Biofuels New algae biofuel study.

Published on September 21st, 2013 | by Tina Casey


New Real-World Study Adds Meat To Algae Biofuel Muscle

September 21st, 2013 by  

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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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

  • fatalgae

    According to the DOE less than 20% of all algae reseach projects ever get completed and they have caught grant recipients using grant money for personal use. That is why algae research grants are being investigated by the IG’s dept. and have been cut by 51% for 2013.

    DOE grant recipients 5 years ago in a public newspaper stated “All algae technology hurdles have been met. It’s all engineering and scale-up”. Due to a Congressional Mandate that same grant recipient was awarded more grants to do more research.
    The Congesssional Mandate says the DOE can only spend taxpayer money on research not production. That is why the DOE Biorefinery Program has failed miserably and now pushed over to the USDA.

  • fatalgae

    “Where public research funding is essential is in precommercial technologies – like algal biofuel”

    “Washington, the DOE’s Inspector General published a 24-page Follow-up Audit of the Department of Energy’s Financial Assistance for Integrated Biorefinery Projects”, which found that “despite over 7 years of effort and the expenditure of about $603 million, the Department had not yet achieved its biorefinery development and production goals.” Biofuel Digest – September 18, 2013″

    The US taxpayer has spent over $2.5 billion dollars over the last 50 years on algae research. To date, nothing has been commercialized by any algae researcher.

    The REAL question is: Does the DOE BIOMASS PROGRAM really want the US off of foreign oil or do they want to continue funding more grants for algae research to keep algae researchers employed at universities for another 50 years?

    In business, you are not given 50 years to research anything. The problem is in the Congressional Mandate that says the DOE can only use taxpayer monies on algae research, NOT algae production in the US. So far, ALGAE RESEARCH has not got the US off of foreign oil for the last 50 years!

    A Concerned Taxpayer

    • JamesWimberley

      The long lead time should not worry us to much. Bell Labs announced the first modern solar cell in 1954. Global cell production only passed 500kw a year in 1977; 21 MW in 1983. Luckily for the infant PV industry, it had a tiny market for high-cost devices ready to hand in satellites. That doesn´t apply to algal oil, which is just a mundane substitute for gasoline and diesel fuel. The only economic production has to be large-scale.

      $2.5 billion over 50 years (your number) looks to me like a very reasonable bet on a long shot with a high payoff if it works. For comparison, the 20-year international ITER project to build a precommercial fusion reactor has a budget of $15bn, which all the participating governments think is (just) worth it.

    • Bob_Wallace

      You are correct that most businesses would not invest in research that takes decades to return profits. That’s why we finance a lot of research with public money. By each of us pitching a very small amount of money we can do the hard lifting that private money won’t undertake.

      (Something is wrong with your keyboard. Your caps lock key is malfunctioning. Maybe you’ve got a cookie crumb or spilled beer problem.)
      BTW, do you realize that if each of us pitches in a buck there will be about a billion dollars in the pot? $2.5 billion over 50 years is about $0.15 per year per person. (That’s off a bit because I used today’s population number. But it should give you a clue.)

      • fatalgae

        “You are correct that most businesses would not invest in research that takes decades to return profits”
        No one is talking about a business investment at all. It’s about 50 years of algae research and nothing has been commercialized to date. In business you are not given 50 years to research anything. That is why 14 Congressmen asked the DOE for the results and were told there were no results.

  • Senlac

    It is the infrastructure stupid. People talk about Natural Gas being a bridge fuel, and I say Algae is a much better and cleaner alternative, where we don’t have to frack up the environment and consume our water supplies which are the best in the world. The least worst of liquid fuels. If it actually works as advertised, got to watch that hype 🙂

    • Bob_Wallace

      “If it actually works as advertised, got to watch that hype :)”


      Natural gas, we’ve got in hand. If something better comes along we can switch.

      For now a grid which uses NG to fill in around wind and solar is monumentally better than a coal supplied grid.

      Successive approximations. We get to the goal in a series of steps, each one a bit better than the previous.

      • Senlac

        Where that is true at this present time, I wish Algae full speed ahead!
        NG and fracking are very bad for the environment. This technology is very promising and hopefully with become available soon.

  • Ivor O’Connor

    Another boondoggle taking money away from solar and wind.

    • JamesWimberley

      Solar PV an dwind are now pretty mature and competitive technologies. Further cost reductions and efficiency gains can be expected to come from close-to-market R&D carried out by existing large companies. Where public research funding is essential is in precommercial technologies – like algal biofuel, high-temperature CSP, organic PV, or EGS geothermal.

