Algae: America’s Future Transportation Fuel?

Reprinted from the Institute for Energy Research (IER)

“We’re making new investments in the development of gasoline and diesel and jet fuel that’s actually made from a plant-like substance — algae.” “Believe it or not, we could replace up to 17 percent of the oil we import for transportation with this fuel that we can grow right here in the United States.” From President Obama’s speech at the University of Miami.[i] 

“There are no silver bullets short term when it comes to gas prices—and anybody who says otherwise isn’t telling the truth” Obama noted in a speech at the University of Miami.  The president then discussed a $14 million federal grant to help make fuel from algae that he believes can replace up to 17 percent of our imported oil at lower cost and in an energy secure manner. This algae pipe dream has been dreamt for years. Since the Carter administration, the dream of producing fuels from algae has been just around the corner. Even the proponents of this dream admit that algae-produced transportation fuels will not be commercially available at that level for a long time. Former President Bush has a similar pipe dream of cellulosic ethanol—not one of the production targets mandated in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 has been met.  Obama’s algae pipe dream will not be here in the short term as he well knows. But, President Obama can take action to lower oil prices if he chooses to go the route of conventional fuels and allows access to them on federal lands.

Transportation Fuels from Algae

The science and principles behind making fuels from algae are simple: Algae need water, sunlight, nutrients and carbon dioxide to grow. Algae thrive in shallow, dirty water, growing easily and quickly. They produce oil that can be harvested and converted into biodiesel and other fuels. In the right conditions, algae can double its volume over night.

However, algae are easy to grow in small volumes but not easily extrapolated to large-scale production facilities capable of producing consistent yields over long periods of time. Algae farms require significant capital, operations, and maintenance costs to build and maintain the production harvesting systems. The cheapest forms of algae production are open systems (ponds), but they face challenges due to contamination, temperature control, carbon dioxide utilization, evaporation, and general maintenance. The preferred approach is a closed system that supports accelerated growth and better control over environmental conditions.[ii]

From 1978 to 1996, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) funded a program to develop renewable transportation fuels from algae. DOE’s Aquatic Species Program (or ASP) was developed to produce biodiesel from high lipid-content algae grown in ponds that uses carbon dioxide from coal fired power plants. Over the almost two decades of this program, advances were made in the science of manipulating the metabolism of algae and the engineering of microalgae algae production systems, but commercial availability of algae-based transportation fuels was not to be seen.[iii] ASP was run by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, who found a number of promising algae strains, but not one that had all the desired features of both high algae productivity with rapid growth and high lipid accumulation.[iv]

The United States consumes about 140 billion gallons per year of motor gasoline. Assuming algae can produce 3,000 gallons of liquid fuel per acre in a year, it would take around 45 million acres of algae to provide 100 percent of our motor gasoline requirements.[v]  That is about the size of North Dakota, our 19 largest state. While we have plenty of land in the United States, the huge algae reactors or open algae ponds that need large areas of sunshine for production found in the southern United States would need to be co-located with large industrial centers that are a source of carbon dioxide found more in the northern parts of the United States.[vi]

President Obama’s program is not as ambitious since he is suggesting replacing only 17 percent of the petroleum that the United States imported for transportation fuel in 2008, about 21 billion gallons. According to the authors of a study from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, growing that amount of algae would require land roughly the size of South Carolina, our 40th largest state, and 350 gallons of water for each gallon of algal oil. That is about 25 percent of the water we currently use for crop irrigation, and is similar to the amount we use for ethanol production.[vii] The question is the availability of that amount of water and where to locate the plants to get it and still have the needed sunlight and access to carbon dioxide. Thus, even if technical barriers to algae production and harvesting are overcome, other barriers still exist.

Note that the land mass requirements in the above two studies differs, most likely based on the amount of liquid fuel algae can produce per acre, which may be the result of the type of technology used. The second study is using a much lower number for the amount of liquid fuel algae can produce per acre—about a third—of what the first study is using. That indicates that researchers are still a far way from knowing exactly what is feasible.

DOE status and Obama’s Algae Program

DOE is currently subsidizing more than 30 algae-based biofuels projects, representing $85 million in total spending. Through the new funding, the Department wants to modify existing facilities at universities and national laboratories for long-term algae research and to test new production processes that could lead to commercialization, minimizing the water and nutrients needed to mass produce algae for commercial biofuels. The DOE awards represent the first phase in a total $30 million investment in algal biofuels in fiscal year 2012. The projects selected will receive up to $14.3 million in fiscal year 2012 funds, with an additional $6.7 million available in fiscal year 2014 funding, subject to Congressional appropriations.[viii]

President Obama wants to begin construction on at least four commercial-scale refineries for biofuels by 2013 and he touts that his new motor vehicle fuel standard regulations would help American families to save $8,000 at the pump over time. But these are not quick fixes to lowering the price of gasoline that he believes he has no control over.

