Leading expert and Sandia  researcher, Ron Pate, presented an overview of the opportunities and challenges for algal biofuels during the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science  in San Diego on Feb. 19.
The verdict: algal biofuels have the potential to displace large amounts of diesel and jet transportation fuels in the coming years -- if they can overcome key obstacles and unknowns.
Pate, who is a principal member of technical staff at Sandia, has been in Washington, D.C., since November 2009, serving as a technical consultant to the emerging algae biofuels program within the Biomass Office of the Department of Energy's  Office of Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency (EERE).
The program evolved out of a 2008 initiative by the U.S. DOE to establish a National Algae Biofuels Technology Roadmap resulting in two international collaborations: one with industrial partners in Israel and the U.S., and another with the National Research Council Canada.
Why Algae Works:
Algae is emerging as an attractive resource because it reproduces quickly, uses large quantities of carbon dioxide and can thrive in non-freshwater, including brackish and marine water, thus avoiding competition with traditional agriculture's freshwater needs.
In addition, algae can produce biomass and oils, and is attractive as feedstock for renewable fuels, with potentially greater productivity and significantly less land use requirements than with other commodity crop feedstocks such as corn, soy and canola.
It's Potential For The United States:
Building on the DOE's aquatic species program from the late 1970's, Pate and fellow researchers have concluded that much of the U.S. is prime territory for growing and converting algae.
The U.S. has ample sunlight, plenty of lower-value land and non-freshwater resources in the lower latitude coastal and inland states, including the Southwest region of New Mexico, Arizona and California. This culminates in the potential to produce large volumes of biofuel feedstock--if high productivities can be reliably achieved.
With potential annual average production levels of 3,000 to 5,000 gallons per acre, the land footprint required for large volumes of algae fuel production would be minimal when compared with other conventional oil crops, such as soy and canola, that produce between 50 and 120 gallons per acre per year.
"With algae, we're talking about annual average productivities that could reach several thousand gallons per acre per year -- with practical values that analysis has shown might be able to reach more than 6500 gallons per acre -- so if you do the math, you can see the reasoning behind this research," Pate said.
What Makes it Difficult:
The largest obstacle is finding optimum balance--meaning, locating areas that have the best of all worlds.
While Southwestern states offer the most sun and large areas of available land, they are also unfortunately lacking in carbon dioxide and water.
Although algae can thrive in the region's brackish groundwater, uncertainties remain about how much water is actually available. Added to this are concerns that biofuel production will encroach on the nation's valuable land, water and fertilizer resources currently used for traditional agriculture.
What Needs to Be Done:
Bringing together the top minds is a start, but Pate is confident that algae has a strong chance of becoming a viable source of transportation fuel in the long-term future.
"People who are more realistic think this will take at least 10 years for research and investments to get it to the point where it has commercial viability," Pate said. "I think the jury's still out, but we'll likely see an impact in the next decade."
Source: Science Daily