|Schematic of the potential conversion routes for whole algae into biofuels. Source: Draft Algal Roadmap. Click to enlarge.|
The US Department of Energy (DOE) has issued a Request for Information (RFI) to solicit feedback on a Draft “National Algal Biofuels Technology Roadmap” Document prepared by a working group commissioned by DOE. The Algal Roadmap is intended to assist in the development of an Algae Platform within the Office of the Biomass Program at DOE. Feedback will be incorporated into the finalized draft report for public release.
The Algal Roadmap resulted from a two-day Algal Biofuels Technology Roadmap Workshop conducted by DOE 9-10 December 2008 at the University of Maryland. Chairs and Co-Chairs for each of the nine breakout sessions outlined chapters for the Draft based upon feedback from participants of the workshop.
|Schematic of the various conversion strategies of algal extracts into biofuels. Source: Draft Algal Roadmap. Click to enlarge.|
DOE is seeking comments from those members of the community and relevant stakeholders who did not participate in the Workshop; however, this does not preclude individuals who attended the workshop from providing input.
The Algal Roadmap. Microalgae offer “great promise” to contribute a significant portion of the renewable fuels target specified in the Renewable Fuels Standard. In the longer term, the roadmap notes, algal biofuels could provide sufficient fuel feedstock to meet the transportation fuels needs of the entire United States, while being completely compatible with the existing transportation fuel infrastructure (refining, distribution, and utilization).
However, despite their huge potential, the state of technology for producing algal biofuels is regarded by many in the field to be in its infancy.
There is a general consensus that a considerable amount of research, development, and demonstration (RD&D) needs to be carried out to provide the fundamental understanding and scale-up technologies required before algal-based fuels can be produced sustainably and economically enough to be cost-competitive with petroleum-based fuels. For this reason, a major objective of the Workshop was to help define the activities that will be needed to resolve the challenges associated with commercial-scale algal biofuel production and lay the framework for an algal biofuels technology roadmap.—Algal Roadmap
The workshop and resulting roadmap address the various aspects that must be tackled in developing a viable algal biofuels industry:
The notion of using the lipids in microalgae as a source of energy first gained serious attention from the DOE during the oil embargo of the early 1970s, and resulted in the DOE Aquatic Species Program (ASP). Lasting from 1978 until 1996, the prpogram invested approximately $25 million. During the early years, the focus was on hydrogen production, but switched to focus on biodiesel in the early 1980s. A comprehensive overview of the project was published in 1998, and serves as a fundamental primer for the algal biofuels industry. Federal investment following the closing of the ASP program has been sporadic.
Now, however, the American Recovery and Renewal Act (ARRA) pased earlier this year includes $800 million for new research on bioduelsl, including funds for the Department of Energy Biomass Program to invest in the research, development, and deployment of commercial algal biofuel processes.
The current state of knowledge regarding the economics of producing algal biofuels are woefully inadequate to motivate targeted investment on a focused set of specific challenges. Furthermore, because no algal biofuels production beyond the research scale has ever occurred, detailed life cycle analysis (LCA) of algal biofuels production has not been possible. For this reason, investment in algal biofuels research and development is needed to identify and reduce risk.
This supports private investments aimed at producing algal biofuels at a commercial scale. In contrast, development of cellulosic biofuels benefits from direct agricultural and process engineering lineage to the long-standing agricultural enterprise of growing corn (a grass) for food (and recently, for conversion to starch ethanol). There is no parallel agricultural enterprise equivalent for cultivating algae at a similar scale. In short, the science of algae cultivation (algaculture), agronomy-for-algae, if you will, does not exist. It is thus clear that a significant basic science and applied engineering R&D effort including a rigorous techno-economic and LCA will be required to fully realize the vision and potential of algae.—Algal Roadmap
The RFI seeks input in a number of areas, focused on omissions, areas that might need further elaboration, or potential over-representation of certain barrier areas relative to others.