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Sustainable Development of Algal Biofuels

Sustainable Development of Algal Biofuels

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Published by earthandlife
Biofuels made from algae are gaining attention as a domestic source of renewable fuel. However, with current technologies, scaling up production of algal biofuels to meet even 5 percent of U.S. transportation fuel needs could create unsustainable demands for energy, water, and nutrient resources. Continued research and development could yield innovations to address these challenges, but determining if algal biofuel is a viable fuel alternative will involve comparing the environmental, economic and social impacts of algal biofuel production and use to those associated with petroleum-based fuels and other fuel sources. This report was produced at the request of the U.S. Department of Energy.
Biofuels made from algae are gaining attention as a domestic source of renewable fuel. However, with current technologies, scaling up production of algal biofuels to meet even 5 percent of U.S. transportation fuel needs could create unsustainable demands for energy, water, and nutrient resources. Continued research and development could yield innovations to address these challenges, but determining if algal biofuel is a viable fuel alternative will involve comparing the environmental, economic and social impacts of algal biofuel production and use to those associated with petroleum-based fuels and other fuel sources. This report was produced at the request of the U.S. Department of Energy.

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Published by: earthandlife on Oct 24, 2012
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08/19/2013

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A
s a potential sourceof renewable fuel,algae offer severaladvantages over land-based plants. Algae grow quickly,yield high amounts of  biomass, and can grow in ponds or reactors locatedon non-farmable land.But cultivating algae and processing them to makefuel require signicantinputs of freshwater, energy,and nutrients that may affectthe competitiveness of algal biofuels with other types of fuels and biofuels.This report, producedat the request of theDepartment of Energy,identies potential sustain-ability concerns associatedwith producing algal biofuelsin the United States. Thereport’s authoring committeeassessed resource needs andenvironmental concernsresulting from large-scalealgal biofuel productionand explored opportunitiesto mitigate these concerns.Although there are sustainability challenges withcurrent algal biofuel production systems, innova-tive biological and engineering approaches couldhelp develop new capabilities to make algal biofuel a viable alternative to petroleum-basedfuels and other fuel sources.Estimates of greenhousegas emissions associatedwith algal biofuel produc-tion vary greatly, from anet negative value—thatis, the process of makingalgal biofuel is a carbonsink—to positive valuesthat are substantiallyhigher than for petroleumgasoline. The amount of emissions depends on manyfactors including types of coproducts generated andthe source of energy usedduring fuel production.
Sustainability Concerns
Producing any typeof fuel requires resources.Algal biofuel productionrequires inputs of water,energy, and nutrients andland. If algal biofuel is to become a practical substi-tution for petroleum-basedfuels, work will be neededto show that techniques usedto generate small amountsof algal biofuel can bescaled up in an economi-cally and environmentally sustainable manner.
Water 
Water provides the physical environment inwhich algae grow and reproduce, acts to regulatetemperature in cultivation systems, and provides
Microalgae are single-celled organismsthat use the sun’s energy to create theirown food. Some algae accumulate fatsthat can be converted to transportationfuels, such as biodiesel or jet fuel, whileother algal species secrete compoundsfrom which fuel is made, such asethanol. Alternatively, whole algal cellscan be processed into fuel. Algaecomplete their reproductive cycle inhours or a few days, and can beharvested for conversion into fuel on adaily or weekly basis.
Image courtesySandia National Laboratories
Biofuels made from algae are gaining attention as a domestic source of renewable fuel. However,with current technologies, scaling up production of algal biofuels to meet even 5 percent of U.S.transportation fuel needs could create unsustainable demands for energy, water, and nutrientresources, this report nds. Continued research and development could yield innovations toaddress these challenges, but determining if algal biofuel is a viable fuel alternative will involvecomparing the environmental, economic and social impacts of algal biofuel production and useto those associated with petroleum-based fuels and other fuel sources.
Sustainable Development of Algal Biofuels in the United States
 
