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Researchers Suggest Microalgal Biofuels Could Be Sustainable and Economical in 10-15 Years

Microalga
Characteristics of the ideal microalga. Source: Wijffels and Barbosa. Click to enlarge.

Although microalgae are not yet produced at large scale for bulk applications such as fuel production, recent advances—particularly in the methods of systems biology, genetic engineering, and biorefining—present opportunities to develop this process in a sustainable and economical way within the next 10 to 15 years, according to two researchers from the University of Wageningen, the Netherlands.

The perspective by René H. Wijffels and Maria J. Barbosa on the outlook for microalgal biofuels was published in the 13 August issue of the journal Science.

Algae store chemical energy in the form of oils such as neutral lipids or triglycerides; the algal oil can be extracted and converted into biodiesel by transesterification with short-chain alcohols or by hydrogenation of fatty acids into linear hydrocarbons for drop-in fuel components. Algae also synthesize other fuel products, such as hydrogen, ethanol, and long-chain hydrocarbons that resemble crude oil. The algal biomass can be converted to biogas through anaerobic fermentation.

Despite this potential, the production capacity for microalgae is presently limited in comparison to land-based energy crops. The current worldwide microalgal manufacturing infrastructure (producing the equivalent of ~5000 tons of dry algal biomass) is devoted to extraction of high-value products such as carotenoids and ω-3 fatty acids used for food and feed ingredients. The total market volume is 1.25 billion, implying an average market price for microalgae of 250/kg dry biomass. As an example for comparison with land-based oleaginous crops, the world production of palm oil is nearly 40 million tons, with a market value of ~0.50 /kg.

Production of microalgae for biofuels needs to take place on a much larger scale at much lower costs. If all transport fuels were to be replaced by biodiesel in Europe, there would be an annual need for nearly 0.4 billion m3. If this biodiesel were to be supplied through microalgae, 9.25 million ha (almost the surface area of Portugal) would be needed to supply the European market, assuming a productivity of 40,000 liters per ha per year. This productivity is based on a 3% solar energy conversion to biomass (theoretical maximum is 9%) and a biomass oil content of 50%, under the solar conditions of Portugal.

A leap in the development of microalgae technology is therefore required; on a practical level, the scale of production needs to increase at least 3 orders of magnitude, with a concomitant decrease in the cost of production by a factor of 10. In the past few years, there has been a rather polarized debate between researchers in the field over technology readiness and the prospects for productivity enhancement, with some parties pressing for scale-up and commercialization now, while others cautiously stress the need for additional research leading to more careful step-by-step development.

—Wijffels and Barbosa

Wijffels and Barbosa suggest that a multidisciplinary approach will be required, with a comprehensive research portfolio covering the whole chain of process development in an integrated and iterative way, including fundamental biology, systems biology, metabolic modeling, strain development, bioprocess engineering, scale-up, biorefineries, integrated production chain, and the whole system design, including logistics.

Commercial production of microalgae is still based on traditional technologies using only a few strains, they note. Unexplored species and genetic engineering to improve known strains offer great potential. They note that the present productivity of penicillin synthesis by fungi is 5,000 times as high as it was 50 years ago due to improvements in microbial fermentation through both technological (reactor design, process control, harvesting, and extraction) and strain improvements.

Resources

  • René H. Wijffels and Maria J. Barbosa (2010) An Outlook on Microalgal Biofuels. Science Vol. 329. no. 5993, pp. 796 - 799 doi: 10.1126/science.1189003

Comments

Davemart

It all sounds a pretty daft way of doing things to me. A couple of dozen nuclear reactors would run the light transport system just fine.
There might be a place for biofuels in jets etc, although it might be better to produce hydrogen by electrolysis and then process it to get jet fuel.

The Goracle

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I'm just very glad that the federal Department of Energy was established 33 years ago, in 1977, to end the United States dependence on foreign oil. Look at how in a mere 33 years, with over 100,000 federal and contractor employees, and an annual budget of $24.1 BILLION, they have been able to solve the problem!