      Do you really think we can do without liquid fuels for ships, planes, and bulldozers?

      • Ivor O’Connor

        My understanding is the lions share of government RE money has been going to programs like these and their farmers. Not to wind and solar. I do not see any breakthroughs ever in these fields to make them competitive. It’s more like a distraction. And a way to keep RE as a whole back.

        “Do you really think we can do without liquid fuels for ships, planes, and bulldozers?” Future liquid fuels will be in the form of Methane from excess wind and solar. Though some people seem to think batteries can work for planes, locomotives, and bulldozers. (Have not heard of batteries for ships. I think it is crazy but then I think batteries for planes is crazy yet better people than me are saying it.)

        • Bob_Wallace

          The bulk of RE subsidies has gone to corn farmers. To the mega-farms.

          No one is suggesting batteries for locomotives, but electrifying the tracks like many other countries have done.

          Planes are interesting. With some battery improvement we might be able to use fuel for takeoffs and then switch to batteries for cruising.

          • Ivor O’Connor

            You are right. Was confusing methane powered trains with battery powered trains.

    • Ivor,
      I disagree. Algal oil (the source of fossil oil) offers humanity a way to enjoy the power and convenience of liquid fuels on a carbon neutral basis. Just like wind and solar it’s a ‘solar energy’ that has great potential. The technology is well defined. The EROI is almost as good as oil and better than fracked ‘tight’ oil. Origin oil (a CA company) has solved the extraction issue and things are continuing to develop. I’m NOT dissing wind or solar (I luv em) but one cannot overlook the need for liquid fuels.(corn ethanol ain’t it either)…

      • Ivor O’Connor

        Hi Ed,

        Thank you for your reasoned objection to my harsh negative opinions about algal oil.

        I understand the carbon neutral part. It is the price that bothers me. I do not see algal oil as a solution that will ever be cost effective without huge subsidies. Please correct me if I’m wrong…

        • Ivor,

          The biggest cost issue with Algal oil has been with extracting the oil. It used to require drying the algae then pressing the oil out. Tedious, cumbersome and, as you note, expensive. The oil can now be separated from the algal matrix using electromagnetic impulses allowing the oil to rise to the top and be easily siphoned or skimmed off. In greenhouses impressive amounts of oil can be grown and the price much lower than the present pundits aver.

          For the 100 million that it costs to drill one off shore well a lot of greenhouses could be built with oil returning in perpetuity. I expect the cost to be about half of the present 4/gal.

          When one factors in the cost to humanity when the oil runs out or if the fears of climate issues become real (and they will) then whatever algal oil costs it will be cheap by comparison. A deal actually! Glen Kurtz has shown the way.

          There is a lot of info for the interested.

          • Ivor O’Connor

            I like technology. And if this can be done for $4/g that is fantastic. I’ll take your word for it now and start keeping an eye out for this. (I’ll review your references later when I get the time.)

    • Tyllor Parker

      Except for the part where Sapphire Energy (ONLY)partly owned by Monsanto and is a for-profit company currently selling 100 barrels a day to the Tesoro corporation which supplies american gas stations.
      Sapphire Energy operates in a market where there is no share for solar or wind energy generation. You don’t make oil products with energy alone and there will always be a need for the companies that utilize algae biomass and other companies that harness extremely cheap recycled plastic (like PK Clean operating out of Salt Lake City) to convert into plastic pellets for product materials. Algae biofuel AKA Green Crude can replace our oil dependency with a land footprint half the size of North Dakota whereas we do not have enough arable land to supply enough corn to replace crude oil consumption.

      • Ivor O’Connor

        100 barrels a day and there are 150 employees and over 100 million invested in it? (Based on what you said and

        A barrel of oil goes for about $100. So $10,000 a day split between 150 doesn’t even cover minimum wage. Or taxes. Or materials and supplies. Or payment of the loans. Or even interest on the loans. However you probably failed to mention something that would explain why they are not out of business yet.

        As far as making oil products from energy alone. It is easily done. It is called methane.

        As far as paying back loans. I’m glad they paid back the entire USDA loan of 54.5 million. Now how about the 50 million stimulus grant?

        It would be wonderful if Sapphire Energy becomes profitable on its own. However I do not see the numbers. Yet. (Maybe they are there?)

    • Tyllor Parker

      And they aren’t taking a penny away from other investments because they payed back the entire USDA loan. Nothing to do with the Department of Energy investments in wind and solar.

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