Algal biofuel: Growing a sustainable future

Dianne Anderson
By Dianne Anderson November 7th, 2018
For business

Considered by some as a nutrient-dense “superfood,” over time algae could also work well in a semi-truck or a jet engine.

Algae, consisting of protein, carbohydrates and fatty acids and other savory morphology, has exactly the right molecular structure to create fossil fuel alternatives.

Dr. Bradley Cardinale, a professor at the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability, is investigating the possibility. UM researchers recently pulled down $2 million on an algae biofuel grant.

“We think we can pick up where people left off in the 70s to advance the field and get it ready for the next oil crisis so we’re closer to application the next time it happens,” said Cardinale, director of the Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research.

The history of algae-as-fuel

Historically, extracting oil from algae to burn as fuel was discovered in the 1800s but took off in the early 1970s as America faced soaring gas prices from the fuel shortage.

Cardinale said that major research on the algal biofuels program then gained traction as Congress tasked the Department of Energy with developing alternative energy sources. But, as fear of the energy crisis subsided, so did the program.

These days, in times of plenty relatively cheap oil and natural gas, developing algae as a biofuel hasn’t been at the top of the nation’s to-do list, although the technology has been around for quite some time.

If needed, Cardinale said the U.S. military is ready to roll with its small fleet powered by algal biofuel.

“That’s not a big deal,” he said. “We can grow lots of algae in ponds and we can get lots of biocrude out of them, and we can easily upgrade it to jet fuel. There’s nothing abnormal about doing that.”

Perhaps the main concern regarding the mass production of algae is that it could lead to environmental issues. The approach to producing algae in the lab is modifying them for more fatty acids to make them combustible, where they are released on the open pond.

Algae are natural, but not completely worry-free. Large-scale development of cleaner alternatives could pollute the water.

Cardinale believes that creating long-term awareness is the key.

“Ducks fly in and take them to an open lake. We’ve argued that we’ve made all these mistakes with [genetically modified] algae before,” he said. “It was great for food, it hurt a lot of other things, but we’ve learned enough that we should make these things more environmentally friendly this time as we begin to farm our energy.”

All algae are not created equal

Lately, the Red Tide is grabbing headlines for its toxic fish-killing blooms in parts of the ocean and coastline.

While that kind of algae could be great if harvested, Cardinale describes it as too diluted and too unstable to turn into a biofuel.

Even if the technology existed to harvest the hundreds, if not thousands, of algae species growing in the open ocean, he said that it wouldn’t yield the nutrient levels required to make the fuel. Concentrations of the algae in the open ocean are minuscule compared to what’s available in the commercial pond.

“Because of the different nutrient compositions they’re growing in, we often find algae in the open waters don’t have the lipid content we need to make something combustible and commercially viable,” he said. “It would be impractical, and not the right feedstock to be able to burn.”

One main goal for algal biofuel development is that it removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and can fight global warming.  However, unless there is a sudden jump in oil prices, or if the government starts incentivizing algae for biofuel process, Cardinale sees broader access a decade or more away.

Still, at some point in the future, he feels that biofuels will be an important part of the renewable energy portfolio. When that day comes, he expects algal biofuels to take off, providing enough diesel for semi-trucks and jet fuels.

“We just need the investment in the infrastructure,” Cardinale said. “You have to create all of these ponds everywhere. You have to create all of the biorefineries, not for crude oil, but for bio-oil and somehow get it in the gas pumps. Either a company like Exxon will say, aha — we can make a ton of money on this, or the government has to incentivize it.”

Matt Carr, executive director of the Algae Biomass Organization, said he is starting to see more big players entering algal biofuel production. Even with the processing and associated costs, he said some recent big projects and developments are advancing the industry.

One major clean energy big oil company is Reliance Industries of India, the largest oil refinery in the world. It is now working on its Algenol demonstration project there.

“They’re looking at using algae to capture carbon emissions from the oil refinery. The algae eat the carbon, and then they produce biofuel from that algae biomass,” Carr said.

Exxon announced its biotech breakthrough to double algae productivity, moving toward producing twice as much oil for the same amount of biomass.

By 2025, the company anticipates production at 10,000 barrels, amounting to about 40 gallons per barrel, or about half a million gallons per day. Carr said that while it doesn’t make a major dent in petroleum consumption, it would be hitting commercial-scale production.

“It’s pretty substantial,” Carr said. “That would be more than the size of the largest corn ethanol facility, equivalent to multi-corn ethanol facilities.”

Over the years, Carr has worked to address environmental concerns as American Meteorological Society Congressional Fellow on the Senate Agriculture Committee for Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), where he contributed to the development of the biomass provisions of the Energy Policy Act of 2005.

He said the ABO association is very interested in pushing for aggressive low carbon fuels policy at the national level and advocating for a longer-term extension of the biofuel tax credit.

Carr describes coming into algae in a “roundabout way,” having completed both his undergraduate and graduate studies in atmospheric science, and his Ph.D. work in evaluating global circulation models that are used to make climate predictions.

He saw the writing on the wall early on.

He reflected back to his first undergraduate courses in climate, realizing that even then in 1992, the research community was well aware of the serious problem at hand.

“And here we are more than 25 years later, and what have we done about it?” he asked.

The technology is finally catching up, nearing the place where society can move forward in a new direction.

“I’m really proud to be able to come to work every day in support of algae technologies that are hopefully going to be part of the solution set that we need,” he said. “These guys are working really hard. My hope is that with the right political will, we’ll still get to the solutions in time.”

Dianne Anderson covers education, health, and city government stories with an eye on legislative impacts to diverse communities. She has received awards from the American Cancer Society – Inland Empire, and the Southern Poverty Law Center. Over the years, she has reported for the Long Beach Leader and the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin and been a contributor to the Pasadena Weekly.