. If algae-based transportation fuels were offered at service stations today, the cost would be quite expensive making it a less attractive option than petroleum fuels.

Nelson said the current market for algae fuels exists in places that don’t have a large gasoline market, and once a larger market is found, the algae fuel industry still has to find a way to partner with the petroleum industry so that it can sell its fuel.

Despite the challenges, Mayfield remains optimistic.

“There was no petroleum industry in 1900,” said Mayfield, “we needed energy, so we built it.”

Image: agrilifetoday on Flickr

Ian Branam About the Author: Ian Branam is a freelance health and science writer currently pursuing a Master’s in health and medical journalism at the University of Georgia. Ian has degrees in history and psychology from the University of Georgia. He is particularly interested in writing about public health, epidemiology, and the environment. Follow on Twitter @ianbran6.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 21 Comments

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  1. 1. brynn217 9:22 am 03/20/2013

    This article does not say how Algae is grown… If the system is grown in a process and not in the ground itself, why can’t the enviroment for growing it be in a controlled facility? and then once you the process indoors, why can’t the process be stackable? on multiple levels of the same building? This would increase the area of growth.. 1 Million sq ft under roof on 5-10 floors?

    Then, can this fuel be used directly in current vehicles? does there need to be some sort of conversion?

    It doesnt sound like this idea is very viable…

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  2. 2. jmcryer 9:55 am 03/20/2013

    site algae production near major emitters of CO2 (power plants)… ponds necessary….fold the production line on vertical rotating transparent bags on racks…which would be a much more efficient user of acreage….I believe there are nascent commercial production facilities of this sort around

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  3. 3. lump1 11:09 am 03/20/2013

    Wouldn’t it be wiser to use the same marginal land for solar-thermal electricity generation? I’d like to see a comparison of vehicle-miles per acre of both of these technologies, with all the expected losses included. The big advantage of solar, especially in these arid, sunny places, is that it doesn’t further strain the water resources of the region.

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  4. 4. Soccerdad 12:15 pm 03/20/2013

    This is probably dead economically while oil is abundant and relatively cheap. At least the next few decades.

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  5. 5. M Tucker 12:24 pm 03/20/2013

    “There was no petroleum industry in 1900,” said Mayfield, “we needed energy, so we built it.”

    So Mayfield, are you saying Standard Oil did not exist in 1900? Utter BS! Mayfield is woefully ignorant of history or he is attempting to use BS in order to get people to listen to his ramblings. I will not go into the history of the petroleum industry. I will not go into the history of Rockefeller and his business tactics. I will say WE had nothing to do with it. Society had nothing to do with it. It was the need for light, the arrival of a cheap new technology called automobiles, and a rising new American middle class that built the industry. All independent forces that converged to make the petroleum industry the most powerful and profitable industry the world has ever seen.

    Just look into how many years this biofuel idea has been around. It is a pipedream. These guys are just trying to get a little piece of the petroleum industry market. They just want to make a few hundred billion. They just need some government handouts like they give to the successful, powerful and profitable petroleum industry. They just want to grab a little market share like the government subsidized corn ethanol industry has done. It is all about government subsidies and massive profits. And why not? That is what Ford was after. That is what Rockefeller was after. A way to profit from the middle class.

    What we need is a completely new paradigm.

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  6. 6. sethdiyal 12:52 pm 03/20/2013

    Why bother with dirty biofuels when clean and green zero environmental cost nuke synfuels are already available.

    It may well be the Chinese with their embrace of dirt cheap zero environmental cost nuclear power that destroy’s our Western economies running on ultra expensive wind/solar backed up with filty Big Oil product courtesy of our Big Oil corrupted politicians and media.

    China’s new 200 MW pebble bed nuke is firing up in 2017 a with over 70% of its output dedicted to synfuel production and promises costs of 1 cents a kwh.

    We can already make clean and green zero net carbon synfuels like from offpeak nuclear using plants like Shell Qatar GTL unit at 30% the cost of petrol. If the dirt cheap cost of nuclear in averaged in to the current $10K extra cost of building EV’s the payback on a nuclear/EV investment replacing all new vehicle production is over 25% ROI to the nation as a whole.

