Growth in Algae Biofuel Industry Robust, But Complex Issues Remain
The algae industry converged on San Diego this week for Algae World Summit 2010. There was significant buzz among the conference participants surrounding the use of algae as a biofuel. Massive investment by private investors and the federal government have spurred interest in algae, but many of the speakers reinforced the fact that complex issues surrounding the growth of algae remain.
It was highlighted that for ideal growth of algae, sunlight, water, temperature, and access to CO2 are all taken into account. What may be ideal territory for sunlight may not be the ideal territory for water and vice versa.
An optimal logistical view may be necessary, taking into account areas that are best suited for growth and development of algae and logistics to move the algae to the company’s various terminals, according to Nigel Snelling, business development manager of Marathon Oil.
Aside from location, speakers highlighted a number of challenges before algae can truly be scaled up from the lab for commercial production of biofuel. Some of the technical challenges that were echoed included harvesting, extraction, and biotic invasions.
Simply being able to grow algae is a challenge in and of itself, according to John Benemann, an algae expert and pioneer. In addition to the technical challenges, the financial challenges present a large hurdle as well. These included the short time lines preferred by venture capitalists and the high cost of equipment such as centrifuges.
The panels all highlighted the cooperation between various Federal agencies, including National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the Department of Energy, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, academic institutions and private industry. While there was skepticism as to the time frame for wide spread commercialization, the speakers generally agreed that biofuel derived from algae will be an integral part of meeting the 2022 target of 36 billion gallons of biofuel under the federally mandated renewable fuel standard.
While soybeans may produce 50 gallons per acre per year, algae could potentially yield somewhere between 4,000 and 6,000 gallons per acre per year. This amount is also significantly more than corn based ethanol. Many agreed, however, that the regulatory framework for dealing with algae has not caught up.
Despite the multitude of complex technical and financial issues, a tangible example of what may be in store for the future was present: an algae powered plug-in Toyota Prius. This example, belonging to Josh Tickell and Rebecca Harrell Tickell, the director and producer of the film “Fuel” and the forthcoming movie “Sex & Algae.”
In a brief test drive, the car drove like any normal Prius with one major difference: it was powered by algae (supplied by Sapphire Energy). The car is a great example of the promise of algae that attendees and speakers at the conference firmly believe.
photo: Arthur Chapman
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