As the implications of the global energy crisis continue to intensify, cost-effective and truly sustainable solutions are crucial. The energy industry experienced a giant leap with the production of first-generation biofuels, but rising costs and questionable energy yields have led to an innovative second wave of advanced biofuels that require less land and offer greater outputs at cost-competitive prices.
Among these advanced fuels, algae-based has become an industry leader, largely due to the inherent simplicity of its process. Converting algae to fuel requires only sunlight, carbon dioxide and saltwater to produce ethanol, gasoline, jet and diesel — four key fuels that have the power to change the way we consume at the pump.
Lowering the Environmental and Economic Cost of Fuel
Yield refers to the fuel production level per acre of a crop. Corn ethanol, the most common form, has an average yield of 420 gallons of fuel per acre per year. Other crops provide higher yields, but even the best biomass alternative, Brazilian sugarcane, produces only 860 gallons per acre/per year, hardly scratching the surface of algae’s proven yields which could reliably reach 8,000 gallons per acre/per year. In addition, while first generation corn ethanol requires almost as much energy to grow and harvest as it provides, very little energy is required to establish and maintain algae growth.
Why does this matter? Many argue that the cost of biofuels, both environmentally and economically, is too high. When significantly more fuel can be produced in less time, on less land, while using less energy, the cost to the consumer can be drastically reduced along with the environmental impacts of production. As technology in the industry continues to advance and yields increase, costs will continue to fall, proving advanced biofuels have the ability to compete — and in some cases work in conjunction with — traditional fossil fuel sources.
When it comes to fuel production, climate change is a crucial issue that cannot be avoided. In the U.S., 3,600 million metric tons of CO2 are emitted from stationary sources alone, not to mention the additional output from vehicles.
A key aspect of algae biofuel production provides a viable solution to this crisis. To create this fuel, the CO2 produced by other industrial processes is captured and used as feedstock for the algae in an outdoor reactor system, resulting in ethanol through photosynthesis. As solutions to reducing and handling waste emissions are developed and discussions of carbon capture and storage increase, algae’s unique process of carbon capture and reuse provides an even more sustainable alternative.
Moreover, the algae biofuel production process helps address fresh water scarcity and drought issues by naturally converting saltwater into 1.4 gallons of fresh water for every gallon of fuel. Other biofuels, like corn ethanol, can require up to 15 gallons of fresh water to produce a single gallon of fuel.
In addition, not only does algae biofuel require less land than typical biofuels, the land it does use can be marginal – saving valuable, arable land for food growth and eliminating the link between food prices and fuel. As populations continue to grow and food supplies diminish, solutions that allow the most efficient use of our natural resources are critical.
Algae at the Pump
While low-yield, high-cost ethanol is currently available at the pump, two key changes will have a dramatic effect on the cost and environmental impact of our energy use: overcoming the blend wall of 10 to 15 percent ethanol and drastically improving the yield/cost ratio of those biofuels. To the surprise of many, half of American built vehicles produced in 2012 and on can run on E85 fuel. Yes, many older vehicles still exist, but as a society it’s time to think long-term. As the biofuel industry progresses, so will the production of vehicles designed to handle larger percentages of ethanol. At 8,000 gallons per acre instead of 420, with high-yield, low-cost ethanol you’ll be experiencing a different kind of sticker shock with significant savings at the pump. Algae-based advanced biofuels are a new solution.
To combat the energy and environmental crisis at hand, we must continue to improve the acceptance of advanced fuels and show our political leaders how important cleaner, cheaper, homegrown fuel is for our society to thrive. Commercialization is on the horizon, but the shift to algae based fuels requires global support.