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Biomass algae for biofuel

Published on February 10th, 2016 | by Tina Casey


Algae Biofuel Still In Play Despite Low Oil Prices, Says NREL

February 10th, 2016 by  

Biofuel has been taking some hits from the oil price crash, but just last week we were noticing that the US Department of Energy is plowing ahead with more funding for algae biofuel research, and now here comes the National Renewable Energy Laboratory with more proof-of-life for the algae biofuel field. Researchers at the lab are reporting a breakthrough system that ramps up the efficiency of the algae-to-ethanol process to a significant degree.

algae for biofuel

Scenedesmus Wins “Top Model” Algae Biofuel Face-off

The new algae biofuel process builds on NREL’s previous work with two algae strains, Chlorella and Scenedesmus. If Chlorella rings a bell, it’s a salt-tolerant strain that researchers in Australia are deploying for a system to cultivate algae for biofuel while capturing carbon dioxide from power plant emissions (the CO2 feeds the algae).

Scenedesmus is a new one on us, but it pops up on the NREL website, in a “bioprospecting” presentation partly funded by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. The study identifies naturally occurring, biofuel-friendly algae in different regions of the US, from Brooklyn to the Salton Sea.

In the latest development, NREL has nailed Scenedesmus as its go-to algae for a new soup-to-nuts approach to commercializing algae biofuel.

Commercializing Algae Biofuel

The problem with the conventional approach to algae biofuel systems is that they lean heavily on increasing the lipids content of algae. That can only get you so far in terms of developing a commercially competitive process, so NREL has been focusing on a whole-body system that extracts lipids, carbohydrates, and proteins for further processing into marketable products.

Carbs can be converted to sugars, which can be fermented to produce ethanol, but for a while NREL was stuck on getting that part of the process down pat. They initially tinkered around with a separation process that converted the carbohydrates, but not very efficiently. About 37 percent of the sugars would require an additional, expensive washing step to be fermentable.

The new development leaps over the original separation idea and goes straight to an initial fermentation step using a mixed algae “slurry,” a system that NREL calls combined algal processing (CAP). The results in terms of gallons/gasoline equivalent (GGE) per ton of biomass were impressive:

Using Scenedesmus and the CAP, and after upgrading the lipids to renewable fuels, scientists were now able to produce a total fuel yield estimated at 126 GGE per ton. That’s 88 percent of the theoretical maximum yield and 32 percent more than the yield from lipids alone.

Don’t break out the pom-poms yet. Although NREL’s modeling demonstrates a significant cost reduction for the new process, the lab also notes that it still doesn’t come close to competing with petroleum.

However, the lab is optimistic that the new system shows a way forward for future competitiveness.

In addition, we’ll note that raw cost is not the only factor that could come into play in the new algae vs. fossil algae marketplace. We’re thinking that as the nation’s petroleum pipeline infrastructure is getting to the straw-that-breaks-the-camel’s-back stage (Keystone is still alive, and there are more exampleshere’s another one), the benefits of hyper-local algae biofuel facilities are becoming more apparent.

The value of carbon capture could also become a critical factor moving forward. Aside from the aforementioned project in Australia, the US energy company Duke Energy is beginning to explore algae cultivation for capturing emissions from power plants.

The Nitty-Gritty Of Competitive Algae Biofuel Production

For some further insight into just how serious the US Energy Department is about algae biofuel, check out the agency’s algae page (including a nifty video) under BETO, the Bio-Energy Technologies Office. The Energy Department also just issued another round of algae biofuel funding on top of two previous rounds, so stay tuned for that.

You can also get more details on the new NREL study under the title “Combined algal processing: A novel integrated biorefinery process to product algal biofuels and bioproducts” in the journal Algal Research.

For those of you on the go, here’s a snippet describing the CAP process in a bit more detail:

In CAP, whole algal slurry after acid pretreatment is directly used for ethanol fermentation. The ethanol and microalgal lipids can be sequentially recovered from the fermentation broth by thermal treatment and solvent extraction. Almost all the monomeric fermentable sugars can be utilized for ethanol production without compromising the lipid recovery.

The study authors also briefly note that, aside from extracting more value from the same algae, there are other opportunities to reduce costs, for example in the infrastructure required to cultivate and harvest algae. Last year we took note of one such approach, in the form of a “shape-shifting” glass tube for more efficient algae production.

Bottom line: corn ethanol is still a dominant force in the US biofuel field, but considering the land use issues at play, algae would be our choice to go mano a mano with petroleum over the long haul.

