The news that algae-derived fuel is being offered to consumers for the first time came just a few weeks after the National Research Council issued a long-awaited report on algae’s sustainability. The NRC’s team of independent scientists concluded there were no barriers to the sustainable development of algae fuels in the future, but they did call for more research, development and deployment efforts to get current technologies up to scale.
The news from California from Propel Fuels and Solazyme is exactly the kind of progress that will lead to a future of more sustainable fuels. The San Francisco Chronicle notes that the fuel offered today is already meeting sustainability requirements:
“The end product produces 30 percent fewer particulates, 20 percent less carbon monoxide and 10 percent fewer hydrocarbons than other diesel and biodiesel fuels…
The new gas falls in line with California’s “low-carbon fuel standard,” which forces fuel producers to lower the amount of greenhouse gas emissions in their products 10 percent by 2020.”
The algae industry and research communities are making rapid progress improving the performance of algae from an environmental aspect because those same improvements will also make the technology economically successful. Unlike petroleum algae’s ability to grow in saltwater, recycle fertilizer and consume greenhouse gases will help this industry’s bottom line.
ABO’s statement about the NRC’s report details how a range of sustainability issues can be addressed with algae:
Water: Use of saline and non-potable or recycled water is essential to commercial algae production. According to a Pacific Northwest National Laboratories’ (PNNL) report, algal fuels grown in saline water from existing aquifers and recycling nutrients would be able to provide up to twice the goal for advanced biofuels set under the Energy Independence and Security Act goal (roughly 40 billion gallons or 20 percent of annual transportation fuel demand).
Nutrients: Nutrient recycle and efficient use of resources are essential to achieving the techno-economics of energy production and producing a low carbon fuel. ABO members are piloting this technology today and the DOE and several universities have ongoing research in this area. As PNNL points out, use of nutrients is dramatically decreased when recycling is used. Nitrogen fertilizer consumption is reduced 98% and phosphorus fertilizer is reduced by more than 40%.
Land Use: Again we agree land use is an important consideration. PNNL recently reported there are more than 89,000 suitable sites in the United States for open pond cultivation.
Energy ROI: Industry leaders are already achieving the NRC report’s proposed benchmark for Energy Return on Investment (EROI) of 3x (3 units of energy produced per unit of energy input) in current algae biofuels production processes by recycling nutrients, producing biomethane from residual organics, and engineering designs that minimize energy use.
GHG emissions lifecycle: By qualifying algae-based diesel as an Advanced Biofuel under the Renewable Fuel Standard, the US Environmental Protection Agency’s life cycle analysis found that algae-based diesel reduces greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50 percent, thus qualifying it as an Advanced Biofuel under the Renewable Fuel Standard.