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New Real-World Study Adds Meat To Algae Biofuel Muscle

Algae biofuel still has some catching up to do in the profitability department, but a first-of-its-kind study of a large scale algae biofuel operation puts it very close to petroleum in a key indicator of efficient energy production. That might come as a surprise given the heavy load of water, nutrients and other inputs required for conventional algae farming and refining, but we’re talking about a next-generation algae biofuel operation here.

The study was conducted by the University of Virginia and published under the moniker “Pilot-scale data provide enhanced estimates of the life cycle energy and emissions profile of algae biofuels produced via hydrothermal liquefaction” in the peer-reviewed journal Bioresource Technology. It examined a demonstration-scale algae operation in New Mexico owned by the company Sapphire Energy, which by the way just paid off a $54.5 million Energy Department loan guarantee last month.

New algae biofuel study.

Algae biofuel courtesy of Sapphire Energy.

A Competitive Algae Biofuel EROI

One key measurement the study examined was Energy Return on Investment (EROI). Loosely speaking, EROI is a way of comparing the amount of energy needed to produce energy in various forms, including petroleum as well as biofuel, wind, solar and other renewable sources. In other words, it’s a way of getting a handle on how energy-efficient your energy production is.

EROI is not an absolute indicator of sustainability, but it does help to indicate where a particular source fits in with regional, national and global energy markets. In that context, a competitive EROI for algae biofuel provides support for a national energy policy that replaces petroleum.

A while back, when non-food biofuel crops began to come on the scene, we predicted that corn biofuel would be toast some day, so it’s also interesting to note that the study found that algae biofuel at the Sapphire Energy operation easily beat out corn ethanol for EROI.

Lower Carbon Emissions For Algae Biofuel

Another piece of big news out of the study is the finding of 50 to 70 percent lower carbon emissions at the algae biofuel operation compared to petroleum.

That’s where the next-generation aspect of Sapphire’s algae biofuel system comes in. That includes the selection of arid New Mexico as a site for the open-pond algae farm, which may seem counterintuitive in terms of water input. However, the Sapphire system was designed to use non-potable saltwater, with no nutrient input.

Sapphire’s algae was developed to produce a natural oil described as sharing the “highly branched and undecorated” molecular structure of light sweet petroleum crude. The algae is also engineered for disease resistance and ease of harvest.


The result is a “Green Crude” that can be substituted throughout the existing petroleum transportation and refining chain, dovetailing with the Obama Administration’s focus on drop-in biofuels.

Before we leave off, let’s emphasize for the record that the study indicates a path forward for the US biofuel industry, but it only covers one facility and does not necessarily extrapolate to other existing algae operations. We bring that up because we just raised a similar point about extrapolation earlier this week, regarding a methane emissions study of natural gas fracking operations.

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Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

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