January 20, 2012

Algae Biofuels Dealt a Blow by BP funded EBI

The Energy Biosciences Institute -- funded by a $500 million grant from oil giant BP -- has released a "technoeconomic" report meant to cast a discouraging pall over the future of algal biofuels, chemicals, and plastics production. It is easy to see why BP might want to hold off the coming deluge of algal fuels -- at least for another few decades. There are still a lot of profits to be made in the old-fashioned crude oil business, once the lords of energy starvation are finally removed from office.

It is also true -- as the report states -- that growing pure algal monocultures for oil extraction is a difficult and costly enterprise, likely to require several more breakthroughs before becoming profitable and capable of scaling to industrial size. But did the report actually address the relevant and likely timeline for the early and middle evolution of algal energy, fuels, plastics, and chemicals? It does not appear that the authors of the report even came close to a realistic assessment of the likely evolution of algae for energy, fuel, plastic, or chemicals. Here's one look at EBI's report:

A new report from the Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI) in Berkeley projects that development of cost-competitive algae biofuel production will require much more long-term research, development and demonstration. In the meantime, several non-fuel applications of algae could serve to advance the nascent industry.

'Even with relatively favourable 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,' write authors Nigel Quinn and Tryg Lundquist of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), which is a partner in the BP-funded institute.

Their conclusions stem from a detailed techno-economic analysis of algal biofuels production. The project is one of the over 70 studies on bioenergy now being pursued by the EBI and its scientists at the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, and Berkeley Lab.

... Four key resources (suitable climate, water, flat land and carbon dioxide) must all be available in one location for optimal algal biomass production. The authors state that despite the need for all four resources, algal oil production technology has the potential to produce several billion gallons annually of renewable fuel in the U.S. However, achieving this goal, particularly at competitive capital and operating costs, will require further research and development.

The EBI report focuses on algal biofuels produced in conjunction with wastewater treatment as a promising cost-effective strategy to fast-track development of a practical production process. Besides providing the needed water and nutrients, use of wastewater in algae production provides the potential for income from the treatment service provided.

The areas the study identified as essential for R and D are in both the biology and engineering fields. The ability to cultivate stable cultures under outdoor conditions, while achieving both high productivities and oil content, is still to be developed. Despite the well-known rapid growth rate of algae, increasing the volume of algae oil produced per unit of surface area per year is a crucial goal. Oil-rich algae strains that are biologically competitive with contaminating wild species and that consistently grow well in various climates are needed. Other key steps to be improved are low-cost harvesting of microscopic algae cells and the extraction of their oil content, as well as dealing with the biomass residue remaining after oil extraction. _Source

The study suggests that it will take 10 years just to conclude their studies on the viability of large scale algal fuels. How convenient! 10 years is the time period for BP's funding grant to EBI. ;-)

But seriously, just a quick glance at a summary such as the one linked above shows a number of glaring deficiencies in EBI's analysis.

1. Near and mid-term successful utilisation for algal energy and fuels will depend upon algal biomass -- not algal oils. It will indeed take 10 years to develop economic and scalable means of algal oil extraction and diesel production from algal oil.

2. Algal monocultures are not necessary for rapid production of algal biomass. In fact, multiple synergistic cultures are apt to produce higher quantities of mass more quickly.

3. There is no shortage of seawater and relatively flat coastal plains for production of synergistic algal symbiots for rapid algal biomass production.

4. There is no shortage of CO2, when algal biomass is the object -- rather than algal oil -- of algal energy, fuels, plastics, and chemical production. CO2 is a byproduct of the entire operation.

5. Algal species bloom wildly under a range of climates -- depending upon the species combinations and the chemical and biological environment within these species happen to be growing. Different regions will naturally utilise different groupings of algal species and wastewater influent to suit the climate.

6. The topic of algal growth factors which trigger algal blooms has not been exhausted by any means. While simple chemicals such as phosphorus and CO2 act to stimulate algal growth, no doubt a large number of other less bulky and more subtle growth stimulants remain to be discovered.

A number of other problems hidden within the author's assumptions and methods will need to be teased out and analysed. But clearly the issue takes on an entirely different light when looking at algal feedstock as a hardy and prolific biomass rather than as an oil grown from fragile monocultures.

Original post available here.

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