    Overall the conversion from fossil fuels to clean and green nuclear starting with current generation 3 nukes and switching to Gen iV is easily well within our recession spared industrial and financial capabilities to complete over a 10 to 15 year period.

    How about the DMSR nuke (thorium) reactor. With a paltry $two billion in investment diverted from the stupid $10B’s in wacky way out there never never land ethanol and carbon capture nonsense, within 5 years these would be a major energy and industrial export.

    Google “David LeBlanc – Molten Salt Reactor Designs, Options & Outlook”

    The only roadblock in the west are our 100% corrupt politicians and media all on Big Oil’s pad. It will likely take the destruction of Western economies by penny a kwh BRIC country advanced nuclear before we can throw off the yoke of Big Oil corruption and join their nuclear dirt cheep clean energy future.

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  7. 7. vbosch55 3:36 pm 03/20/2013

    The Salton Sea is located in the imperial valley and is pretty much useless. I wonder if they could somehow grow algae there.

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  8. 8. jerryd 3:49 pm 03/20/2013

    with as much waste biomass available why would someone do algae?

    While way too overcome by nuke fever, Seth is somewhat right though his cost est are a sad joke.

    Once we get out of the huge PWR nuke stage many far more safe, better, smaller factory built nuke designs can supply both base electric load and even liquid fuels.

    But he doesn’t mention that those fuels still need a source of carbon to make them.

    The other is the small scale home/building energy production tech that has the advantage of not having to pay utility costs, thus the savings doubles to triples cost effectiveness is going to be hard for any utility power, even free power, to beat.

    For instance with a simple distiller, you can turn about 50% of plastic types directly back into gasoline, diesel, NG for not much more than the cost of collecting the plastic. It is already available though improvements to cut cost to what such a simple device should cost are needed.

    Facts are each 100′x100′ lot get 5Mwhr/day US average from that big, free nuke in the sky in well done home units beat utility power of any type. Now Seth might come in with his magical multiplying numbers to prove RE won’t work but the facts clearly show he is wrong.

    Facts are we’ll need both. Myself I have no desire to overpay utilities for nuke or any other energy so going the lowest cost, cleanest power route.

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  9. 9. greenhome123 11:12 pm 03/20/2013

    i like the idea of growing algae to use as food for humans, animals, and fish, but i’m not sure if it will make a good bio-fuel. I agree with previous comment that it would probably be better to put solar panels on this land instead of grow algae. Or, maybe combo of solar panels and wind generators. Or better yet, maybe scientist can use biomimicry to study nature and make solar panels more efficient.

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  10. 10. syzygyygyzys 12:01 am 03/21/2013

    Please don’t pick on greenhome123. It wouldn’t be right.

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  11. 11. GreenMind 3:46 pm 03/21/2013

    Ian, have you come across this item in your research:

    Back in 2009 Venice, Italy signed an agreement with a company called Enalg to build a power plant using algae as a fuel. The plant was to be a closed system with the CO2 from the plant feeding back into the algae tanks. There is no need for a distribution system, and no emissions.

    I have not been able to find an update on this project, and I wonder if it is complete, or abandoned, or what. Can you (or anyone else reading this) find any information on it?

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  12. 12. WinsBurke 4:05 pm 03/21/2013

    According to the US Energy Information Administration website, the US uses about 16 million barrels per day of finished petroleum products. That’s about 672 million gallons per day, or roughly 245 trillion gallons per year. Algae, or any biofuels for that matter, right now might yield 125 gallons of fuel per acre per year, that’s gross not net. Keep in mind all biofuels are fundamentally photosynthetic processes. Despite common theoretical projections for algae ranging from 2,000 to 20,000 gallons per acre per year, actual yields aren’t close nor have the fundamentals for those leaps been identified. The entire US is about 1.9 billion acres. 1.9 billion acres at 125 gallons per acre per year gets you to about 240 billion gallons of algae based fuel per year, again gross, not net. The absence of numbers in the article makes it suspect and incredible.

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  13. 13. Pazuzu 9:29 pm 03/21/2013

    Let me see, he’s concerned about “backlash” from environmental groups because of destroying lots of trees. Why isn’t he concerned about cutting down the trees, just the “backlash”? This snyde attitude is disturbing, to say the least.

