What’s Happening in the Biodiesel from Algae Sector?

Could you give an overview of the latest state of the art of biodiesel production from Algae technologies? – Erick Gonzalez, Guatemala

Several people have sent in questions regarding making biodiesel from algae. Now that biodiesel is gaining in popularity and the price for common feedstocks is going up people are looking to Mother Nature’s premier oil producing organism, algae, for help. The promise of algae is tremendous with potential oil yields 200 times that of soy beans—currently the most popular biodiesel feedstock in the US.

Most of the energy in the fossil fuels we use today comes from ancient algae that stored the sun’s energy in hydrocarbon bonds. Now scientists and entrepreneurs are trying to take that ancient process, speed it up by a couple of million years and market it on an industrial scale.

Why go to all that trouble? Well, the list of reasons algae makes an appealing oil crop goes on and on. They can be grown using marginal land, in some cases harvest time comes every four hours, while the byproduct starch can be made into ethanol.

There have been successful projects using the CO2 from smokestacks to speed up the algae growth, adding in the possibility of a carbon credit and increasing yield per acre per year. This presents a great opportunity for the power plants because it is taking something with a cost associated with it, CO2 emissions, and turning it into something of value, liquid fuel.

But what makes algae stand out is that it is scaleable. Soy and other first generation biodiesel feedstocks like canola are not scalable, 40 to 60 gallons is all we can squeeze out of an acre of soybeans and there is no sign of that changing. While algae can yield 10,000 gallons of oil per acre and scientists are selecting for even oilier varieties. This promise of algae changes the biofuel field, instead of just reaching for 5% of the diesel market the way biodieselists are today, with algae biodiesel could be a real player in the 60 billion gallons of diesel we use in the U.S. each year.

Any crop having an impact on the diesel market is a bit far fetched and there has been a lot of hype out there about algae. Here are two things to remember when sifting through the information and outlandish ads. Making biodiesel from algae is not easy, but it might be worth the trouble because of economies of scale. That is why growing algae in your backyard with equipment some companies are advertising seems like an expensive hobby and not a money making venture. And second, bringing algae to an industrial scale for biodiesel production, takes time and money. So the companies to watch are in it for the long haul, not promising you riches overnight.

I know someone will write in about GMO algae taking over the earth’s water and destroying life as we know it. But there is some good news. So far you can produce non-GMO algae that are viable and there is potential for optimization without necessarily going the GMO route. Much of the research going on is not focused on GMOs because the long regulatory process involved with getting a GMO crop to market discourages capital investment.

In the end, however, algae will probably follow the route corn has, a great deal of time spent selecting and breeding favorite varieties and then GMOs—another bittersweet tale of environmentalism in action.

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