The Department of Energy announced to a crowd of 600 algae researchers and producers at the 8th Annual Algae Biomass Summit that it would be awarding $25 million in funding for biomass projects specializing in algae production and development. This funding will be issued by the Department of Energy’s Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO) to promote the development of biomass as a source of renewable energy as well as other environmentally-friendly, sustainable products, from industrial chemicals and bio-polymers to “nutraceuticals” such as animal feedstock and nutritional additives for human food. These are collectively known as “bioproducts”, and they are mandated, along with the production of biofuels from algae, in the requirements for the funding awards.
In an effort to diversify its investment among several projects, BETO will not be awarding the $25 million in a lump sum, but dividing it into several smaller awards in two areas of development, or topics: Topic One, for which there will be a maximum of three awards available for $5 to $10 million each, is the development and production of algal biomass that yields a higher concentration of both fuel and bioproducts; Topic Two is the development of cultivation practices that will increase crop yield, with an emphasis given to crop protection and carbon dioxide capture, for which three to seven awards of up to $1 million each will be given. Essentially, the Department of Energy wants to see increases in both the amount of algal biomass produced and the efficiency of that biomass.
Currently, the amount of energy produced by algae used as biofuel vs. the cost of producing that energy is the equivalent of paying $8 for a gallon of gasoline. The DOE’s aim is to reduce that equivalent amount to about $5 by 2019, and to $3 by 2030. These may seem like overly optimistic goals, but BETO has been providing federal funding to the algae industry since 2009, and the results have been promising so far: Neste Oil, the world’s largest producer of biodiesel fuels, agreed to purchase algae crude oil from Renewable Algal Energy, LLC, a microalgae products company that used federal funding to prove the viability of their technologies for harvest and extraction of algal oil for use as biofuel; and the National Alliance of Advanced Biofuels and Bio-products reported several research advancements such as an improved strains of fast-growing, “oilier” algae, higher-efficiency harvesting systems and developments in hydrothermal liquefaction. These advancements are anticipated to drop the “gallon gasoline equivalent” price to $7.50.
Still, biofuels including algae have a very long way to go before they will be more than a tiny fraction of U.S. energy production. According to Texaselectricity.org, biofuels accounted for 46.5 Trillion Btu which is far less than .3% of the state’s energy production in 2012.
Development of biomass fuels and products can lead to job growth in the new “green industry”, reduction of the use of planet-warming fossil fuels, and even improvement in national security via reduced dependence on foreign fuel imports. Algae is an attractive prospect for biomass development because of its speedy growth rate and ability to utilize waste resources like municipal wastewater, as well as its ability, like other plant life, to absorb carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. The future seems bright for renewables, and the lowly, single-celled algae is getting its share of the action.
photo credit: Pacific Northwest National Laboratory – PNNL