Oh, we still have the problem, but worse. Well then, we need to fund this incredibly efficient, innovative, Department of Energy with $100 BILLION annually and have 400,000 people working there! More government is ALWAYS the correct answer, right?

Praise be to Algore.

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gorr

these two researchers from the University of Wageningen, the Netherlands. need their jobs for another 15 years saying the same bulls*&t again and again. Selling fuel pay a lot, if their is no green algae fuel then it's because they have prohibited it. a child of 7 y old can do the all process of growing algae in a classroom and transforming it in fuel and pour it in a car and start the car and drive 20 feets. He can learn his job in one day at school.

These 2 researchers and their employer and this website are subsidized madscientists. They try to convince peoples that growing algae to fuel the car is complicated, LOL LOL, it's a child process from the beginning to the end.

ai_vin

The size of the Government has nothing to do with it, the real problem is it doesn't speak with one voice. As it is now you've got interdepartmental competition, States against each other and the Fed, Senators and Congressmen deep in the pockets the corporations and a two party system with one party or the other willing to drive the country into a hole if it means they can blame it on the other guys.

If you had a top-down form of government (like China) things could be done right real quick just on the say-so of the glorious leader. But noooo, you just had to go and get yourselves a federal constitutional republic, which is a political system where the supreme power is held by the citizens who are entitled to vote for officials (such as the president) and representatives (such as senators and members of the House of Representatives) responsible to them (the people).


That may sound all great and good until you realize 45-55% of these citizens believe the only reason the dinosaurs aren't with us now is because they missed the boat.

ai_vin

Sorry for the rant but the heat in this part of the country isn't allowing me to get any sleep.

HarveyD

Bio-fuel will (sooner or latter - preferably sooner) be restricted to available wastes as feed stock. Using agriculture lands to grow bio-fuel feed stocks will not be acceptable for more than a few decades. The world will soon require all available land for food production. Using nuclear power plants + wind + solar etc to produce the electricity required to produce large quantities of industrial hydrogen leading to essential liquid fuels may become common place by 2050+ and progressively replace fossil liquid fuels.

Engineer-Poet

Given the track record of microalgae being produced in fuel-quality condition, industrially-significant quantities and economical prices, I'll believe this when I see it.

Even if it works, it still leaves all the problems related to combustion engines. Electric doesn't, and by 2025 it ought to be cheaper than liquid fuels for most purposes.

Reel$$

My what a lot of whining from both sides of the fence! What's so difficult about farming salt water algae to supplement the jet fuel demand? That's where it's needed until someone figures out how to build heavy lift electric aircraft - or the antigrav team comes out from the Roswell bunker.

http://gas2.org/2009/03/26/saltwater-based-algae-biodiesel-could-be-cost-competitive-with-petroleum-diesel/

This study suggests that algae is a reasonable direction to pursue. And it sure beats having to pay OPEC for petroleum - or the DOD bills to defend their turf.

Alain

Portugal fits 100 times in the sahara

Peter_XX

Since there is a limit for efficiency from solar energy to biomass, one should look at the most abundant area we have, i.e. the 7 seas rather than cultivating algae "on land". After all, crude oil originates (mostly) from algae. Conversion of algae to liquid fuels makes much more sense than used as a resource for electricity generation.

Engineer-Poet: Well, I agree to some extent... electric propulsion ought to be cheaper than liquid fuel to success. However, I see no sign that this could happen already in 2025. In addition, if the efficiency (from resource to wheel) is higher for a combustion engine (as indicated by some studies, e.g. MIT), it is easy to live with the problems of combustion engines. By 2025, exhaust emissions from ICEs will be practically zero. Fuel supply and efficiency will be the main topics then. The only real advantage that electric propulsion seems to have in that context is that the total resource base (for electricity generation) could (should) be larger than for liquid fuels.

Engineer-Poet

If Nissan's projection of battery prices is even close, electric will be cheaper than liquid fuels by 2015. The electronics will continue to fall in price also.

if the efficiency (from resource to wheel) is higher for a combustion engine (as indicated by some studies, e.g. MIT)
What study would that be?

