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When Elon Musk of Tesla Motors famously posed the question, "why would you ever do biofuels?" perhaps he had the US Energy Department in mind.


Algae Biofuel Doubters Get The Brush-Off From US Energy Department

When Elon Musk of Tesla Motors famously posed the question, “why would you ever do biofuels?” perhaps he had the US Energy Department in mind.

When Elon Musk of Tesla Motors famously posed the question, “why would you ever do biofuels?,” perhaps he had the US Energy Department in mind. The agency has been pursuing a vigorous biofuel program and it just awarded a new round of $15 million in funding for three projects focusing on lowering the cost of algae biofuel production. The new effort follows upon an $18 million round last year.

If you have some ideas about how Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz would answer Mr. Musk and other non-fans of biofuel, drop them in the comment thread. Meanwhile, let’s take a look at that new round of funding.

algae biofuel farm

The Biofuel Rollercoaster

Attempts at a national biofuel policy in the US have been bubbling up and down ever since the 19th century. One notable spike in activity occurred during World War II, but interest quickly dropped off after the country returned to a peacetime economy.

The topic revved up again during the 1970s oil supply crisis, but once that passed, policymakers were not exactly keen on dropping more dollars on biofuel. By the 1990s the Energy Department had quietly folded its biofuel R&D efforts into other programs.

All was relatively quiet on the biofuel front until the Bush Administration adopted a corn-centric ethanol policy in 2005.

The disastrous emphasis on using food crops to fuel mobility is credited with touching off a global food price crisis, the ripple effects of which are still being felt.

The Obama Administration has taken a more sustainable tack by emphasizing non-food biofuel crops and scouting non-farm acreage upon which to grow them.

That’s where algae comes in. Specifically, oil rich micro-algae. The low cost of fossil fuel is forcing some algae biofuel pioneers to focus more energy on nutraceuticals and other high value products, but the foundational motivation — growing the highest-yield oil crops at the lowest possible cost — is still strong enough to continue the stream of Energy Department funding:

The key to algae’s potential as a renewable fuel source lies in the high productivities of algal biomass that can be grown in a given area; some researchers say algae could be 10 or even 100 times more productive than traditional bioenergy feedstocks…Once harvested, algae can be readily processed into the raw material to make fuel for cars, trucks, trains, and planes.

$15 Million For More And Better Algae Biofuel

Part of the new $15 million round of funding will go to a Hawaii-based company called Global Algae Innovations Inc., as part of an A-list collaboration that includes the University of California-San Diego, TSD Management Associates, Texas A&M University, General Electric, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

The team will leverage Global Algae’s improved algae harvesting technology to work on a “best-in-class” integrated process for growing, harvesting, and pre-processing algae. The growth part takes place in narrow, looping raceways.

If you’re a bit surprised to see Texas A&M in the mix, we’re not. Despite its location deep in the epicenter of US fossil fuel production, the university has emerged as a national algae biofuel R&D leader.

Another collaborative effort to share in the funding is spearheaded by California-based MicroBio Engineering, with Cal Poly University, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories, and the company Heliae.

This project combines algae growing with carbon reduction, wastewater treatment and the generation of high value byproducts. Micro-Bio also works from a raceway-type algae growing system.

The third collaboration in the group is spearheaded by Florida’s Algenol Biotech, along with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Georgia Institute of Technology, and Reliance Industries Limited.

According to our friends over at Biofuels Digest, Algenol hit a bit of a rough patch last fall and pledged a near-term focus on carbon capture and water treatment, but the company’s commitment to biofuel R&D apparently remains strong enough to hold the Energy Department’s interest.

The Algenol team is tasked with improving the production of cyanobacteria, with the aim of developing a cost-effective biofuel intermediate (cyanobacteria is commonly known as blue-green algae, but it is indeed a type of bacteria).

Why Biofuel?

As for how Secretary Moniz would answer the highest profile EV fan in the world, keep in mind that for the US, fossil dependency has historically been a matter of straight-up economic policy related to dependency on imported oil. Climate change and public health have finally begun moving into top priority status, but the import issue is still a key driver of US energy policy.

How key? Despite the fossil oil and gas boom in the US, as of 2015 the country was still importing 9.4 billion barrels of petroleum products daily, about three-fourths of which was crude oil. When you subtract petroleum exports from the US, you still end up with a net import figure of 4.6 million barrels daily (and yes that’s barrels daily, to the tune of 42 gallons per barrel).

That’s a lot of oil to replace with low-carbon alternatives, and the world doesn’t have much time to wait. As applied to the transportation sector, President Obama’s “all of the above” energy strategy translates into a dynamic Moniz expressed last year in a Q&A with the American Institute of Physics:

…we have not taken our eye off the ball of reducing oil dependence. Look at our programs in efficient vehicles in all their dimensions: lightweighting, SuperTruck, alternative fuels, advanced biofuels. Last year, with our assistance, the first two commercial cellulosic biorefineries [opened] up in Iowa and Kansas.

In other words, there is more than one pathway to take for pushing the shift out of oil dependency into a more rapid pace when it comes to personal mobility:

Now our focus is shifting to the more challenging problem of drop-in biofuels, and to electrification of transportation, electric vehicles. Obviously we’ve got to have the electricity system decarbonized to get the full benefit of going to electric vehicles and fuel-cell vehicles. So all of the above is quite serious and quite consistent with our complete focus on low carbon.

When grown on wastewater, algae also offers a sustainability twofer that you can’t get with a solar panel or a wind turbine, because it takes up nutrients that would otherwise require an energy intensive treatment process.

The cost savings can be significant for treatment plant operators, and the potential result is a carbon-negative biofuel.

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Image (screenshot): “Raceway” type algae farm courtesy of Global Algae Innovations.

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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 Spoutible.


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