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Image (screenshot): microalgae via nrel.gov, by J. Pole, Brooklyn College of CUNY.

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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+.

  • anomymous88

    Maybe this author needs to due some homework on algae biofuel research grants and their results. She must be related to someone at the DOE/BETO algae reserch program..

  • The Optimist

    Solazyme is cheating everyone, both the end user customers, the investors and the governments.
    As you said the oil they produce is a sugar byproduct with all the environmental impacts of using herbicides and pesticides and lots and lots of water, that otherwise would not be needed in an actual algae production.
    You forgot the 50 or so million dollar that they have collected form the government so far.
    They keep selling fermentation byproducts which produces CO2.
    The only companies that are making money are the ones in Hawaii, which are doing their own investor hanky panky by changing hands or whatever.
    Also they are helping the Salmon farms cheat their customers by mixing the algae produced astaxanthin with the industrial astaxanthin so they can cheat the customers when they look at their cooked salmon it wont look gray, and it will have a little bit of pink left on the meat.
    NREL work will not go to waste, since the research can be applied across the board.
    The focus of the product needs to change.
    The focus should be feed and food, not fuel.

  • The Optimist

    Algae will someday provide most of humanities needs, just not today.
    Today it can easily accommodate twenty times the yield compared to soybean or other grains.
    The problem is not that the technology isn’t there, which the quick money version isn’t. It is that the companies are looking for billion dollar startup status, so they gamble everything, with little chance of succeeding.
    They could easily be profitable, with 20 to 30 percent or even 100 percent return on investment if just focus on animal feeds. No one including energy or Agriculture department is interested in pursuing that path, because it would it would negate the need for GM seeds and herbicides and pesticides.

    Algae can improve Global animal and human feed by at least a factor of ten .
    The yield from the same amount of land for soybean is 3 Tons per hectare, with a 40 percent protein ratio, vs. for algae is about 50 tons per hectare with a 60 to 70 percent protein ratio.
    Imagine a dairy farmer needs 20 times less land to feed the same amount of protein to his cattle and yet produce better quality milk with less toxic chemicals, hormones and antibiotics, as well as the pesticides and herbicides that are used those same grains. This is not a pipe dream, this can be done today.
    Equally imagine how much less energy he has to spend on planting, maintaining, harvesting, processing, storage of those same grains. The algae produce everyday, they can be fed directly to the animals, no processing needed. The animals would be healthier, and by extensions the products they produce would also be healthier.

    Now how stupid are we, that we are trying to produce the oil to run the tractors, combines, trucks, that do the planting and harvesting, whereas we can just grow the algae to use it as feed itself.

    Similar scenario exists into our coastal waters, instead of encouraging seaweed and Molluscs(Oyster, Mussels, clams and etc,) which require no chemical inputs except labor. which can help clean the water around our coasts. Which require no feed input from the land or the sea. Yet we encourage fish farming that is bad for the land and the sea. Oysters are more healthy for you anyway. They won’t have all the heavy metals that come from the fish meal, all the pesticides and herbicides that are used in the land producing the soy and etc, won’t need all those antibiotics, hormones, and poisons that are used to control the salmon pests that devastate the wild fish two folds, first by increasing the pest population and secondly with the poisons in their environment and devastating the areas that they are grown in, and creating dead zones.

    Soylandro and other companies are using the name of algae in bad faith and cheating the public. They use sugar to produce oil, and calling it algae oil. The algae should sue them for breach of every ethical and legal standards there is.
    They are not using CO2 or the sun to produce their products. Their product produces more CO2 in more ways than one. They are no different than the ethanol producer. Their name and labeling has more PR power than ethanol companies, and they are producing a higher margin product by cheating the public. Actually they are poised to use the same facilities to produce the algae oil.

    These are the tiny little details, that keep the ALGAE from being all it can be.
    Instead of focusing on Biofuel, we should focus on where that biofuel would be used and reduce the need for the biofuel.

    We have to change our habits and way of thinking as a whole.

    • Bob_Wallace

      Had you started off this way –

      Algae might someday provide most of humanities needs, just not today –

      and then continued to write in the form of presenting an opinion you might have something worth reading.

      But when you come off like a snake oil salesman the tendency of rational people is to ignore you.