The well-to-tank efficiency of gasoline production is about 83%, and the vehicle efficiency can reach about 30%. Compared to a gas-burning CCGT at 60%, an ICEV is far less efficient; even an ultrasupercritical coal-fired steam plant is more efficient at 45%. Electrics also make an excellent base for DSM, allowing much higher penetration of intermittent renewables like wind and solar. Between efficiency and flexibility, electrics are the way to go.

Peter_XX


Engineer-Poet: Do you really believe what you say... 2015. I have never seen any consensus about that. I will come back in 2015 and remind you.

Heywood et al at MIT has published several studies in this field. It is really surprising that you apparently have not heard about them. The one I had in mind is:

http://web.mit.edu/sloan-auto-lab/research/beforeh2/files/kromer_electric_powertrains.pdf

MIT showed that a HEV is more efficient and produce less CO2 than a BEV. Or maybe you think that MIT is wrong. Have you published your study? I would like to see how you sum up your numbers.

A recent Swedish study compared BEV and ICE with no apparent advantage for BEV. Recently, we also saw the EMPA study here on GCC with data fairly close on ICE and BEV. What more evidence do you need to start to develop a somewhat critical mind against all the pro-BEV arguments?

Peter_XX

Regarding efficiency...

I will make a very simple calculation below in response to the calculation by Engineer-Poet. I will use some data from the most comprehensive WTW study so far, i.e. that of CONCAWE/EUCAR/JRC as basis for well-to-tank data (see link below). The highest electricity efficiency from biomass in that study is 48%, not 60% (you obviously have to gasify the biomass, which reduces efficiency compared to NG power plants). However, that is for “dry” cellulosic biomass. If you consider "wet" algae instead as feedstock, the efficiency will be far lower. Furthermore, you must distribute the electricity, so you will lose another couple of per cent. At best, you could reach some 40% from algae as resource to the charging station (i.e. excluding the charging losses that will be added in the next stage for simplicity). Still we have not considered feedstock production as part of the well-to-tank step. In contrast, the efficiency from algae to biofuel can be very high. Depending on the end product, and comparing to data for biodiesel, it could be higher than 90%. But, let’s consider 80% as a realistic and conservative number. As for electricity, we do not consider feedstock production (similar in both cases). Biodiesel (or hydrogenated oil) is used in diesel engines. Current average efficiency for a diesel engine can reach 25% in a driving cycle, while the maximum is at about 43% (the best so far in VW Lupo 3L was 45.1%). A heavy-duty engine has maximum efficiency of some 45% and reaches an average of 40% in a driving cycle. This illustrates the improvement potential. In a well-developed electric hybrid system (preferably a kinetic hybrid, though) – including the efficiency gain via regenerative braking – we could anticipate 35% (equal to 30% relative reduction in fuel consumption by hybridization). In a similar analysis, the BEV could reach 70% efficiency. This includes all the losses in battery, charger, inverter, electric drivetrain, etc. but also the gain via regenerative braking. It is difficult to envision a higher number for the BEV. If we multiply in both cases, we get:
HEV: 80%*35%=28%
BEV: 40%*70%=28%

Note that the absolute numbers in a "full" well-to-wheel analysis would be somewhat lower in both cases when we consider feedstock production and some of the neglected losses in the vehicle (auxiliaries, transmission, etc.). However the number to multiply with would be roughly similar in both cases, so it is just my way of simplifying the analysis.

By looking at the numbers above, it appears to be a close race but we still have forgotten one important issue. We have compared efficiencies of (part of) the pathways, not the total energy use. The problem for the BEV is that it´s mass is much higher than for the HEV. Thus, the driving resistance will also be much higher for the BEV. It should be obvious that a higher mass require more energy to accelerate; a drawback that cannot be fully compensated for by regenerative braking. Furthermore, the rolling resistance loss increases with increased mass. So, the HEV would be the winner in this comparison with the BEV. Maybe this example explains the results obtained by MIT and many other researchers.

