Editor's Note

Is it time to dive into algae?
By Tom Bryan | February 01, 2006
Biodiesel America, a new book from author, filmmaker and biodiesel guru Josh Tickell (see "A Call To Action," page 64), offers a new energy roadmap that includes a precipitous increase in the production and use of biodiesel and other renewable fuels. Tickell tosses up various scenarios that could lead to the production and use of as much as 5 billion to 15 billion gallons of biodiesel in the United States in the next decade. Getting there would require a massive shift in American agriculture-or the cultivation of a miracle feedstock.

Surprisingly, some experts believe the feedstock that may hold the most promise is not a conventional cash crop like soybeans, canola or corn, but algae.

As outlined in Biodiesel America, the U.S. DOE and NREL spent $25 million from 1978 to 1996 on a study that investigated, developed and tested highly oleaginous strains of algae that could be grown for biodiesel production. As Tickell explains, algae grows more rapidly and consumes more carbon dioxide than any other form of plant life. All it needs is sunlight, carbon dioxide and water to grow-and there may be places in the American Southwest that offer just that sort of climate. NREL's study, which took place on shallow ponds in New Mexico, found that large quantities of oil could be produced from algae. In fact, the variety grown by NREL had a daily yield of 50 grams of algae per square meter. Utilizing 1,000 square-meter ponds, this type of algae produced 20,075 pounds of oil per year-2,640 gallons for every 1,000 square meters-an exponentially larger per-meter yield than any other production feedstock on earth.

Still, NREL didn't actually produce biodiesel from algae, and there are some serious hurdles standing in the way of algae-to-biodiesel commercialization. There's a limited number of suitable sites in the Southwest (each site would need both water and excess carbon dioxide). Evaporation and cross-contamination remains a problem, as does cost-efficient oil extraction. Plus, building the first commercial-scale algae-to-biodiesel plant would require a mammoth financial commitment-and nerves of steel.

These obstacles are not insurmountable, though, and at least one American company is already chasing the dream. As described in this month's cover story, "Everything Under the Sun," page 28, GreenFuel Technologies Corp. is developing a novel way to exploit algae for biodiesel production. GreenFuel's approach to growing its own feedstock consists of installing its tube-like modular units in line with, for example, a power plant's effluent streaming smokestack (i.e., a carbon dioxide source). Currently, GreenFuel is deploying field trials in the United States and abroad to validate the process.

If companies like GreenFuel succeed-and if their processes turn out to be commercially viable-Tickell says it could be nothing less than transformative to the U.S. biodiesel industry. The author notes that Michael Briggs, a University of New Hampshire researcher who's been working with the algae research originally generated by NREL, believes enough "fuel could be grown" from algae in a 15,000-square-mile section of desert to completely support the nation's transportation energy needs.

Briggs and his team say the cost of building such an algae oil infrastructure would run upwards of $300 billion, and another $50 billion a year to maintain. That's a monstrous bill, and perhaps a far-fetched dream, but considering America's $100 billion annual expenditure on foreign oil-not to mention hundreds of billions spent stabilizing oil-producing regions of the world and protecting our nation's interests abroad and at home-someday it might be worth the price tag.
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