      • The Optimist

        What do you think I am selling you that you feel cheated?
        Do you sell snake oil and feel offended that there is a competing snake oil salesman.
        The fact that these so called supposed algae companies are passing the byproduct of fermented sugar as algae oil, or the fact that they used tax payer funds slated for promoting CO2 guzzling algae research and instead they cheated the government and pubic and pocketed most of the money, and promoting something that will not be practical for the next 10 to 20 years.
        The fact is that algae even with wackiest setups can provide safer and cleaner fertilizer, animal and human feed than the current agricultural methodologies. The current production levels are at 35 to 50 Tons of dry biomass with 60 to 70 percent protein per hectare of land. This is not opinion this is a fact.
        please tell me which nut job group pretending to be the rational people you belong to.
        what is it that you exactly have an argument about.
        What exactly is offending you?
        If you think I am misstating a fact, prove a counter argument, from current or past research. This is not politics that one state’s opinions. these are fact based practical on the ground hands on data, that even an idiot like yourself can accomplish on your rooftop or even living room.
        Solazyme similar to Solyndra(solar panel company) and the battery maker A123 have sold a bill of goods to government and public and though not bankrupt yet, they are busy selling fools GOLD to the public.

        My Goal is not to offend you. Only sharing with you the abundant possibilities that are in the ground as we speak, and is not being taken advantage of. And no matter how much you cover your ears and say you cannot see or hear anyone on the subject, it will not go away.
        (For your information Hogan’s heros show has not been taping for the past 45 years, so they don’t need a sergeant Schultz)
        Imagine if 50 percent of the feed for the steak you guzzling on a nightly basis came from algae, instead of the soybean and corn, which would you prefer????

        • Bob_Wallace

          “algae even with wackiest setups can provide safer and cleaner fertilizer, animal and human feed than the current agricultural methodologies”

          Where does one find facts to back this claim?

          “Imagine if 50 percent of the feed for the steak you guzzling on a nightly basis came from algae, instead of the soybean and corn, which would you prefer????”

          I can imagine a lot of things. However imagining does not make them true.

          • The Optimist

            The algae farms in hawaii and Inner mongolia and Hainan island in china currently produce, 10 to 20 grams per square meter per day.
            In Inner Mongolia they only produce 6 months out of the year because of the fact that they are so far up north.
            the current spirulina production is about 1000 tons coming from china alone.
            Just do a google search on any points I have made, and you will see what is going on.
            As for health claims, the spirulina fed layer chickens even at 5 percent level have 30 percent smaller livers, which means they have less inflammation.
            You really should set up a spirulina production at home, and harvest, 10 to 20 grams of wet spirulina a day.
            You can add it to your everyday foods, from Oatmeal, and yogurt to fruit shakes.
            In the fresh harvested version, there is no off taste at all. the dried version of spirulina does have some fishy smell, which you can teach yourself to ignore.
            These are hands on experience , I have visited these places and I use them myself. I eat 10 grams of spirulina a day.
            Which would you rather be fed to animals, the fish meal that has been sitting and rotting on the ship and shore and the storage yard and then over cooked and overloaded with additional formaldehyde and preservatives and antioxidant to keep it from rotting even more and killing off the animals it is going to be fed, or would you rather they were fed algae directly. which what fish eat to have all those supposed good for omega-3 and etc…

          • Bob_Wallace

            You are coming off as a nut job.

            How about backing off, making one claim at a time, and documenting your claim?

  • Freddy D

    Biofuels have a terrible overall energy conversion efficiency, like 0.0001% or something. I calculated it once and the amount of land featured to produce enough liquid to power a car for a year is something like 100 or 1000 carports equivalent, whereas PV and lithium ion can do it with one carport.

    Algae doesn’t fix this terrible land use problem. Go for hydrogen then fuel synth

    • The Optimist

      Algae fixes the problem directly.
      It is food, it eliminates the need for the oil itself.
      You are trying to grow algae, So you can use energy to extract the oil, and use more energy to transport that oil, and then use it in the tractor to till the land, and then use more oil to sew the seeds, and then use more oil to produce and apply the herbicides, and then the pesticides and then use more oil to irrigate the land, and then again use more oil to harvest the crop, and even more oil to transport the seeds to the cattle farm, so you can feed it to the cattle.
      Whereas you can produce algae directly at the farm, at the ratio of the 3 Tons of soybean vs. 50 tons of algae with 20 percent more protein, and feed it to the cattle and save on the corn and soy and have healthier animals and better quality milk, meat and even better for the soil COW SHIT.

  • anomymous88

    Maybe the author needs to due some due diligence and investigative reporting before promoting algae biofuels.

