PNNL publication identifies promising locales for algae projects
The Algae Biomass Organization, the trade association for the algae industry, lauded a new publication from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in partnership with Sapphire Energy, “Siting Algae Cultivation Facilities for Biofuel Production in the United States: Trade-Offs between Growth Rate, Site Constructability, Water Availability, and Infrastructure,” in the journal Environmental Science and Technology. The publication highlights a new process for rigorously identifying and evaluating sites for commercial algae production facilities.
“Effectively siting algae cultivation facilities for commercial biofuel production is critical to the success of every commercial algae project,” said Margaret McCormick, chair of the ABO and CEO of algae company Matrix Genetics. “The biology is so complex, existing ‘off-the-shelf’ measurement tools fall short. Because this analysis considers numerous variables along with real-world algae cultivation data, it offers project developers a much more complete and rigorous evaluation of sites.”
Site selection for large construction projects is a complex task, but a particularly challenging one in the case of algae cultivation in open ponds, where facilities could be thousands of acres in size. The factors that drive success include a warm and sunny climate, available water, economically available land with soils good for construction, and proximity to transportation and utility infrastructure. In addition, special consideration must be given to local issues that are difficult for national-scale models to address, such as regulatory constraints, tax incentives, receptivity of local populations and ecological constraints.
“We are pleased that PNNL’s modeling framework has been useful to both Sapphire Energy Inc. for finding the best locations for new facilities as well as to the Department of Energy for addressing algae economic and sustainability issues,” noted Mark Wigmosta, PNNL project manager for this study.
The analysis found impressive productivity potentials for cultivating green algae along the Gulf of Mexico, especially on the Florida peninsula. While there are sites with potential nationwide, the research indicated that the southern coast of Texas, Louisiana and southern Arkansas are particularly attractive locations for a commercial site for algae production when including other criteria, like access to infrastructure. Perhaps most interesting, the ultimate choice of sites is highly dependent on the algae strain that is intended to be grown.
“Our analysis reduced the number of potential sites from nearly 100,000 down to a narrow set of the most promising sites for subsequent detailed, local analysis,” said paper co-author Erik Venteris, PNNL research engineer.
Wigmosta and Venteris are part of a team of PNNL researchers that created the Biomass Assessment Tool used to perform the analysis. The BAT tool was developed with funding from the DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. The collaboration with Sapphire, which funded the latest study, allowed PNNL to hone the tool and apply the technology to a real-world industrial setting.
Authors of the paper also include scientists Andre Coleman and Richard Skaggs of PNNL and Robert McBride of Sapphire Energy.
“By combining Sapphire Energy’s knowledge and experience gained from operating the world’s first commercial demonstration algae production facility with PNNL’s rigorous tools and analysis, we were able to identify potential sites for the commercial production of algae biofuels in the United States,” said Tim Zenk, vice president of corporate affairs at Sapphire Energy. “This public-private partnership serves as an example of how collaboration can advance not only scientific understanding, but commercial development of new technologies with critical benefits for our nation and the world.”
With new production facilities planned or operating around the U.S., the algae industry is rapidly emerging as an opportunity to address many of the energy, food, economic, and environmental challenges facing the world today. Algae have the power to simultaneously put fuels in vehicles, recycle CO2, provide nutrition for animals and people and create jobs for millions of Americans.
Algae’s ability to produce high yields, grow in saltwater and on marginal lands means that they can be cultivated at large scales without harmful impacts on freshwater supplies or valuable agricultural land.