Proponents for electric drive systems should probably switch their attention to PHEVs instead. The MIT results are much closer to the HEV in this case. In addition, the incremental vehicle cost should be much lower than for a BEV.

Using algae as a resource for liquid fuel appears to be a good idea - probably better than using this resource as feedstock for electricity production and end use in a BEV. Similarly, you can find other pathways that are more favorable for BEVs but this is not the topic of the day.

Finally, it is possible to make a much more complicated and comprehensive analysis than above but I will leave that for later...

http://ies.jrc.ec.europa.eu/WTW

sheckyvegas

"Production of microalgae for biofuels needs to take place on a much larger scale at much lower costs."
Well, duh....

Engineer-Poet
Do you really believe what you say... 2015. I have never seen any consensus about that.
Why not? There are reports that the Leaf battery is already down to $375/kWh. 2000 cycles to 70% discharge is about 27 cents/kWh*, or about 6.7 cents/mile at 250 Wh/mi. Add 2.5 cents/mi for electricity and the total is 9.2 cents/mile, cheaper than $3/gallon gas in a 30 MPG car. Then you have zero costs for oil changes, air filters, belt replacements, valve adjustments, spark plugs, pollution testing, or anything else engine-related. Arguably the Leaf is cheaper for some users today. It will be much cheaper when fuel prices return to 2008 levels.

Batteries for vehicles like the Leaf are priced mostly by manufacturing cost, not the raw materials. This means there is a lot of room for prices to fall as volumes increase.

MIT showed that a HEV is more efficient and produce less CO2 than a BEV. Or maybe you think that MIT is wrong.
I know they're wrong, because the assumptions about electric generation are whacked. Look at page 74 of your PDF. It states coal will be at 36% efficiency in 2030, but it will probably be mostly phased out by 2030 and the remaining plants will be ultrasupercritical steam or IGCC at 45% efficiency or so. It assumes NG will be 43% efficient but NG-fired simple-cycle is already up to 46%, and NG-fired CCGT has been upwards of 60% of LHV for a while.

If we assume recession-level rates of growth in wind, it will double about every 2.6 years for a while (30% per year). That's 4 doublings in 10.4 years, or growth from 2% to ~30% of generation by 2020 (probably not so soon as it will slow after a couple more doublings). A large PHEV or BEV fleet is a perfect match for such growth, because it allows hours to a day or so of leeway between the time the fleet can take power and the time it absolutely needs it. Then we have the renaissance in nuclear power, which is going to see a substantial up-trend from new US plants starting about 2016. All of that energy is zero-carbon.

Have you published your study?
Look at the US DOE's list of new plant license applications and license extensions. Nuclear is not going to follow the curve in the MIT paper.
The problem for the BEV is that it´s mass is much higher than for the HEV.
Not really a problem given that energy for electric generation is not in short supply. Energy suitable for making liquid fuel is.
The highest electricity efficiency from biomass in that study is 48%, not 60% (you obviously have to gasify the biomass, which reduces efficiency compared to NG power plants).
If you are starting with biomass, all the MIT paper's assumptions about CO2 go out the window. You're comparing apples and oranges now.
The highest electricity efficiency from biomass in that study is 48%, not 60% (you obviously have to gasify the biomass, which reduces efficiency compared to NG power plants).
The Billion-Ton Vision found a potential of 1.3 billion tons of biomass per year from non-food sources. If we assume we can get 800 million tons at 15.8 million BTU/ton, that's 12.6 quads of energy. If half of it is converted to electricity at 40% and the other half is used to re-heat air in CAES systems at 80% fuel-to-electric (not counting the wind input), that's 7.6 quads of electricity or about 2200 TWh. That replaces all US consumption of coal-fired electricity (roughly 50% today), and it's 100% schedulable. Add 12% hydro, 20% wind consumed directly and 20% nuclear and you're over 100%. Keep some gas-fired turbines on hand just in case; they'll be fully paid off and cheap if they don't run much.

