Algal Biofuels are the Future (For Now)


By Kaine Korzekwa, University of Texas at Austin College of Natural Sciences.

One of the primary constraints of using algae for biofuels, said Professor Jerry Brand, is that we don’t know yet how to farm it at the extraordinary scales we will need in order to fuel our cars, trucks and planes.

Brand, the Jack S. Josey Professor in Energy Studies in the College of Natural Sciences, delivered his message Nov. 7 during his Texas Enterprise talk, "Are Algae Biofuels the Future of Energy?"

He said that microalgae is indeed likely to be one of the important mid-term solutions to the impending world’s energy crisis, because it is renewable, has a fast growth rate, could produce a lot of oil and could be grown at very large scales in habitats unfavorable for other uses. But it’s that last quality — economical growth at large scales — that needs more research and development before the full potential of algae as a biofuel is unlocked.

“We know algae that grow very aggressively and some that produce lots of oil,” said Brand, the professor of energy. “The trick is getting both — to produce a valuable product — quickly and economically at large scale.”

Some companies are scheduled to produce microalgae on the scale of hundreds of acres within one or two years, Brand said. And methods are also being developed for large-scale extraction of oils and other products from algae. However, Brand said there is a distinction between the relatively large-scale production that is now contemplated and the massive scale required to sustain a country’s fuel needs.

“Why aren’t we filling up our gas tanks with algae based products yet?” Brand asked. “No one has ever grown any microorganism at the massive scale required to produce meaningful quantities to use as fuel. Microorganisms have been cultured for the production of cheese, wine and beer, but fuel production is not on the same scale. We can’t just use traditional agriculture or aquaculture processes.”

When it comes to scaling up the process, Brand said that emergent issues begin to cause problems, such as competitors, predators and, diseases. Crop farmers have a long history of battling pests and predators in their land-based crops, such as corn and wheat, but microalgae farmers have not yet found ways to deal with these issues at a large scale.

Brand believes there is roughly an 80 percent chance that algae will be the next breakthrough in alternative energy in five to 25 years. But he also thinks there is a low chance that algal biofuels will be the answer over a longer period of time because other promising technologies, such as artificial photosynthesis, will likely be developed that can produce fuel directly using man-made materials. [Learn more about chemist Al Bard’s research on artificial synthesis.]

Regardless, Brand said that algae will play an important role until those technologies are developed, and that beyond fuels, large-scale cultivation of algae will benefit us in a number of other ways such as for food, food additives, and alternatives to current plastic feedstocks.

“The image of algae as only scum floating on our ponds is changing,” he said. “Although a few major challenges remain, many hurdles for culturing and processing algae inexpensively on a large scale have been overcome. Algae aren’t there yet, but the field is expanding to maturity very quickly.”

Brand runs the university’s UTEX Culture Collection of Algae, the largest and most diverse collection of living algae in the world.

His talk was cosponsored by Texas Enterprise and the AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center. The McCombs School of Business’s Texas Enterprise highlights faculty whose research impacts business and the professional community.

See video

Related articles

Mentioned in this Article

Jerry Brand

Professor of Biological Sciences College of Natural Sciences

I was trained as a plant physiologist and biochemist at Purdue University, with a Ph.D. dissertation on photosynthetic electron transport under...

About the Author

TXE Staff

Staff, Texas Enterprise

The Texas Enterprise staff covers a broad swath of disciplines and interests. Writers, researchers, technicians and artists all contribute to the...


#1 Biofuels are a joke and a

Biofuels are a joke and a scam. Does anyone relaize that if you trap the CO2 in algae, but then process it some other processing plant (which requires energy) and use it to fuel trucks (which requires energy to get it to the trucks) and then you burn it, the CO2 goes into the air anyway, and you used MORE overall fuel by fueling the production process of the biofuel. And where did the energy to store it in algae come from? THE SUN. So it is the most inefficient solar panel in the world, essentially.If you wanted it to be good for the environment you'd throw the algae into the sea or something, not burn it for fuel. All biofuel in my opinion as a physicist is a scam. Companies can pretend to be green while polluting just as much. And don't get me started on the corn biofuels, and other grain biofuels. Again it's just solar energy, which grows a plant, and then the plant is processed, shipped, and burned while the grain prices sky rocket and people starve somewhere in the world because of it.

#2 Frank - I beg to differ.

Frank - I beg to differ. First of all, algae requires both the Sun and CO2 in a process called photosynthesis. Biofuel is carbon-neutral: it takes CO2 from the air and uses it to produce fuel feedstock; once the feedstock is converted and turned into fuel, the carbon is then re-released into the atmosphere, starting the cycle once again. The energy density provided by solar cells is not as high as the energy density of biofuel. While you can power an airplane or locomotive or semi-tractor-trailer rig on algae-derived biofuel, technology to power any of those vehicles using only solar power is many, many years in the future. The biggest drawback to using solar cells to power vehicles is the fact that solar cells are extremely inefficient at converting solar power to energy. Biofuel isn't the most efficient process for converting solar energy, but it is better suited to creating a greater power density as a function of mass than a similar solar cell. Specifically, algae grows in every ocean, lake, pond, stream and municipal water supply in the world, and is thought of as a "throw-away" product. Conversion of this "throw-away" product - whether corn husks, stalks, algae, fryer oil or manure - they all add up to a solution from creating energy using a carbon-neutral process. Finally, algae-derived biofuel is environmentally much better suited to production of power than the same quantity of petroleum-derived fuel. If you remove petroleum from the ground and "burn" it, you've taken a quantity of carbon (petroleum is a hydrocarbon) that was previously not found in the atmosphere - and was "locked" underground - and then released it into the air, permanently added to the overall quantity of CO2 in the atmosphere. Biofuel, on the other hand removes a quantity of CO2 out of the atmosphere and uses it to create fuel through photosynthesis, then releases it back into the atmosphere when its consumed - thereby creating a process that neither permanently increases nor permanently removes CO2 from the atmosphere - "carbon neutral". In other words, the carbon that the consumption of biofuel produces is re-cycled into the process to grow the biofuel. Inevitably, solar cells will increase in efficiency, as will the efficiency of growing biofuels. Ultimately, there is a place in the energy market for both technologies without deriding either technology.