algae fuel, algae CO2 reduction, algae biofuel
AP Photo/Roberto Pfeil
A scientist tests the algae pilot project for the CO2 reduction for coal power plants in Bergheim,
western Germany, Nov. 6, 2008.

Are Biofuels Ready for Prime Time?

September 13, 2010 07:00 AM
by James Sullivan
As energy experts tout the potential of algae as a fuel source, we look more closely at pond scum, the current state of biofuels and the innovative ways scientists are deriving fuel.

Algae as Fuel

Many in the alternative energy world see a huge upside to algae-based fuel, with some calling it “a secret weapon” in the war against climate change. The race to make algae a viable, affordable, sustainable source of energy is on, and major players like ExxonMobil are joining biotech companies and university labs in the research game.

The low expectations and predictions of time and money that normally accompany discussions of alt-energy scalability seem absent in discussions about algae. “I think it’s very realistic. I don’t think it’s going to take 20 years. It’s going to take a few years,” chemical engineer George Philippidis, director of applied research at Florida International University in Miami, told Agence France-Presse.

“We could hook up to the exhaust of polluting industries,” Philippidis said. “We could capture it and feed it to algae and prevent that CO2 from contributing to further climate change.” The idea of harnessing the CO2-consuming characteristics of algae for an environmental double-bonus was pioneered in December 2008 by researchers at the University of Kentucky.

They suggested that algae be used to remove carbon dioxide from gases produced by coal-fired power plants and then be refined into a fuel like biodiesel or jet fuel. “The appeal is that if you have a power plant where you burn coal, and you capture the CO2 and use that to produce fuel with algae, you effectively become twice as efficient in the amount of energy achieved per ton of CO2 emitted,” Rodney Andrews, director of the university’s Center for Applied Energy Research, stated.

But the university’s idea, like many alternative energy projects before it, faced some hurdles. It would take three or four years to build a test facility for the project, and producing algae fuel currently costs up to $100 a gallon, according to AFP.

Calculating the Environmental Cost of Biofuels

In October, Science magazine published a study concluding that current biofuel legislation, particularly the way compliance with the Kyoto protocol is assessed, may undermine efforts to reduce greenhouse gases. From the abstract:

“[The accounting method] does not count CO2 emitted from tailpipes and smokestacks when bioenergy is being used, but it also does not count changes in emissions from land use when biomass for energy is harvested or grown. This accounting erroneously treats all bioenergy as carbon neutral regardless of the source of the biomass, which may cause large differences in net emissions. For example, the clearing of long-established forests to burn wood or to grow energy crops is counted as a 100% reduction in energy emissions despite causing large releases of carbon.”

The full text of the Science magazine article is available online through subscription or on a pay-per-view basis.

An article in Time magazine analyzes the study, exploring the real environmental costs of biofuels.

Related Topic: Other alternative energy contenders

First generation biofuels, such as ethanol, are already in production around the world. In Brazil, for example, sugar cane-based ethanol has widely replaced gasoline. In late October, the Air International Transport Association said that it would approve the use of biofuels for commercial flights by 2010 in an effort to reduce its carbon footprint. Scientists have examined multiple possibilities for alternative energy sources, and made some interesting announcements over the past few years.


The U.S. Department of Energy is optimistic about the energy potential of switchgrass, a tough grass that can grow up to 10 feet high, and is native to the prairies of the United States. Test plots of switchgrass have produced as much as 15 tons of dry biomass per acre, and five-year yields average enough to produce 1,150 gallons of ethanol per acre each year.

“The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) believes that biofuels—made from crops of native grasses, such as fast-growing switchgrass—could reduce the nation's dependence on foreign oil, curb emissions of the "greenhouse gas" carbon dioxide, and strengthen America's farm economy.”


Earlier this year, the World First Racing team at the Warwick Innovative Manufacturing Research Center in Britain announced that it had built an environmentally friendly Formula Three car powered by vegetable oil and waste chocolate. The car also included a steering wheel derived from carrots and other root vegetables, a seat made with flax fiber and soybean oil, and parts of the bodywork made with potato starch.


A recent study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture may mean that farmers no longer have to absorb the loss of their unsightly melons. Instead, they could be turned into fuel for farm equipment.

Wayne Fish and other scientists had been studying antioxidants found in the melons when they realized the possibility of making ethanol biofuel from melon juice, John Roach of National Geographic reports. Fish and others were able to make 23 gallons of ethanol from one acre of fruit, meaning that small or medium-sized farms would be able to use the fuel on their own farms.

Tree Fungus

A fungus found on trees in the Patagonian rainforest has been found to make, in certain conditions, the compounds found in diesel fuel. Gliocladium roseum can produce midlength hydrocarbons found in gasoline, diesel fuel and jet fuel, according to a study published in Microbiology.

“These are the first organisms that have been found that make many of the ingredients of diesel,” Montana State University plant pathologist Gary Strobel, who led the research, told Environment News Service. “This is a major discovery.”

Landfill Methane

The phrase “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” is taking on new meaning as the world focuses on creating sources of clean energy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In an article by the Billings Gazette, Swarupa Ganguli, who works with the EPA’s Landfill Methane Outreach Program, said 455 landfills around the United States are now capturing the methane generated at their facilities and converting it into energy.

In Montana, officials at Billings Regional Landfill are planning to take a more unique approach to using captured methane; they want to clean the gas and send it through a natural gas pipeline to power homes and businesses. Fewer than 10 landfills participating in methane capture projects are actually cleaning their gas for this purpose.

Car Exhaust

Researchers for the German automaker BMW are trying to capitalize on the fact that cars can waste a lot of heat. They’ve fitted a thermoelectric generator to the exhaust system of a test car to see if they can collect wasted heat and use it to make electricity. By coupling two metals together and keeping them at different temperatures, the generator creates voltage.

Reference: Biofuels

Used primarily to power automobiles and heat buildings, biofuel is a type of fuel derived from newly deceased organic matter, instead of ancient organic matter, as is the case with fossil fuels. Learn more about biofuels, including biodiesel and ethanol, in the findingDulcinea Biofuel Web guide.

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