Enthusiasm and investment is flowing toward algae biofuel. A German biochemist and the airline industry envision it as the future fuel for flight. Is algae the foundation to truly sustainable biofuel or an expensive theory, like corn ethanol?
Algae Biofuel – Opportunity
Unlike corn, and other crop-related biofuel, an alga biomass fuel offers:
- No conflict with food and feedstock demands.
- Less land, water, and fertilizer required.
- As a de-carbonized liquid fuel, it better synchs with engine technology.
- Without plant stems and leaves, it potentially delivers 30 times more fuel per acre.
The airline industry projects algae-based biofuel will yield 10%-plus more energy than kerosene, more miles with less fuel. Airbus is investing in an eastern German biofuel lab. British Airways is backing a Cranfield University project to produce algae airline biofuel. Both Japan Airlines and Lufthansa are conducting flight tests on kerosene/algae biofuel mixes.
Algae Biofuel – Shadow of Ethanol
Germany became the first major power to reject corn-based ethanol as a true sustainable biofuel. The U.S. Senate recently voted 77 to 23 against supporting ethanol subsidies, an estimated $3 billion budget annual savings. The main problem of crop-based biofuel is the energy needed to produce them exceeds the fossil-fuel energy they replace.
A summary of a major Cornell University/Berkeley study highlights the issue:
|Biofuel Base||Required Energy to Produce versus Fossil Fuel Alternative|
David Pimentel – Cornell University and Tad W. Patzek – Berkeley
At one point in time, corn-based ethanol pulled the same enthusiasm and investment as algae. What do we know, or don’t know, about this alternative to move it from beneath the ethanol shadow?
Algae Biofuel – Technology Hurdles
The biomass, necessary to create mass quantities of the fuel, does not yet exist. Algae feeds on carbon dioxide, 2 units for every unit of biofuel. One idea is to capture emissions from coal-fired power generators, directing them at the biofuel production facility. Another challenge is the fuel’s sensitivity to weather changes and a variety of chemicals. A huge hurdle is to understand the cost of solving these issues and other unknowns on this highway. Despite investor enthusiasm, the financial portion of the equation is unknown. Finally, how much energy is needed to create algae biofuel versus the fossil fuel energy it replaces?
Algae Biofuel – Avoiding Ethanol Traps
With the rising price of fuels, and the drive for a better environment, developers of algae biofuel must avoid the problems that are destroying corn-based ethanol.
- Keep expectations low. The Germans and Japanese are publicizing test flights with various algae biofuel mixes. Such publicity increases expectations for near term solutions while the ultimate answer is further away.
- Refrain from big goals without evidence on how to achieve them.
- Don’t impose a biofuel by legislation. The German and U.S. governments passed laws that require up to 15% corn ethanol use in gasoline. Assuming algae biofuel meets expectations, such regulations are not necessary.
Despite disappointments, the world needs a sustainable fuel alternative. We hope a crop-based fuel is the answer, but hope is not a plan.
Algae biofuel will only fly if expectations remain grounded.