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Life cycle study calculates Algenol’s algae-to-ethanol process can deliver 67% to 87% reduction in carbon footprint compared to gasoline

System components of cyanobacterial ethanol life cycle analysis. Credit: ACS, Luo et al. Click to enlarge.

Algenol Biofuels’ Direct to Ethanol technology is based on an intracellular photosynthetic process in cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) that produces ethanol that is excreted through the cell walls, collected from closed photobioreactors as a dilute ethanol-in-water solution, and purified to fuel grade ethanol.

A team from Algenol and Georgia Tech calculated the life cycle energy and greenhouse gas emissions for three different system scenarios for this proposed ethanol production process, using process simulations and thermodynamic calculations. They found that, on a life cycle basis in comparison to gasoline, the direct to ethanol technology can provide a 67% to 87% reduction in carbon footprint on an energy equivalent basis for initial ethanol concentrations (given in weight percent) ranging from 0.5% to 5%.

Their work was published as an open access paper in the ACS journal Environmental Science & Technology on 22 Oct.

This choice of ranges is somewhat arbitrary but has been made based on the likelihood that 0.5% is too dilute for economical recovery and that 5% would have a high likelihood of economical recovery, in that the separation process could employ standard column distillation.

—Luo et al.

Algenol algae. Click to enlarge.

The process that was modeled envisioned cyanobacteria grown in flexible-film, polyethylene-based photobioreactors containing seawater or brackish water as the culture medium. To provide sufficient carbon dioxide to support efficient algal growth, the production facility is located near a fossil-fuel power plant or industrial source of carbon dioxide. The study’s calculation was based on use of industrial CO2, such as the byproduct CO2 from ethylene oxide production.

In the model, CO2 was injected in the headspace of the photobioreactor; ti could also be dissolved in the seawater growth medium. Nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers were introduced into the photobioreactors to support the initial cyanobacterial growth.

The cyanobacteria remain in the photobioreactors producing ethanol and, unlike other algae-to-fuel processes, are not harvested for fuel or other purposes. The researchers anticipated that the photobioreactors will be emptied no more than once per year to replace the seawater, growth media, and cyanobacteria.

Algenol aims to produce about 56,000 L (about 15,000 gallons US) of ethanol per hectare per year using about 430 polyethylene photobioreactors per hectare, each with about 4500 L of culture medium containing about 0.5 g/L of cyanobacterial biomass.

This production target is within achieved photosynthetic yields and corresponds to 1.8% solar energy conversion efficiency for average incident sunlight energy levels in the United States.

The energy required for ethanol separation increases rapidly for low initial concentrations of ethanol, and, unlike other biofuel systems, there is little waste biomass available to provide process heat and electricity to offset those energy requirements. The ethanol purification process is a major consumer of energy and a significant contributor to the carbon footprint. With a lead scenario based on a natural-gas-fueled combined heat and power system to provide process electricity and extra heat and conservative assumptions around the ethanol separation process, the net life cycle energy consumption, excluding photosynthesis, ranges from 0.55 MJ/MJEtOH down to 0.20 MJ/MJEtOH, and the net life cycle greenhouse gas emissions range from 29.8 g CO2e/MJEtOH down to 12.3 g CO2e/MJEtOH for initial ethanol concentrations from 0.5 wt % to 5 wt %. In comparison to gasoline, these predicted values represent 67% and 87% reductions in the carbon footprint for this ethanol fuel on a energy equivalent basis.

—Luo et al.

Further reductions in energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions can be achieved via employment of higher efficiency heat exchangers in ethanol purification and/or with use of solar thermal for some of the process heat, they found.


  • Dexin Luo, Zushou Hu, Dong Gu Choi, Valerie M. Thomas, Matthew J. Realff, and Ronald R. Chance (2010) Life Cycle Energy and Greenhouse Gas Emissions for an Ethanol Production Process Based on Blue-Green Algae. Environ. Sci. Technol., Article ASAP doi: 10.1021/es1007577



At 1.8% sunlight conversion this is remarkably ineffective. Algal alcohol seems most problematic given its low yield per hectare. We suggest concentrating on algal oil and conversion of biomass to feed protein - utilizing the whole plant.

There are FAR more efficient ways to make ethanol than this.

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