Activity is stirring in the algae biofuel market, despite some hiccups along the way and the exit of big investors. Image courtesy of Fuelgae.

Algae Biofuel Fans Get Another Do-Over

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The big investors ditched algae biofuel last year, with ExxonMobil among those making a rush for the exits. However, hope springs eternal among the small fry. The US Department of Energy is still forging ahead with new algae-related programs, and a new EU consortium is cranking up as well.

The Algae Biofuel Conundrum

First, the good news. Algae farming could provide for a more sustainable, reliable energy crop supply chain. Instead of using up arable land or mowing over diverse ecosystems, an algae operation could leverage a broader range of site locations, including both indoor and outdoor infrastructure.

One sticky wicket is how to make money off the little oil-soaked green goblins. ExxonMobil supported a longrunning algae research project for more than 10 years, providing some favorable publicity for itself on the sustainable fuels side along the way, before officially passing the algae torch in 2023 (see lots more algae biofuel stories here).

Another issue involves the overall carbon footprint of algae biofuel. Some stakeholders are leaning on the idea of deploying algae farms to soak up excess carbon dioxide from the air. However, last year a real-world lifecycle assessment indicated that algae biofuel production could outpace diesel fuel for carbon emissions.

A New Hope For Algae Biofuel

That doesn’t mean investors have given up hope. In yet another “back from the dead” development, last October the EU launched a new 4-year, €5 million algae biofuel collaboration called the FUELGAE project.

Fuelgae represents a flip of the script. Instead of adding off-the-shelf carbon capture systems to algae farming operations, the primary focus is to come up with new systems to capture carbon from industrial operations and steer them into an algae biofuel operation.

In terms of attracting private sector partners, Fuelgae is working the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals angle, which casts a wide net for private sector dollars. Fuelgae also points out that the European Green Deal policy sets a carbon neutral goal of 2050, with biofuels playing a key role in decarbonizing the transportation sector.

“Among various biofuels, algae offer a great advantage because of their growth rates, photosynthetic efficiency, and ability to produce lipids and carbohydrates required for biofuel production,” Fuelgae explains, skipping over the difficulties.

Fuelgae has already recruited 14 partners to demonstrate showcase projects deploying carbon emissions from two sites in Europe, a biorefinery and a steel mill. The program is also networked with other EU algae initiatives as well.

US Has Eyes On The Algae Prize

Things are also heating up here in the US. That includes the macroalgae (aka seaweed) side. Earlier this year, the Bioenergy Technologies Office of the US Department of Energy teamed up with the Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management to launch a new $18.8 million funding opportunity under the title of MACRO, for Mixed Algae Conversion Research Opportunity.

Realistically, the team notes that macroalgae “are underutilized and are difficult to convert due to their variability, unique chemical make-up, and storage instability.” However, the payoff would be significant.

“Overcoming these conversion challenges will help build algae biomass supply chains, accelerate their demand, and ultimately, drive the U.S. bioeconomy by enabling greater volumes of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) and carbon dioxide (CO2) conversion to algae,” they note.

They also note that seaweeds and other “wet waste” resources play a significant role in the 2050 decarbonization goal set for the US by the Biden-Harris administration, with a particular emphasis on supporting sustainable aviation fuels and the emerging bioeconomy in general.

The selected awardees will be announced in September, with one topic area dedicated to more R&D. That may sound like a baby step, and it is, but the Energy Department team points out that this part of the funding round addresses “gaps in storage, mobilization, and conversion of readily available algae, including offshore farmed seaweeds, seaweed wastes, and blends of seaweed with other waste algae,” among other need-to-know areas.

A second topic area is more aligned with the Fuelgae timeline. Awardees in this category will focus on algae farming (micro or macro) with an assist from carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and other industrial sources.

More Algae For Sustainable Food Systems

In an interesting twist, the second topic area is focused on value-added products aside from algae biofuel.

“Applications are sought that utilize anthropogenic (e.g., fossil fuel derived) CO2 emissions, including concentrated CO2 supplied from DAC technologies, in the cultivation process and then convert macro- and/or micro-algae into low-carbon agricultural applications or bioproducts such as animal feed,” the Energy Department explains.

The application process closed last month, and a total of eight awardees will be announced in September. Meanwhile, the Energy Department is already funding one such project, which will result in fish food made from microalgae if all goes according to plan.

On the other hand, the bar has been set pretty low at animal feed. Some algae investors have already spurted far ahead of the field. In the latest news on that score, earlier this year a consortium composed of the Singapore-Netherlands startup Sophie’s Bionutrients and the New Zealand microalgae firm NewFish, along with research institutions in the Netherlands and New Zealand, announced a new collaboration on GMO-free, dairy-free alternative foods for humans.

In a press statement, the partners explain they are part of a “global mission to develop microalgae as the base for sustainable nutrition and novel food products that eliminate animal suffering and promise an ecological footprint far superior to that of intensive industrial farming.”

“This partnership will serve as a starting point for deeper global collaboration between the parties and will accelerate the microalgae foods and nutrition industry. We are solving a global issue, which requires a collective solution,” said NewFish general manager Hamish Howard.

The Algae Biofuel Market Is Flexing Its Muscles

Circling back to algae biofuel, it appears that persistence is beginning to pay off. On April 3, the firm Research and Markets noted that globally, the algae biofuel market “has experienced remarkable growth.” They also credit North America with picking up a leadership role.

“The global shift toward sustainability is a key driver in the global algae biofuel market, driving both innovation and investment in this renewable energy sector,” Research and Markets explains. “This transformation is motivated by the urgent need to address climate change, reduce reliance on fossil fuels, and create more sustainable energy solutions.”

The big question is whether or not the algae biofuel market can sustain growth, as forecast by Research and Markets. If it does, that would certainly vindicate the Energy Department.

For that matter, some US researchers are already envisioning algae biofuel farming on Mars. If you have any thoughts about that, drop a note in the comment thread.

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Photo (cropped): Europe’s new Fuelgae project is another indication of global support for investors seeking green gold in the algae biofuel field (courtesy of Fuelgae).

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

Tina Casey has 3384 posts and counting. See all posts by Tina Casey