An algae culturing tank. (Photo: Sandia National Lab, New Mexico)
Algae biofuel production still needs long-term research: report
Thursday, November 04, 2010, 23:30 (GMT + 9)
The Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI) in Berkeley, California, has released a new report that expects the development of cost-competitive algae biofuel production to take a lot more long-term research and demonstration. Myriad non-fuel applications of the product could in the meantime serve to help the budding industry progress.
“Even with relatively favorable and forward-looking process assumptions (from cultivation to harvesting to processing), algae oil production with microalgae cultures will be expensive and, at least in the near-to-mid-term, will require additional income streams to be economically viable,” explained Nigel Quinn and Tryg Lundquist of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, a partner in the BP-funded institute.
These conclusions follow a painstaking techno-economic analysis of the production of algal biofuels. The project constitutes one of more than 70 studies on bioenergy by EBI and its scientists at the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign and Berkeley Lab.
Most of the over 100 companies worldwide working on producing algal biomass and oil for transportation fuels are small and none has yet run a pilot plant with numerous acres of algae production systems. But multiple firms have recently launched scale-up projects, including leading oil companies like ExxonMobil, Shell and Eni.
The US Department of Energy (DOE) has financed many R&D consortia and pilot schemes plus a 300-ac exhibition project in New Mexico by Sapphire Energy, Inc, and the Department of Defense is backing numerous accelerated projects.
The Carbon Trust in the UK has started a 10-year effort to grow algae oil production with 12 universities and research laboratories, and the European Union (EU) has just funded three 25-ac pilot schemes.
Most of these employ the raceway, open pond-based algal production methods explored in EBI’s report. They hope to establish the possibility of mass culture algae with current or imminent technology consistent with the current technical and monetary limitations of biofuel production.
Global resource availability will importantly control algae production once the technologies are created, the report said. Four vital resources - suitable climate, water, flat land and carbon dioxide - must be accessible in one place for optimal production. Despite this need, the authors wrote, algal oil production technology could eventually produce several billion gallons yearly of renewable fuel in the US.
EBI’s report hones in on algal biofuels produced along with wastewater treatment to cut costs and thus hasten development of a practical process. Use of wastewater in algae production offers needed water and nutrients and potential income in exchange for the treatment service provided.
Key steps needing improved include low-cost harvesting of microscopic algae cells and the extraction of their oil, plus proper treatment of the biomass residue post-extraction.
“It is clear,” the scientists added, “that algal oil production will be neither quick nor plentiful – 10 years is a reasonable projection for the R, D & D (research, development and demonstration) to allow a conclusion about the ability to achieve, at least for specific locations, relatively low-cost algal biomass and oil production.”
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By Natalia Real