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Algal Biomass Organization Questions Findings of Recent Algae Life Cycle Study

The Algal Biomass Organization (ABO), the trade association for the algae industry, challenged the findings of a paper published 19 January in Environmental Science and Technology by researchers at the University of Virginia which determined, among other things, that “conventional crops have lower environmental impacts than algae in energy use, greenhouse gas emissions and water.” (Earlier post.)

ABO said that the report was based upon obsolete data and “grossly outdated” business models, and overlooked tremendous improvements in technology and processes across the production cycle. Among the concerns of ABO about the report are:

  • Assumptions about algae growth systems. The report uses a first-generation, raceway-style pond system as its benchmark. Many leading algae companies abandoned that approach years ago and have a variety of more advanced cultivation systems, some of which are unrelated to the methods the authors sought to assess.

  • Assumptions about co-location. By assuming the production facility is not co-located with a large CO2 emitter, calculations for sourcing CO2 are flawed, resulting in a higher attribution of CO2 for algae plants. Most commercial-scale algae projects are being developed alongside major emitters in order to beneficially reuse CO2 that will take the place of equivalent carbon emissions from petroleum fuels.>

  • Assumptions about water use. The study assumes fresh water and non-potable salt water are equal. A sustainable industrial algae production model uses non-potable, non-agricultural water in the process of making liquid fuels.

  • Assumptions about nutrient use. Because the report does not look at the full algae fuel cycle, it ignored the opportunity to consider the ability of algae producers to recycle nutrients and avoid such a substantial burden.

  • Assumptions about energy use. Because the authors admittedly did not consider the full algae fuel cycle, which allows energy reuse through biodigester biogas combustion coupled with the carbon recycling from all of the aspects of biodigestion, the report errantly gives a higher emissions burden.

  • Assumptions about purchase of CO2 and fertilizer. The base case assumes algae farmers will purchase CO2 and fertilizer, yet such an approach is so prohibitively expensive it would never happen in reality.

  • The stochastic approach. ABO believes the results of any stochastic study should not be given the same weight as studies and analyses based measurable data.

Even with the scientific shortcomings of the survey, it shows that with a few improvements, algae is much better than terrestrial plants as a fuel source. The truth is that the algae industry is already well beyond the obvious improvements these authors suggest, and as we add these new efficiencies algae will become much more environmentally beneficial.

—Dr. Stephen Mayfield, director of the San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology



This is what happens when you get organisations who are likely to have a dislike for all thing powered by internal combustion and will massage data to suit their pre-conceived hypothesis.

Like most technologies there are stages of production that when looking back will be known to be grossly inefficient, but they have to be explored and recongised as such to lead to better things. Algae is going through this process, as are Electric vehicles and so on.

I think better efforts are made in making progress not scoring propaganda points.


The "study" was BS, even myself, someone not an expert in this particular subject, pointed out in the previous story that the study compared out-dated open pond systems to grow algae.

The open-pond raceway systems are horrible systems. As you can imagine, rain and weather can contaminate the entire pond. Its an obsolete system in the modern context.

I would go as far as saying the study was plain dishonest. Its the equivalent of comparing a petrol engine to a diesel engine, but using a diesel from a Mercedes-Benz 300D as a reference and comparing it to a modern petrol engine, and saying that diesels aren't efficient.


Previous Post:

We might look at who funds this study - American Chemical Society. Their agenda includes opposition to Open Access science. And ACS owns and operates the ACS Petroleum Research Fund - a $500M fund to conduct research such as this.

ACS-PRF is charged with supporting "advanced scientific education and fundamental research in the petroleum field," including any area of pure science that may lead to further research directly impacting petroleum.


Sulleny, thanks for pointing that out. It's kinda pitiful that they need to spread disinformation like this. It's not like algae oil is going to replace fossil oil any time soon.

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