Visit  cricatalyst.com!Nexus — Leaders in Greenhouse Systems Integration Check out more of The Buzz

NRC Algal Biofuel Study Notes Concerns, Innovations Needed

October 24, 2012
AlgaeIndustryMagazine.com

According to a National Research Council (NRC) study released today—supported by the National Academy of Sciences and sponsored by the Department of Energy—scaling up the production of biofuels made from algae to meet at least 5 percent (approximately 39 billion liters) of U.S. transportation fuel needs would place unsustainable demands on energy, water, and nutrients. However, these concerns are not a definitive barrier for future production, says the report, and innovations that would require research and development could help realize algal biofuels’ full potential.

The NRC study is titled “Sustainable Development of Algal Biofuels in the United States,” and is available from the National Academies Press; tel. 202-334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242 or on the Internet at http://www.nap.edu. The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council make up the National Academies. They are private and independent nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology, and health policy advice under an 1863 congressional charter.

Algal biofuels offer potential advantages over biofuels made from land plants, acknowledges the report, including algae’s ability to grow on non-croplands in cultivation ponds of freshwater, salt water, or wastewater. The number of companies developing algal biofuels has been increasing, and several oil companies are investing in them. Given these and other interests, the National Research Council was asked to identify sustainability issues associated with large-scale development of algal biofuels.

The committee that wrote the report said that concerns related to large-scale algal biofuel development differ depending on the pathways used to produce the fuels. Producing fuels from algae could be done in many ways, including cultivating freshwater or saltwater algae, growing algae in closed photobioreactors or open-pond systems, processing the oils produced by microalgae, or refining all parts of macroalgae. The committee’s sustainability analysis focused on pathways that to date have received active attention. Most of the current development involves growing selected strains of algae in open ponds or closed photobioreactors using various water sources, collecting and extracting the oil from algae or collecting fuel precursors secreted by algae, and then processing the oil into fuel.

The committee pointed out several high-level concerns for large-scale development of algal biofuel, including the relatively large quantity of water required for algae cultivation; magnitude of nutrients, such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and CO2, needed for cultivation; amount of land area necessary to contain the ponds that grow the algae; and uncertainties in greenhouse gas emissions over the production life cycle. Moreover, the algal biofuel energy return on investment would have to be high, meaning more energy would have to be produced from the biofuels than what is required to cultivate algae and convert them to fuels.

The committee found that to produce the amount of algal biofuel equivalent to 1 liter of gasoline, between 3.15 liters to 3,650 liters of freshwater is required, depending on the production pathway. Replenishing water lost from evaporation in growing systems is a key driver for use of freshwater in production, the committee said. In addition, water use could be a serious concern in an algal biofuel production system that uses freshwater without recycling the “harvest” water.

To produce 39 billion liters of algal biofuels, 6 million to 15 million metric tons of nitrogen and 1 million to 2 million metric tons of phosphorus would be needed each year if the nutrients are not recycled, the report says. These requirements represent 44 percent to 107 percent of the total nitrogen use and 20 percent to 51 percent of the total phosphorus use in the U.S. However, recycling nutrients or utilizing wastewater from agricultural or municipal sources could reduce nutrient and energy use, the committee said.

Another resource that could limit the amount of algal biofuels produced is land area and the number of suitable and available sites for algae to grow. Appropriate topography, climate, proximity to water supplies—whether freshwater, inland saline water, marine water, or wastewater—and proximity to nutrient supplies would have to be matched carefully to ensure successful and sustainable fuel production and avoid costs and energy consumption for transporting those resources to cultivation facilities. If the suitable sites for growing algae are near urban or suburban centers or coastal recreation areas, the price of those lands could be prohibitive. A national assessment of land requirements for algae cultivation that takes into account various concerns is needed to inform the potential amount of algal biofuels that could be produced economically in the U.S., notes the study.

The committee emphasized that the crucial aspects to sustainable development are positioning algal growth ponds close to water and nutrient resources and recycling essential resources. With proper management and good engineering designs, other environmental effects could be avoided, the committee said. Examples include releasing harvest water in other bodies of water and creating algal blooms and allowing harvest water to seep into ground water.

For algal biofuels to contribute a significant amount of fuels for transportation in the future, the committee said, research and development would be needed to improve algal strains, test additional strains for desired characteristics, advance the materials and methods for growing and processing algae into fuels, and reduce the energy requirements for multiple stages of production.

To aid the U.S. Department of Energy in its decision-making process regarding sustainable algal biofuel development, the committee proposed a framework that includes an assessment of sustainability throughout the supply chain, a cumulative impact analysis of resource use or environmental effects, and cost-benefit analyses.