* assuming zero residual value for the battery, which is very unlikely; it will probably have something like half its original value in utility load-levelling use.

Peter_XX

Well, I made a calculation where I used some data from the CONCAWE/EUCAR/JRC study (clearly stated). I did not use any data from MIT. When you fail to realize that, most of your comments are obsolete. Please comment on my calculation and the data I used. Otherwise, I must anticipate that you think it is correct. I do also recommend you to read the CONCAWE/EUCAR/JRC study. John Heywood is one of the most renowned professors in this field. You simply "know" he is wrong. What about the group of experts who made the CONCAWE/EUCAR/JRC study? Do you also "know" that they are wrong? If you have two such comprehensive studies against you, you do not have much of a case.

I have looked through your other comments but I cannot find anything worth any further comments. Most of your statements are not even on the topic of the article in GCC and/or has nothing to do with my comments either.

I might find a reason to come back to you in 2015.

Engineer-Poet

I was just pointing out that you were making an issue of carbon emissions based on the MIT paper (which assumes fossil fuel and almost all generation growth from coal), and then you went into completely different direction with biomass (which pretty much eliminates the carbon issue). As a consequence, I'm not sure what point you were trying to make.

Peter_XX

Engineer-Poet. Well, I was calculating (simplified, as I cut out a couple of steps) the well-to-wheel efficiency for the biomass resource (algae) that was the topic of the article. That was clearly stated by me but probably you did not read that part. I could show a similar calculation for natural gas as well but that was not the topic this time. The MIT report was just mentioned as an example that you could get similar results (for HEV BEV comparison) on completely different feedstock (fossil in this case). Maybe I should not have mentioned this report in this context or maybe you simply do not want to understand my point.

I begin to realize that you are a Poet, not an Engineer, so further discussion on this topic is pointless.

Engineer-Poet

Well, Peter XX, since you like to act superior you are a legitimate target of analysis to see if you actually are superior or just a poseur.

Let's start back at the beginning, where you said this:

if the efficiency (from resource to wheel) is higher for a combustion engine (as indicated by some studies, e.g. MIT), it is easy to live with the problems of combustion engines.
The "resource to wheel" efficiency depends on the resource and the path it takes to the wheel. Coal is quite a bit more efficient by the electric route. The average of coal-to-electric in the USA is about 33%, while feeding the existing ICEVs via coal-to-liquids imposes about a 50% loss in the conversion to liquid fuels. Tack on the 14.9% average tank-to-wheels efficiency of US ICEVs, and it's hard to see how any EV could come out less than twice (if not 3x) as good.

Other fossil fuels lean just as heavily toward electric. Natural gas is roughly as efficient in ICEVs as petroleum, but CCGTs hit 60%. 60% CCGT * 70% plant-to-wheels for EV is also about 3x greater than 14.9% ICEV efficiency.

Then you asserted this:

http://web.mit.edu/sloan-auto-lab/research/beforeh2/files/kromer_electric_powertrains.pdf

MIT showed that a HEV is more efficient and produce less CO2 than a BEV.

Whereupon I noted that (a) the MIT study's efficiencies for NG plants were far too pessimistic even compared to today's SOTA, and (b) both the efficiency of coal and the fraction of generation from coal were going in the wrong direction compared to today's trends.

In the following comment you decided to change the subject to biofuels:

I will use some data from the most comprehensive WTW study so far, i.e. that of CONCAWE/EUCAR/JRC as basis for well-to-tank data (see link below). The highest electricity efficiency from biomass in that study is 48%, not 60%
Note that the MIT study assumed fossil fuels, because biofuels (grown on atmospheric carbon) have little or no net CO2 contribution which renders efficiency meaningless for AGW impact (though not cost). That's where your argument went off the rails.

I begin to realize that you are a Poet, not an Engineer, so further discussion on this topic is pointless.
One thing all can see Your claims are devoid of sense That makes you neither.
Engineer-Poet

Line breaks deleted?
Blog software is cruel indeed.
Haiku gets mangled.

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