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DOE Issues RFI on Draft National Algal Biofuels Technology Roadmap

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:

  • Systems and Techno-Economic Analysis
  • Algal Biology
  • Algal Cultivation
  • Processing (Harvesting and Dewatering)
  • Extraction/Fractionation
  • Conversion to Fuels
  • Co-products
  • Distribution & Utilization
  • Resources and Siting
  • Standards, Regulation, and Policy
  • 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.




    As I have been saying for more than seven years now, Algae is THE way to go. It fits into the existing distribution infrastructure and can be grown everywhere. It does not compete with current and future food production.

    We need to build a full scale growing/processing plant in California and New York yesterday.



    There must be some problems with making algea work in large scale. Greenfuel Technologies, the leaders in the industry, 2006 inovation of the year award winner. Has recieving more than 20 million in seed money over the last 3 years and had Dow Chem guru on board since last year. Current Status: Failure, For Sale - intelectual properties and hardware.


    We certainly do NOT need to build facilities anywhere.  It would be utterly foolish, because until we know what species to use, how to grow them and how to process them, we have no idea what to build.  Any attempt to proceed before we are ready would risk results as bad as the Great Leap Forward.


    I think algae biofuels offer a good long term option for making liquid fuel for transportation applications where electrification is not practical (eg, aviation). For general transport, within 5 years electric cars will be taking off and within 10 years the transformation will be nearly complete so there is no point in developing it for that application.

    It would be interesting to use sewage as a fertilizer to grow algae in ponds.


    I'm personally not convinced that electric vehicles can replace all of the road transport fleet because of its shortcomings with regard to range, charging times and also what I percive to be massive energy inputs in manufature, offsetting the 'clean' benefits. Plus, we don't know where the energy for the electricity will come from.

    EVs may be good for the short commute but not so much for the long distance roadtrip. In any case aren't those short commutes the types of journeys that we are being told to make by walking, cycling and using mass transit? Electric may be analagous to shooting oneself in the foot in this regard.

    I much prefer the algae biofuels route and it will become viable, either becase technology improves reducing costs and so on, or when oil prices increase due to supply and demand (rather than stock market speculation). The infrastructure is in place for refinement, and current vehicle fleets are able to use fuels that will be replaced. I think this is the best and perhaps the most simplist way to decarbonise and make a so-called unssuatainable transport sector sustainable in the future.

    No doubt electric will have a part to play as noted above, but algae will have a significant role, not only in aviation but in road based transport that relies on longer journeys.


    ...Also, whilst there is a lot of debate about biofuels, there is a huge danger that without pusuing algae, a consequent rush to address any energy supply gap may result in unsustainable practices of using land intensive feedstocks for biofuels, or coal to liquids (as in South Africa) may be followed instead.

    Lets not blind ourself to only one option. 'Hourses for courses' as they say.


    "Lets not blind ourself to only one option."
    Right you are. 'The right tool for the right job' has always been my motto, but having said that have you considered how far electrification of the transport system could take us if we were only willing to try new ideas?

    An EV with just 100km range could handle 90% of the average driver's needs, and if he needs to go farther some DIY EV owners already use a solution;
    On well traveled routes we could install E-guideways;

    Even freight can be moved on electrified railways.
    In cities; ;or between them. The Japanese and most European railroads are already electrified. The Russians finished electrifying the Trans-Siberian Railroad, from Moscow to the Pacific, in 2002 and electrified to the Arctic Ocean at Murmansk in 2005 - transcontinental AND in the worst climate, so there are no technical limitations.


    There is an even greater danger of pursuing algae without making any attempt to be able to manage if it fails to produce results.

    Algae is many years from being able to supply liquid fuels at anything like a competitive price.  (It may be more practical to make methane instead.  We have a distribution system for methane already.)  However, the guaranteed practical replacement is electricity.  The generating capacity is already there, the necessary "infrastructure" required to connect is an extension cord, and inventions like the Poulsen Hybrid system can be retrofitted to existing vehicles.

    Changes in our infrastructure can electrify more of it.  Putting rails down highway lanes and running dual-mode vehicles on them would slash fuel requirements, and electrifying the system with overhead wires would eliminate them.  An electric tractor with Zebra batteries could recharge from the wires and run to freight terminals without burning a drop of oil.

    If we embarked on a program such as that, petroleum substitutes from algae might be obsolete before they could get to market.


    Right E-P, and when you've got trucks running down the highway on electric power they could be used to extend the range of electric cars;


    It makes little sense to complicate the trucks and create possibly-dangerous interactions when battery-swap stations can do the same job.


    If you could put cars on the back of rail cars for longer hauls, you might save some energy. But putting the people on the rail cars with taxis, public transit or car rental at the other end makes more sense.


    Aircraft and ocean going vessels need liquid fuel at this stage. Unless we are satisfied with using fossils for this purpose there is little alternative but to develop algae and other biodiesel.

    That there continues to be hesitation and hemming only exasperates the need. DOE should push this forward and throw it some of their big dollar dole outs for the R&D. That they do not indicates an insupportable negligence.


    Ocean-going vessels can get a substantial amount of their power from sail.  Aircraft are the tough part.


    Synthetic fuels for commercial aviation would be great. We can do CNG for trucks and buses and electric rail for other things, but jet aircraft use a lot of fuel, so getting the fuel made with algae or biomass would help.

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