U.Va. Study Finds Complexity in Algae Deployment

August 11, 2011, by Zak Richards

Anew research study at the University of Virginia shows that, while algae-based transportation fuels produce high energy output with minimal land use, their production could come with significant environmental burdens. For farmers looking to maximize profits, algae would produce considerably more transportation energy than canola and switch grass for every hectare planted, and can also be grown on poor-quality marginal land that cannot be easily used to grow food crops such as corn, according to the report by Andres F. Clarens and Lisa M. Colosi, both assistant professors of civil and environmental engineering in the U.Va. School of Engineering and Applied Science; and Mark A. White, professor in the McIntire School of Commerce.

From an environmental impact standpoint, however, algae-based fuel has mixed performance, compared to other biomass sources. Algae-based biodiesel production uses more energy—in the form of petroleum-powered processes—than other biofuels. Additionally, algae-based biodiesel and bioelectricity production processes also require substantial amounts of water and emit more greenhouse gases.

Another important finding shows the relative favorability of using biofuels to generate electricity
The report, “Environmental Impacts of Algae-Derived Biodiesel and Bioelectricity for Transportation,” is available online on the environmental research website Environmental Science and Technology, and will be published in an upcoming print edition.

Hagai Nassau and Eleazer P. Resurreccion, civil and environmental engineering graduate students, contributed to the research. “We’re looking at the entire landscape of biofuels, and asking ‘What are the options?’ ” Colosi said.
She hopes the research will inform public policy debates, allowing people to make the best decisions about alternatives to petroleum.

“It comes down to value-driven questions,” Colosi said. “Do we value driving long distances in SUVs that require a lot of fuel? If so, we need to look at algae so we can produce as much fuel as possible. If we are concerned about energy use, climate changes and water supply, then we need to think more strongly about how we can best use canola and switch grass.”

The U.Va. researchers relied on a “well-to-wheel” life-cycle assessment of algae-based biofuel and bioelectricity production for transportation fuels. The research began with examining how the source crops are grown and continued through the point of their transformation into useable fuels for vehicles.

We’ve seen that alternatives typically come with unforeseen burdens.  We saw it with ethanol
They expressed energy output of the various biomass sources by showing how many kilometers a car could travel per the amount of energy harvested from a hectare of land. The current paper builds on the modeling results the U.Va. team reported in a 2010 paper in Environmental Science and Technology. In that work, they looked at the inputs such as fertilizer, water and petroleum power used to produce algae-based biodiesel. They compared this data to the amount of energy produced by other biomass stocks. The current paper accounts for variables throughout the entire production process.

Another important finding in the current paper shows the relative favorability of using biofuels to generate electricity rather than liquid fuels (i.e. biodiesel) for internal combustion engines. The process has a higher energy return than other algae-based biofuels because it involves fewer steps to transform the biomass into a usable energy form. Energy generated in this manner could power electric vehicles, but the authors acknowledge that the limited number of those vehicles currently in use could reduce the overall benefit of bioelectricity for transportation.

For the next phase of their research, the team plans to monetize environmental costs and benefits associated with production of the various bio-fuels. “Ultimately there is no silver bullet for replacing petroleum as a transportation energy source,” Clarens said. “We’ve seen that alternatives typically come with unforeseen burdens. We saw it with ethanol, and we’re seeing it now with shale gas. Our hope is that work like this will help us avoid similar pitfalls if algae-based fuels are ultimately deployed on large scale.”

Go to HOME Page

Copyright ©2010-2011 All rights reserved. Permission required to reprint this article in its entirety. Must include copyright statement and live hyperlinks. Contact A.I.M. accepts unsolicited manuscripts for consideration, and takes no responsibility for the validity of claims made in submitted editorial.

Visit the A.I.M. Archives

AIM interview ArchivesAlgae 101 ArchivesHot Products ArchivesInnovations ArchivesMoney ArchivesProcess ArchivesResearch ArchivesScale Up ArchivesThe Buzz Archives

FREE Algae News & Updates

Sign up to receive breaking A.I.M. updates! 

From The A.I.M. Archives

— Refresh Page for More Choices
None of us would be alive if sperm cells didn’t know how to swim, or if the cilia in our lungs couldn’t prevent fluid buildup. But we know very little about the dynamics ...
Sami Zaatari writes for the Middle East’s Gulf News that Abu Dhabi’s coastal sabkhas – the Arabic phonetic translation for salt flats – hold great potential for solar pow...
Five years ago, on April 20, 2010, an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig caused a release of 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico before the well was ca...
SciDev.Net’s South Asia desk reports that Indian scientists working on producing biofuel from algae cultured in municipal wastewater are enthused by the findings of a rec...
Using a newly devised technique, researchers at the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) have examined microalgae strains in the Culture Collection of Algae and...
Currently made most often from petroleum and natural gas, ethylene is used in the manufacture of plastics and polyester, and ranks as the largest petrochemical produced b...
Joelle Kovach writes in the Peterborough Examiner that a company developing new technologies using the algae euglena to purify water has opened a new facility near Trent ...
Sarah Zhang writes in Wired Magazine that the single-cell green algae Chlamydomonas reinhardtii have an eyespot that makes use of light-sensitive proteins. One of them is...
Michigan State University (MSU) and PHYCO2, an algae growth and CO2 sequestration company based in Santa Maria, CA, have entered into a partnership to develop algae techn...