    “The reality is that it has to do with the fact that the funding for algae as an alternate fuel has been hijacked by a Department of Energy that has been, in our humble opinion, misled by its leadership, misguided by its advisors, bought by lobbyists and never held accountable for anything. It led the US taxpayer to believe its mission was to reduce dependency on foreign oil, and told Congress that is what it was working on, but that has neglected to mention that the funds it has are restricted to research and development of technologies and to be paid to groups involving institutions of higher education. The Department of Energy has refused, despite repeated requests, to ask Congress to update the mandate to accommodate today’s private industry needs, not those of 1976 when the mandate was enacted. In other words, you, Congress, the President and I might think they are funding efforts to produce algae as alternative fuels.

    The reality is that they are only funding the development of technologies, and only at or through institutions of higher education (we call it the ‘prop up the universities’ act). Not only is there no incentive for the researchers to commercialize their technologies, but the funds cannot be used for that purpose, and the Department of Energy has proven that it is not equipped to manage the projects it funded, let alone commercialize anything. The results of the projects that were funded speak for themselves and are dismal at best. Most of the projects that were funded in 2008 – 2010 were fully funded, but very few were completed. The beauty of the situation for the grant recipients as well as the people making and monitoring the awards on behalf of the Department of Energy are not held accountable or responsible. It’s been a win-win for them, all at the expense of the US taxpayer. …… Solyndra ($500 million down the drain). Where are the promised algae biofuels from companies like Sapphire Energy the golden child, Solazyme, General Atomics, Algenol, Solix Biofuels, Aurora Biofuels, Synthetic Genomics, Phycal and others? In 2010, Solazyme was able to deliver 100% algae-based jet fuel to the Department of Defense and received millions from the DoE for the construction of an integrated biorefinery project. The fuel allegedly met all of the requirements for Naval renewable fuel, aviation fuel, and purportedly met the fuel requirements of the US Air Force and the standards for commercial jet fuel. So, where is it 5 years later? With all due respect……….

    Algae for fuels has apparently run its course. It was hijacked by the DOE Algae Biomass Program/BETO, university researchers and their lobbyists. Now the focus has changed from algae fuels to focus on biobased co-products. Why? … Because the available funding was not made available to private industry for the commercial production of algae fuels.

    • dduggerbiocepts

      Though you are quite correct, its a lot simpler to see that the US biofuels program is a thinly disguised graft dispersion program. Once you understand that at best algae biofuels from wastes (not directly petroleum dependent might supply 1-3% of US energy needs – its a non-starter priority wise. NSF/NRC declared algae (by similar reasoning all biofuels) non-sustainable prior to 2013 publicly – but DOE continued on passing out tax payer money for dead end algae biofuel projects to present.

      Bottom line is that for algae or biofuels to significantly offset US energy demands, they will require NPK fertilizers and compete with food crops for those fertilizers. This should be an economic non-starter – for even the most intellectually challenged politician or public policy maker.

      Current estimates are that a significant biofuel industry would use 4x+ NPK – more than food crops. Since in NPK is petroleum and petro-chemical dependent for its production, this all becomes ludicrous in any seriously capable and informed discussion regarding sustainable energy and as a replacement for petroleum.

      • anomymous88

        “but DOE continued on passing out tax payer money for dead end algae biofuel projects to present.”

        NREL, DOE/BETO Algae Biomass Program, Universities and their Lobbyists have made ‘entire careers living off algae research grants’ with no results to date.

  • Jason hm

    I would like to see an energy consumption comparison of Bio fuels vs directly synthesizing carbon fuel. Both take a lot energy but in different forms, I suspect direct synthesis would pair better with the realities of harvesting co2 from high carbon emitting sources like refining petroleum ,fossil energy plants and cement manufacturing.

    Sunfire a start up in Germany seems to be at the Apex of carbon fuel synthesis.


    While Solazyme is the most established and efficient in Algae based bio fuels and have developed a process of using agricultural feed stock in the form of sugars to grow oil producing algae.


    • Shane 2

      Or check out Joule Unlimited who use photosynthesizing bacteria plus CO2

    • Joseph Dubeau

      Thanks for the links.

  • JamesWimberley

    Perhaps algae plants could be combined with point sources of CO2 like gas peakers and cement kilns. The cement might be better as the plants run most of the time.

    • Otis11

      Cement would be a great fit… particularly with solar-based cement facilities (get energy from the sun to lower energy input for making cement, while only producing CO2 at times when the algae actually wants it.)

      BTW, as bio/waste based fuels become economically competitive (without accounting for externalities) it opens the door for us to do CCS on our carbon-based power plants (burning biofuel/waste derivatives) and actually go carbon negative…

      • ed

        Interested in hearing more about how you could go carbon negative. This is going to generate more interest in the future as we realize we will have to do more than just going ghg neutral

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