Biofuel from algae could be cost-competitive in ten years

A new report from the Energy Biosciences Institute in Berkeley says biofuel from algae may be commercially viable within ten years. While some say this assessment is discouraging, I find it optimistic. A thriving industry creating billions of gallons of renewable fuel annually may be here in ten years. This is good news indeed. Why import fuel if we can create it here instead?

Creating biofuel by growing algae can be done indoors in tanks, but is generally done outdoors. The primary requirements are flat land, water, CO2, and a suitable climate. The Imperial Valley in southern California is an ideal location, and already has several major algae farms. Nearby San Diego has over thirty algae biofuel startups. This is already helping the San Diego economy. When algae biofuel starts being made in commercial quantities, then Imperial County, which currently has a staggering 30% unemployment rate, will certainly benefit economically. This is a scenario in which everyone wins.

The Energy Biosciences Institute is a consortium of research groups including UC Berkeley that is focused on developing next-gen biofuels and is funded with a 10 year $500 million grant from – wait for it – BP. While that company may have handled the Gulf oil spill atrociously, this funding is a worthwhile investment indeed. The more we can make our own fuel the less dependent we are on other countries. And whoever can figure out how to make algae biofuel on a commercial scale for a reasonable price will change the energy business forever.

The report says that more research is needed and that other income streams, such as using the byproducts for animal food and the algae to clean up wastewater, deserve focus. Wastewater remediation does seem a perfect fit. The algae clean the water and produce biofuel as well as methane, which are used to generate electricity. The water that needs to be cleaned is also an ideal feedstock for growing algae.

Almost simultaneously with release of the report came exciting news that the Algal Biofuels Group at Montana State University had achieved a major breakthrough, quadrupling the output of algae. They followed up on old research and found that the key to the growth was adding just the right amount of baking soda at the right time.

Among the algae biofuel companies in the San Diego area are:

Synthetic Genomics. Working on algae biofuel, hydrocarbon recovery, plant feedstocks via creating specific micro-organisms.

Sapphire Energy. “This isn’t software – this is changing the world type stuff.” They have already developed 91 octane gasoline, 89 cetane diesel, and jet fuel from algae.

Kent Bioenergy. Wastewater cleanup using algae as well as biofuel. At one test site, they turned landfill sludge into nearly drinkable water.

Circle Biodiesel and Ethanol. Manufactures equipment for processing algae biofuel and ethanol.

Also:

SG Biofuels. Breeding and biotech for jatropha, a plant used as feedstock for cellulosic ethanol.

New Leaf Biofuel. Biodiesel from waste cooking oil.

All this may seem exotic now. In ten years it will be commonplace, as we continue to make increasing amounts of our fuel from renewable resources right here in the US.