Panel members, who serve pro bono as volunteers, are chosen by the Academies for each study based on their expertise and experience and must satisfy the Academies’ conflict-of-interest standards. The resulting consensus reports undergo external peer review before completion. A committee roster follows.

COMMITTEE ON THE SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT OF ALGAL BIOFUELS 

JENNIE C. HUNTER CEVERA, Chair, Hunter and Associates, Ellicott City, Maryland

SAMMY BOUSSIBA, J. Blaustein Institute for Desert Research, Sde-Boker

JOEL L. CUELLO, The University of Arizona, Tuscon

CLIFFORD S. DUKE, Ecological Society of America, Washington, DC

REBECCA A. EFROYMSON, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Tennessee

SUSAN S. GOLDEN, University of California, San Diego

JENNIFER HOLMGREN, Lanzatech, Roselle, Illinois

DONALD L. JOHNSON, Grain-Processing Corporation (Retired), Muscatine, Iowa

MARK E. JONES, The Dow Chemical Company, Midland, Michigan

VAL H. SMITH, The University of Kansas, Lawrence

CAI STEGER, Natural Resources Defense Council, New York, New York

GREGORY N. STEPHANAPOULOS, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Massachusetts

LARRY P. WALKER, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York

ERIC WILLIAMS, Rochester Institute of Technology, New York

PAUL V. ZIMBA, Texas A&M University, Corpus Christi

More Buzz…

HOME Algae Industry Jobs

Copyright ©2010-2012 AlgaeIndustryMagazine.com. All rights reserved. Permission granted to reprint this article in its entirety. Must include copyright statement and live hyperlinks. Contact editorial@algaeindustrymagazine.com. A.I.M. accepts unsolicited manuscripts for consideration, and takes no responsibility for the validity of claims made in submitted editorial.

From The A.I.M. Archives

— Refresh Page for More Choices
Heliae, SCHOTT North America and Arizona State University (ASU) have announced a partnership to bring Heliae’s algae production technology to ASU’s algae testbed facility...
Natural carotenoid specialists Piveg Inc., with production facilities based in Celaya, Central Mexico, has announced immediate availability of natural astaxanthin materia...
University of Adelaide researchers are using nanotechnology and the fossils of diatoms to develop a novel chemical-free and resistance-free way of protecting stored grain...
One of 12 winners of the 2014 Lexus Design Award, the Ooho algae balloon was created by three London-based designers to contribute a solution to the rising number of plas...
Algae is being discussed at the heart of EXPO Milano 2015, the international event that has existed since 1851, spawning world shaping themes and icons, such as the Eiffe...
“Proterro has reached its Q1 sugar-production pilot milestones,” CEO Kef Kasdin reported at the recent Advanced Biofuels Leadership Conference, in Washington, D.C. “In fo...
Santa Fe Community College has been awarded a $50,000, SEED Infrastructure Grant from the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), for commercial ...
In Phys.Org, Yu Yonehara notes the breakthrough research from the Tokyo Institute of Technology on the connection between early marine algae and the development of terres...
Jamie Radford writes in the Illawarra Mercury that Pia Winberg, from the University of Wollongong, believes that the South Coast of New South Wales, Australia (NSW) is in...
Starting in the early 70s, agencies in the former USSR invested more than 20,000 person-years of research and development to produce Bio-Algae Concentrates (BAC) that hel...
Steven Mufson reports for the Washington Post that Algenol Biofuels estimates hackers have attempted to break into its computers 39 million times in four months this year...
A recent discovery in the multicellular green alga, Volvox carteri,has revealed the origin of male and female sexes, showing how they evolved from a more primitive mating...
Oregon State University researchers are combining diatoms, a type of single-celled photosynthetic algae, with nanoparticles to create a sensor capable of detecting minisc...
Chase Ezell writes in Earth911.com about the irony of Algenol’s biggest friction source on the way to marketing their carbon reducing algal-based ethanol being — the EPA ...
Portuguese cement facility, Secil, and microalgae biotechnology company, A4F, also based in Portugal, have formed AlgaFarm, a joint venture to develop the use of cement f...
With their new CO₂ processing-platform called AstaCos, AlgaeBiotech can produce waxy particles of only 50-100 µm in size with a loading of 25% astaxanthin oleoresin. The ...
A team of Michigan State University algae researchers have discovered a cellular "snooze button" that has the potential to improve biofuel production and offer ...
Algix, parent company of Solaplast, will be inaugurating their algae-to-plastic facility in Meridian, Mississippi, on November 14, 2014. Solaplast's facility will be focu...