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The global petroleum price crash is putting the squeeze on biofuels, but new research projects keep algae biofuel on the path to competitiveness.


Low Oil Prices Not Killing Algae Biofuel — Yet

The global petroleum price crash is putting the squeeze on biofuels, but new research projects keep algae biofuel on the path to competitiveness.

The algae biofuel market is still in play even though the global petroleum market shows no real signs of lifting itself out of the doldrums, as two examples from different ends of the Earth illustrate. Over in Australia, researchers have come up with a new, low cost way to raise algae for biofuel, and here in the US the Department of Energy is moving forward with a new grant program to fund commercially viable algae production.

algae biofuel biomass NREL

The Australia Algae Biofuel Study

The algae news out of Australia involves one of those green twofers we love so much. It’s not just a method for raising algae, it also captures the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide from power plants.

The CO2-to-algae biofuel cycle is a familiar one (CleanTechnica has recently covered variations on that theme here and here), but the sticky wicket is figuring out how to develop a system that can deliver algae on a competitive basis for biofuel production.

Part of the problem is ensuring that the CO2 is free of contaminants that can kill off the algae. Currently that’s done with a lot of energy and at relatively high expense, and researchers at the Melbourne School of Engineering believe they have the trick for bringing those costs down.

The secret is to absorb CO2 into a liquid and then pass it through a wall of fiber that serves as a filter, as described in the team’s algae biofuel study, recently published in the journal Energy & Environmental Science:

In the system, carbon dioxide is absorbed into a potassium carbonate solvent and this gas is desorbed directly into the microalgal medium via a non-porous polydimethyl siloxane (PDMS) hollow fibre membrane.

Simple, right? The one-step process eliminates almost all of the “parasitic” energy required in conventional process while generating high yields, using the salt-tolerant (and somewhat elegantly named) microalgae Chlorella sp.

Algae Biofuel In The USA

Meanwhile, over here in the US, the Energy Department’s Bioenergy Technologies Office has just issued another algae biofuel funding opportunity announcement aimed at test-scale outdoor systems that can produce 3,700 gallons of algae biofuel intermediates per acre annually by 2020 (intermediates refer to algae feedstocks that can replace petroleum at refineries).

The end goal is to demonstrate 5,000 gallons per acre by 2022 and the clock is ticking, so the Energy Department is only looking for projects that can demonstrate they’re already on track to produce between 1,900 and 2,500 gallons right out of the starting gate.

The new funding opportunity follows on the heels of a $24 million round for algae biofuel from the Energy Department back in October 2014 and an $18 million round last summer.

Speaking of last summer, around that time our sister site posed the question, “Are biofuels finally over?” That may certainly be the case for food crop biofuels, namely corn, but it looks like it’s still game on for algae biofuel.

Last May we also noticed that ExxonMobil dropped a cool million on the Colorado School of Mines for a two-year algae biofuel research program, so stay tuned.

Photo (cropped): via Dennis Schroeder, NREL.

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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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