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.

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