When I first heard about algal biodiesel it seemed like the liquid fuels problem had just been solved. Unfortunately like so many things that sound a little too good to be true, so it has turned our for Algea harvesting for biodiesel.
As John Benemann, Manager of the International Network on Biofixation of Carbon Dioxide and Greenhouse Gas Abatement with Microalgae (operated by the Int. Energy Agency, Greenhouse Gas R&D Programme) and also as a researcher in this field for over 30 years has said:
“Even if R&D proves successful and we can actually produce algae biofuels (maybe even biodiesel) economically (whatever the economics may be a decade or so from now), even then, I am sorry to say that due to resource (land, water, etc.) limitations, algae will not replace all our (or their) oil wells, cannot solve our entire global warming problem, or make me rich quick, at least not honestly. But maybe this technology could be developed in the next few years so that in the future it can make a contribution to our energy supplies, our environment and human welfare.
We will in the future need all such technologies and must in the present study and develop all those that appear at least on their face plausible. But we also must reject those, as in the present case, that are based on absurd claims (such as in this case of productivity) and bizarre contraptions (e.g. closed photobioreactors).There are no silver bullets, no winner-take-all technologies, no technological fixes, the solution to our energy and environment crisis can only come from, in order, ‘demand’ management, efficiency improvements, and new energy supplies, to which, maybe, algae processes can contribute.”
Krassen Dimitrov’s (PDF file) analysis of Greenfuel Technologies and their algae claims has brought the reality of the challenges home. Krassen’s analysis raised some eyebrows when he suggested that algal biodiesel would have to sell for $20.31 a gallon to be economically viable. The amount seemed so high that it was largely ignored and is certainly much higher than many in the industry were admitting too.
“Algae biofuel startup Solix, for instance, can produce biofuel from algae right now, but it costs about $32.81 a gallon, said Bryan Wilson, a co-founder of the company and a professor at Colorado State University. The production cost is high because of the energy required to circulate gases and other materials inside the photo bioreactors where the algae grow. It also takes energy to dry out the biomass, and Solix uses far less water than other companies.”
The warning signal is that high costs are due to high energy requirements. This suggests a very poor energy return, which means that as oil prices rise, algae won’t necessarily become more viable. It will be subject to the forces which mean that energy sources that require high energy inputs will always see their point of economic viability pushed farther out as energy prices rise. When oil was $20 a barrel, then oil shale was going to be viable at $40 oil. By the time oil got to $100, they were saying it would be viable at $120 oil.
Algal biodiesel at the moment is like a good research project, but nowhere close to commercialization and the reason investors are throwing their money in that direction is in the hope it will be the next big thing.