Processing Magazine

Scientists see potential for algae-based biofuel

May 29, 2013
Algae-based abstract
The United States could produce 25 billion gallons of algae-based fuel from water resources (Credit: iStockphoto/Thinkstock).

The United States is fully capable of producing biofuel from algae equal to the amount of energy that the country needs for a whole month every year, according to new research from the U.S. Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL).

The study found that the country was in a position to produce 25 billion gallons of algae-based fuel from water resources. Algae grows prolifically in areas with plenty of sunlight and water. To provide the stable conditions allowing the algae to grow best, warm weather and a humid environment are also preferred, which makes the U.S. Gulf Coast a perfect location for this task, hydrologist Mark Wigmosta explained.

Production of biofuel from algae has been at the center of development in recent years, following the discovery that algae could generate oil which could be processed to make fuel. Various institutions are currently working on projects to grow algae that contains more oil, to create algae that live longer and can survive in cooler temperatures and to come up with new ways to separate out the useful oil from the rest of the algae.

Algae are extremely common in the environment and do not present the same problems as biofuel production from crops, which campaigners have criticized for diverting valuable resources from food crops. Scientists seem to agree that the potential for algae-based biofuel is enormous but resources are needed to produce the necessary amounts of algae to cater for the nation's biofuel needs.

The key element that is required for algae production is water and researchers estimate that water use for algae growth would equal one quarter of the quantity used by agriculture in the whole country. Admittedly, this is an enormous amount but researchers claim that the water could come from virtually anywhere, including fresh or salty groundwater and seawater. A lot of land would also be required, as each separate 'algae farm' would take up a series of pools of six to 15 inches deep. The PNNL report pointed out that such land could be made available in many locations in the United States.

It has to be noted that the PNNL's study presents estimates, rather than solid figures, but researchers believe that by launching a system to grow algae and turn it into biofuel the U.S.'s oil imports would be dramatically decreased. In addition, increased production of algae-based biofuel would bring the country closer to its goal to become carbon neutral over the coming decades.

Lead author Erik Venteris, of the PNNL, commented that there were still many details to be sorted out and settled but on the whole there are no water issues that could potentially prevent the development of such technology in many areas across the United States. However, scientists noted that producing algae-based biofuel is a costly business and that expenses would exceed the cost of traditional gasoline-based fuels at present.