U.S. research council: Algae biofuel not sustainable now
Biofuels made from algae, promoted by President Barack Obama as a possible way to help wean Americans off foreign oil, cannot be made now on a large scale without using unsustainable amounts of energy, water and fertilizer, the U.S. National Research Council reported on Wednesday.
"Faced with today's technology, to scale up any more is going to put really big demands on ... not only energy input, but water, land and the nutrients you need, like carbon dioxide, nitrate and phosphate," said Jennie Hunter-Cevera, a microbial physiologist who headed the committee that wrote the report.
Hunter-Cevera stressed that this is not a definitive rejection of algal biofuels, but a recognition that they may not be ready to supply even 5 percent, or approximately 10.3 billion gallons (39 billion liters), of U.S. transportation fuel needs.
"Algal biofuels is still a teenager that needs to be developed and nurtured," she said by telephone.
The National Research Council is part of the National Academies, a group of private nonprofit institutions that advise government on science, technology and health policy.
Its sustainability assessment was requested by the Department of Energy, which has invested heavily in projects to develop the alternative fuel.
In 2009, the Department of Energy and the Department of Agriculture awarded San Diego-based Sapphire Energy Inc more than $100 million in grants and loan guarantees to help build a plant in New Mexico that will produce commercial quantities of algal biofuel. Two other companies received smaller amounts of federal assistance.
In February, as gasoline prices spiraled, Obama said algal biofuels had the potential to cut U.S. foreign oil dependence. He estimated that U.S. oil imports used for transportation could be cut substantially.
The National Research Council report shows that the government should continue research on algal biofuel as well as other technologies that reduce oil use, an Energy Department spokeswoman said.
"Today's report outlines the need for continued research and development to make algal biofuel sustainable and cost-competitive, but it also highlights the long-term potential of this technology and why it is worth pursuing," Jen Stutsman said in a statement.
The council's report noted that future innovations, and increased production efficiencies, could enhance the viability of algal biofuels.
Greenhouse Gas Emissions
It said a main reason to use alternative fuels for transportation is to cut climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions created by burning fossil fuel. But estimates of greenhouse emissions from algal biofuels cover a wide range, with some suggesting that over their life cycle, the fuels release more climate-warming gas than petroleum, it said.
- Ag markets remained quite mixed at noon Friday
- California pays the price for Corn Belt’s cold snap
- Seed treatments strongly recommended for 2014 wheat crop
- Oregon GMO labeling measure certified for November ballot
- Pesticide linked to three generations of disease
- Arysta LifeScience registers Dinamic herbicide for corn in China