a medium for delivering nutrients, such as carbondioxide, nitrogen, and phosphorus. It’s estimated that producing 1 liter of algal biofuel could use up between3.15 and 3,650 liters of freshwater, depending on thegrowth and processing methods used. For comparison, between 5 and 2,140 liters of water is required to produce each liter of ethanol from corn, and about 1.9to 6.6 liters of water are used to produce one liter of  petroleum-based gasoline from crude oil or oil sands.However, assessments of water use for fuel productionneed to be considered in the context of regional water availability.
 Nutrients
Algae require key nutrients to live and grow:carbon dioxide is essential for the photosynthetic production of biomass, and nitrogen and phosphorusare needed for the reactions involved in energycapture, release, and transfer. It’s estimated that about6 million to 15 million tonnesof nitrogen, and 1 million to 2million tonnes of phosphoruswould be needed to producealgal biofuel to meet 5 percentof U.S. transportation fuelneed if the nutrients are not being recycled. Thatrepresents 44 to 107 percent of the total nitrogenuse for agriculture in the United States and 20 to 51 percent of the total phosphorus use, demands that arelikely unsustainable from the perspective of limitednatural supplies.
 Energy
Investments of energy are needed for varioussteps in producing algal biofuel, for example toagitate algae cultivation ponds to ensure that nutrientsare distributed evenly. The balance of energy inputsduring production to the amount of energy releasedwhen the fuel is combusted is measured using a ratiocalled the energy return on investment (EROI). Thecommittee found that energy return on investmentratios for various algal biofuel production systemsdescribed in the published literature ranged fromabout 0.13 to 3.33. An energy return on investment of less than one indicates that theamount of energy needed to produce the fuel is greater thanthe energy contained in thefuel, a situation that is clearlyunsustainable.
 Box 1. Turning Algae into Fuel 
A variety of production systems and processing options have been proposed for converting algae to biofuel, but theygenerally consist of the same basic steps.
Step 1: Growth:
Algae are cultivated either in open ponds or in closed photobioreactor systems, which aretransparent containers designed to allow light through to algal cells. Both systems must be agitated and circulatedto prevent sedimentation, allow the even distribution of nutrients, and expose algae to light and carbon dioxide.
Step 2: Harvest
: This step involves separating algae from their liquid growth media, for example, by ltering thewater to remove algal cells or by separating algae and water with a centrifuge. Harvesting is not necessary for systems with algae or cyanobacteria that secrete compunds from which fuel are made into the culture medium.
Step 3: Recovery:
This step involves extracting fatty liquids from algal cells or recovering fuel precursors fromthe culture medium. The residue left after lipids have been recovered can be recycled for nutrients, or may beuseful as a coproduct.
Step 4: Processing:
Algal lipids, biomass, or secreted products are processed into fuels.
Sustainable fuel development,
as dened by theUnited Nations, meets the needs of the presentwithout compromising the ability of futuregenerations to meet their own needs.
 
Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Algae take up carbon dioxide via photosynthesis,helping offset a portion of the carbon dioxide andother greenhouse gases released during algal biofuel production and when the fuel is burned. To be a viablefuel alternative, algal biofuel would have to offer netgreenhouse gas emission benets during productionand use relative to petroleum-based fuels.
The Potential for Innovation
The committee noted that none of the sustainabilityconcerns is a denitive barrier to the developmentof algal biofuel as a fuel alternative. Biological andengineering innovations have the potential to mitigatethe resource demands associated with algal biofuel,including research toward the following goals:
Identify Algal Strains with Desired Characteristics
A vast and diverse spectrum of algal species isavailable, but so far, only a narrow range of specieshas been considered for use in the commercial produc-tion of biofuels. Genomic analyses and physiologicalstudies could help screen algal species for usefulcharacteristics and expand the range of species usedin algal biofuel production. For example, species withhigher photosynthetic efciencies would convert moreavailable light into biomass, while other strains might produce more lipid per unit biomass.
Develop Improved Algal Strains
The same plant breeding and genetic engineeringtechniques that have advanced traditional agriculture
 Box 2. The Need for Land 
Algal biofuel production facilities can be located onnon-farmable land—a signicant advantage over  biofuels made from land plants, which may competewith food crops for farm land. However, there areseveral important factors to consider when siting potential algal biofuel facilities, includingtopography, climate, and proximity to water andnutrient supplies. Finding large enough areas of suitable land could limit the expansion of algal biofuel production. A national assessment of landrequirements for algae cultivation that takes intoaccount climatic conditions; freshwater, inland andcoastal saline water, and wastewater resources;sources of carbon dioxide; and land prices is neededto inform the potential amount of algal biofuels thatcould be produced economically in the United States.
could also be applied to algal strains, for example todevelop algal strains that produce higher yields of lipids.
Engineer Better Designs to Reduce Energy Inputs
Improvements to algae cultivation and processingmethods could reduce the energy requirements of algal biofuel production. For example, engineeringinnovations could develop harvesting methods that donot require as much energy input as current methods.
Use of Alternative Sources of Water for Cultivating Algae
Cultivating salt-tolerant algal strains would allowthe use of brackish water, saltwater, or marine water for cultivating algae, decreasing the need for fresh-water inputs.
Algal Biofuels: Future Potential
Systems for producing algal biofuel at commercialscales are still being developed. As the algal biofuelindustry matures, the ability of different pathwaysfor algal biofuel production to meet and balance yieldwith environmental, economic, and social sustain-ability goals will have to be assessed and compared tothose of petroleum-based fuels, and other fuel alterna-tives (see Box 4). Current reports suggest that thereare several resource use and environmental challengesto overcome in order to scale up algal biofuel produc-tion in a sustainable way. Innovations, research, anddevelopment in various aspects of the production pathway will help realize much of the potential for algal biofuels to improve energy security, reducegreenhouse gas emissions, and enhance environ-mental quality.
 Box 3. Algae and Cyanobacteria as Recycling Systems
Laboratory experiments show that nitrogen and phosphorus inputs to algal biofuel systems could begleaned from municipal, industrial, or agriculturalwastewater. Feeding algae with nutrients fromwastewater would help reduce reliance on nitrogenand phosphorus fertilizers that would otherwise beused for food production, and could also serve as thenutrient removal step in wastewater treatment.However, the feasibility of using wastewater for algal biofuel production has not yet been proven atcommercial scale, and there might be few locationsfor algal biofuel facilities close to wastewater treatment plants.

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