Algal Fuels: Just around the Corner or 10 years away?
BioFuels Digest, November 05, 2010.
"In California, a new report from the Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI) in
Berkeley projects that development of cost-competitive algae biofuel production
will require much more longterm research, development and demonstration.
“It is clear,” the EBI scientists conclude, “that algal oil production will be
neither quick nor plentiful – 10 years is a reasonable projection for the R, D &
D (research, development and demonstration) to allow a conclusion about the
ability to achieve, at least for specific locations, relatively low-cost algal
biomass and oil production.”
(The Report, “A Realistic Technology and Engineering Assessment of Algae Biofuel
Production,” can be read at:
There are a wider assortment of algal fuel commercialization timelines than
crayons in a big Crayola box, but there are a couple of studies that have come
out from academia of late that focus on the 10 year horizon. Phil Pienkos, Al
Darzins and Eric Jarvis at NREL recently wrote in IEEE Spectrum: “our
projections suggest that in the next 10 years or so algal biofuels will be able
to compete economically with crude oil costing between $75 and $100 per barrel.”
That’s also the horizon we see in the work at Sapphire Energy, which is
constructing a 1-million gallon demonstration scale facility by 2014, and
expects to be at commercial scale production with a 100 million gallons facility
by 2018 and at 10 such facilities by 2025. ExxonMobil and Synthetic Genomics, in
their communications, emphasize the long-term nature of their R&D work on
Overall, this report from EBI is the most comprehensive survey to date that
we’ve seen on the economics, and technical challenges for algal fuels.
So it is worth taking a long look at the authors’ conclusion that “the building
of 100-hectare demonstration plants, with investments of tens to hundreds of
millions of dollars, are premature.”
There are a couple of items that must be noted in this study, for those who
despair over the gloomy scenario.
First, the authors go into exhaustive and impressive detail on the current cost
scenarios, limitations of current technologies, and the resource limitations in
California and elsewhere in terms of appropriate sources of light, CO2 and land.
That’s what makes this foundational study a complete “must-read”.
However, there isn’t any forward modeling on how fast the costs will come down.
The source of the authors’ conclusion on the 10-year scenario is simply a
scientific wild-ass guess, in which the authors note the 10 year timelines cited
by Shell, ExxonMobil, NREL and the UK’s Carbon Trust. Essentially, they are
re-tweeting undocumented timelines, rather than analyzing them.
Second, the authors chose to discount the value of proteins down to zero,
predicting that the market for high-value feed “would likely be saturated before
significant biofuel quantities were produced, while commodity animal feed
co-production would not likely have a decisive effect on biofuel production
costs without other production improvements in addition.”
Hmmm, we respect the argument about saturation, but we don’t agree that an
esteemed researcher’s “say-so” should be the accepted level of proof required on
a critical point of inflection. We note that in other news today, reports that
up to 5 million tonnes of additional fishmeal will be needed by 2020, above
current global consumption. That could well support up to 700 million gallons
of fuel production (assuming a 30 percent oil content) – not an insignificant
amount of fuel, and that’s before considering the growth in demand for animal
feed. Or serving algal feed to animals or fish to meet current demand.
Among the companies that are making faster commercial strides are three
companies with an alternative route to value, Solazyme, Algenol and PetroAlgae.
In the case of Solazyme, they are growing heterotrophic algae (feeding sugar to
algae that grow in the dark), not the phototropic algae considered in the study.
In the case of Algenol, they are capturing ethanol secretion from cyanobacteria,
which are grown in closed photobioreactors. In the case of PetroAlgae, they are
producing a protein concentrate and fuel precursors from lemna, or duckweed.
The presence of alternative strategies is not proof that progress will come
faster – in each case, the success of Algenol, Solazyme or PetroAlgae will
depend on the quality of the technology, which is in part based on undisclosed
intellectual property. Not to mention the availability of financing for
large-scale biofuel projects in general. But it is important to note that almost
all scenarios for a faster commercialization of fuels made from algae — and
related platforms — involve commercialization of one or more of the competing
technologies other than those considered in this study.
One difficulty we have noted elsewhere in the discussion of the
commercialization of algal fuels, and raised by the authors of this report: “Ten
years is a short time for development of any novel technology, but a very long
term for a venture capital fund…which perhaps explains the differences between
the venture-backed firms and projects funded by larger companies and
governmental organizations, which may be able to take a somewhat longer view.”
What the authors are getting at is that your view of the timeline appears to
depend less on the science and more on Parkinson’s Law, as stated in a 1955
essay in The Economist: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its
In the case of algae, organizations that depend on R&D for their livelihood are
usually found projecting a need for more R&D. Conversely, organizations that
depend on investor dollars for their livelihood project a need for more
investment in commercialization, and project fast(er) returns.
One note: It would be useful if the organizations that do R&D in this field
would refrain from doing assessments of the need for more R&D. No matter how
rigorous the work, there is an inherent conflict of interest in asking the
professional researcher to model how much more professional research is needed.
Having said that – the study itself, as an examination of the current state of
play, is without parallel among the generally available studies on the economics
and current science of algal fuel production. A must-read on that level.
But we’ll not consider that a 10 year horizon is a reasonable projection — just
as we discount the “just around the corner” scenarios — until the parties reason
and document the case."
Dr. Ann C. Wilkie Tel: (352)392-8699
Soil and Water Science Department Fax: (352)392-7008
University of Florida-IFAS
P.O. Box 110960 E-mail: [log in to unmask]
Gainesville, FL 32611-0960
Campus location: Environmental Microbiology Laboratory (Bldg. 246).
BioEnergy and Sustainable Technology Society