What President Obama Can Do

President Obama has control over drilling permits on federal lands, which have moved excruciatingly slow due to the moratorium on drilling followed by his de facto moratorium. He has also leased less federal lands to drilling than any other President. In 2011, oil production on federal lands was down by 14 percent from 2010 levels, according to the Department of Interior.[ix] In addition, he has halted progress on the Keystone pipeline that would bring secure oil from Canada to U.S. refineries, opening up construction jobs in the United States. Instead, he has only backed a portion of the pipeline from Oklahoma through Texas to the Gulf Coast refineries. President Obama prefers to praise his lavish subsidies for renewable sources of energy, sponsoring  work on better car batteries, and a new nuclear plant rather than working to increase domestic oil production.[x]

As an example of what President Obama can do by just announcing changes (and meaning them) regarding production on federal lands, take an example from former President George W. Bush. When President Bush lifted the executive moratorium on offshore oil drilling on July 14, 2008, oil prices dropped on world markets by $9.26 per barrel – or 22 cents per gallon.[xi]

Conclusion

Obama’s “all of the above” talk is not centered on increasing oil and gas production on federal lands and getting more oil from Canada, which can only help to relieve prices at the pump. The era of cheap, abundant energy from non-fossil fuels is still many, many years away — and anyone who suggests otherwise is not telling the truth. President Obama needs to face reality and open up federal lands to our abundant energy resources and encourage the use of Canadian oil in the United States by supporting the Keystone pipeline.

[i] The White House, Remarks by the President on Energy,  University of Miami, February 23, 2012, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2012/02/23/remarks-president-energy

[ii] Algae as a Feedstock for Transportation Fuels- The Future of Biofuels?, May 2008, http://www.iea-amf.vtt.fi/pdf/annex34b_algae_white_paper.pdf

[iii] The Auto Channel, Renewable Transportation Fuels from Algae, http://www.theautochannel.com/news/2009/09/23/478715.html

[iv] Algae as a Feedstock for Transportation Fuels- The Future of Biofuels?, May 2008, http://www.iea-amf.vtt.fi/pdf/annex34b_algae_white_paper.pdf

[v] San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology, Algae Q&As,  http://algae.ucsd.edu/potential/algae-qanda.html#Q6

[vi] Algae as a Feedstock for Transportation Fuels- The Future of Biofuels?, May 2008, http://www.iea-amf.vtt.fi/pdf/annex34b_algae_white_paper.pdf

[vii] Wired, Algal Fuels Could Cut Oil Imports by 17 Percent, April 15, 2011, http://www.wired.com/autopia/2011/04/algal-fuels-could-cut-oil-imports-17-percent/

[viii] U.S. Department of Energy, President Obama Announces $14 million Funding Opportunity to Develop Transportation Fuels from Algae, February 23, 2012, http://www1.eere.energy.gov/commercialization/news_detail.html?news_id=18119

[ix] Greenwire, Oil and Gas: Production on federal tracts fell in 2011, February 27, 2012, http://www.eenews.net/Greenwire/2012/02/27/4

[x] HULIQ, White House touts biofuels from algae as a possible energy savior, February 24, 2012, http://www.huliq.com/10280/algae-rescue

[xi] See the IER analysis on oil prices at http://www.instituteforenergyresearch.org/gas/why-are-gas-prices-so-high/

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Comments

  1. Russell Bennett says:

    I don't think Obamas real goal is cheap fuel of any kind. His goal is to bring our economy down. He makes his Rosy predictions to keep his kook base happy. What he says and what he does are very different. .I can't recall a case when he was right on any of his predictions. PS The first elect. car was offered for sale in 1917.

    • Are we supposed to think this wizard of smart, the one who invested OUR money in Solyndra & others of it ilk, along with the Chevy Volt, is using pond scum in Air Force 1 to do his world apology tour thing, or use it in his behemoth "official car" that he has to have hauled everywhere he takes his sorry ass, or that of Michele? Yeah right! He's demonstrated how "intelligent" he is—with other people's money!

  2. OLD DAD says:

    Another Greenie Idea from the man who brought you solar cells and the Chevy Volt.
    This man is an idiot and needs to be removed.

  3. MsgtGdubb says:

    Why not. All algae is, is pond scum, and there's enoigh of that in Washington DC. to keep us in fuel for a hundred years.

  4. DoctorBob says:

    Obammer thinks he can replace 17% of the fuel we import with pond scum? Here's an idea. Let's replace 100% of the fuel we import by drilling here for our own fuel, baby!!! Drill, Baby, DRILL!

  5. Charles says:

    The PowerHour with Joyce Riley.
    And http://www.trunews.com with Rick wiles.
    Also TheRobertScottBellShow.

