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Carbon Utilization Research Can Lead to Big Emissions Reductions

A new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine makes the case for robust, coordinated research and development programs that can accelerate the development of technologies that can turn greenhouse into useful products such as fuels, construction materials, and chemicals. Algae cultivation is prominently featured in the report, as it has long been considered one of the more exciting biological routes to achieving economically viable carbon capture and sequestration (CCU).

The report calls for a coordinated R&D effort funded by the U.S. government and the private sector, targeting fundamental research, entrepreneurial research hubs, pilot facilities and large-scale commercialization projects.

Typically scale-up research is done in industrial research settings; however, industry may be unlikely to invest in development of these nascent technologies beyond the laboratory scale due to the lack of market, regulatory, and policy drivers. Therefore, government investment will be critical to enable these technologies to reach pilot and demonstration scale.”

Over the next several decades, CCU technologies could capture more than 10 percent of global emissions, making the approach one of the most potent tools against climate change—if we can make it happen.

A number of research areas for advancing the potential of algae cultivation are identified in the report, including maximizing photosynthesis and carbon dioxide conversion limits. The authors describe the wide range of valuable products that can be made from algae, including the co-products that can be made from the wastes generated during the production of algal biofuels:

Dietary protein

“Protein productivity from algae has been estimated at up to 50 times that of soybeans per acre of land.”

Polyunsaturated fatty acids

Many green algae naturally produce polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) that are valuable for humans and animals as food additives. While they are typically harvested from fish, PUFAs from algae represent a viable and more sustainable set of target molecules.”


“Algae are well known for their ability to produce a variety of pigments and could provide a more sustainable alternative to the utilization of fossil fuels.”

The report also cites the potential for cyanobacteria, often called blue-green algae, to convert greenhouse gases into a long list of valuable fuels and industrial chemicals, including:

  • Ethanol
  • Butanol (n-butanol and isobutanol)
  • Fatty acids
  • Heptadecane
  • Limonene
  • Bisabolene
  • 2,3- butanediol
  • 1,3-propanediol
  • Ethylene
  • Glycogen
  • Lactate
  • 3-hydroxypropanoic acid
  • 3- hydroxybutanoic acid
  • 4-hydroxybutanoic acid
  • Isoprene
  • Farnesene

The potential for algae to drive reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in clearly enormous, as is the potential to develop a new source of more sustainable products, jobs, and agricultural practices.

Read more about the report, and how to obtain a copy in the National Academies’ press release.

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