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  14. 14. Dr. Strangelove 4:48 am 03/22/2013

    I prefer used cooking oil as fuel. It contains 3x more energy than nitromethane used in drag racing and it’s already biodiesel not some algae or plants you still have to cultivate, harvest and process.

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  15. 15. Carlyle 9:32 am 03/22/2013

    11. GreenMind
    3:46 pm 03/21/2013
    They were still talking about it in 2011
    Venice turns green
    Sep 8th 2011,
    To achieve the abundant algal growth necessary, a substantial amount of water, carbon dioxide and fertiliser are required. The cost of these, combined with the energy used in harvesting and drying the biomass, means that any net energy gain may be nugatory.
    They were still talking about it in 2012
    This time with artists impressions. The reason it has not progressed despite 200 mil euros of Gov money? Just another pipe dream with plenty of government money. If it was practical, private enterprise would have had it up & running long ago.

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  16. 16. GreenMind 11:52 pm 03/24/2013

    Thanks Carlyle.

    I’m a little confused by the Babbage blog. It says that scientists are divided on whether it will produce energy, but it doesn’t quote any of them or provide links. I would not be surprised if nuclear scientists and fossil fuel scientists criticize it. At least some of the criticism of the project cited in the blog is rather hostile, saying that it would take an area the size of Portugal to provide all the transportation energy for Europe, rather than acknowledging that this project will provide enough power to run the Port of Venice.

    As I understand the technology, all the water, nutrients, and CO2 are in a closed cycle. Once you get it started using fossil fuels and fertilizers, (or even algae harvested from the canals of Venice) no additional CO2 or fertilizer should be necessary. Also, the original idea did not require harvesting and drying the biomass because it would be “combusted directly,” whatever that means. So I wonder if the critical scientists even know exactly what technology is being used there, whether the biomass really does need to be dried, etc.

    I’m glad that the plant was still progressing at the time of the blog, but I still would like an update more recent than 2011.

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  17. 17. GreenMind 12:32 am 03/25/2013

    Hi Winsburke:
    You say, “Algae, or any biofuels for that matter, right now might yield 125 gallons of fuel per acre per year, that’s gross not net.”

    Do you have a source for that estimate? Are you sure that is not 125 gallons per day instead of per year? That would be in alignment with many estimates.

    Why do you say that the higher estimates are not true? You say that theoretical estimates are from 2000 to 20,000 gallons per acre, but I have seen estimates of 100,000 gallons, 125,000 gallons, 300,000 gallons, and 8,000,000 gallons. The CEO of Origin Oil Co says the maximum is between 50,000 and 100,000 gallons.

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  18. 18. Carlyle 9:54 am 03/25/2013

    To create bio fuel you have to harvest the algae, dry it then heat it to evaporate & distil the oil out of it. Then if you wish to make bio diesel out of it you have to further process it. You can google more about the process. It is just not viable. That is why these people just keep researching it with Government money. At most building tiny pilot plants. Never anything practical. If it was viable there would be plants everywhere. The first reports I read about it were back in the 1970s. Its not new.

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  19. 19. GreenMind 5:37 pm 03/26/2013

    The porocess they are talking about does not involve making fuel, drying the algae, or distilling the oil. They take the algae itself and combust it for electricity. That’s why this was supposed to be such a novel approach. It avoids some of the major pitfalls. But I haven’t been able to find out how much progress they have made.

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  20. 20. KolinAlayon 1:52 pm 05/12/2013

    This is by far the best alternative. We don’t have to change the engines that power our world. What we can do is make reserves, we take percentage of the finished product and keep them in empty oil wells for storage. We can supplement this with other alternative-energy sources. Like use Solar power to power machines to harvest CO2 in the atmosphere to be used in the production of Algae fuel.

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  21. 21. KolinAlayon 1:57 pm 05/12/2013

    We can slowly introduce this to compliment Fossil Fuels then slowly replace it. By the time the oil fields are empty they would have been filed with Algae fuel for reserve and use later on. We can even make this in controlled environments like indoor facilities.

    Link to this

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