  6. Richard Wm. Faith says:

    The burning of ANY oil, whether it is synthetically produced, pumped out of the ground, or even CREATED OUT OF NOTHING, produces carbon dioxide, which of course most of us have already known for many years is a harmless AND EVEN BIO-ESSENTIAL gas (PLANTS need it in order to photosynthesize FOOD!), a SO-CALLED "greenhouse gas" that the one-world socialist-"governance" wannabees want to TAX. Is obama so DELUSIONAL that he thinks we don't KNOW this? Or, does he want us to THINK he "gave up on" PHONY "global warming", to move on toward helping us to become energy-independent, while he INVESTS OUR TAX DOLLARS on MAGIC BEANS that won't even GERMINATE for at least TEN YEARS, DURING WHICH his subsidies will result in MASSIVE KICKBACKS to FINANCE DEMOCRAT CAMPAIGNS? SSHHhhhheeeEEEEeesh!

  7. Harold Clark says:

    If they would make fuel from algea, then they should start with Barracky Husseiny Obamay. They would never run out of fuel. After all he is a fungus that has about ruined America along with the dim-witts in the congress and senate are so stupid they hardly know how to tie their own shoes. To name a few, Hairless Reid, Nancey Pilousy. and all the other Obama teat suckers in the Fed. Government.

  8. Leonard W. says:

    What's going to happen to the fish? Aren't they not dependent on this algae? This man can come up with some of the stupidest ideas one can ever dream of. Folk, he is doing everything he can to dry up our wealth so his muslims bros. can take over with their oil money.

  9. Harold Clark says:

    In other words you won't print the truth.

    • They don't KNOW the real truth anymore – they only know what they are told as they are led around by the ring in their collective noses! Our so-called professional journalists who lack any simblence of knowledge, integrity or morallity are nothing more than script writers who are told what to write and when to write it!

  10. Can you imagine the EPA response to some large scum ponds of algae??

  11. Like ethanol, algae based energy is a bad idea. Too expensive to produce. In the meantime what are we doing about the high cost of fuel today? Obama and his administration may have some good ideas, but algae is not one of them for many reasons as was aforementioned in the article on this site. Let's be reasonable folks. Drill and draw from our own land and prosper today. While at the same time let the private sector work and research the alternatives for the future. When that time comes we can all benefit from the new kinds of clean energy.

  12. James Fontana says:

    Another Obama Fantasy. When with the idiot realize there is no substitute for the real thing, oil. We have oil in abundance and need to drill for it. How long before Obama sees beings from outer space telling him about proton power or some such thing.

  13. obammy is the scum, he does not have a clue, all pie in the sky ideas to waste tax money while paying off his buddies !!!

  14. awareandtired of says:

    Ha Hah….maybe Sponge Bob Square Pants knew it all along, there's gold in them algi…tired of the pissed off attitude folks….go out and vote…let's make sure that we do something, mainly vote and look real hard at who represents you in in congress and the senate….maybe they need to go more than Obama, he can only do his socialist work if they are with him or asleep or both..politics are crooked….main thing is we as citizens needs to wake up and force the issue

  15. Is it me or the fact that every time the liberals get exposed to one hoax they quickly invent another?
    Problem being there are enough "Useful Idiots" out there that fall for them. Also those "Useful Idiots" all come from the same cesspool, universities and places of higher education.

  16. Hastarock says:

    I think an algae pond replacing DC is a great idea. But then we'd also need a Pond Scum Csar.

  17. John Stewart says:

    Why does the Federal government think it needs to fund this research when the private sector is in it up to their eyeballs? You don't expect it would be to gain political favoritism, do you?

  18. Graveeguy says:

    What about all the oil we have in Gull Island Alaska that they won't let us use?
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NbakN7SLdbk

  19. Ovmit is a scum he needs to go more and more crap keeps comeing out about him he needs to step down before he get draged out of the white house by his feet I think the more stuff comes out about him the more the people will get madder and they will force him out

  20. BullKrapper says:

    He should know everything about pond scum. That's the kind of people he associates with. — VOTE FOR AMERICA in November — Stay Well/Stay Safe/Stay Free

  21. 1LTLos59 says:

    Pond Scum — how fitting Thats one way I have yet to describe Mr Obscumbo

  22. Yeah , another alternative fuel that won't be practical until they can get petroleum up to or over $20.00 per gallon so we HAVE to switch . I hope these idiotic scientists come up with a new disease that will eliminate human life on earth , after all thats what those nuts secretly want anyway .

  23. Kevin Beck says:

    Another hopeless pipe dream.

    If the reality ever would match one of these bizarre energy dreams, the world would be coming to an end. And this doofus calls those who don't believe him, "flat-earthers"? He makes me want to hurl.

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