A chemist based with the United States Department of Agriculture gave algae-based biofuels a failing grade recently when he reviewed the oil as an energy source, reported SciDevnet.
The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has been exploring the potential of biodiesel fuels, research that has been mandated through legislation outlined in the 2006-2011 Strategic Plan. The overall imperative to develop biofuels comes from the White House, which has set a goal of producing
"... 36 billion gallons of biofuels by 2022 to power our cars, trucks, jets, ships, and tractors..."
The US Department of Energy outlines the draft algae biofuel strategy in a document titled National Algal Biofuels Technology Roadmap.
SciDevnet recently learned of a review of algae-based biofuels by Gerhard Knothe. Knothe, a chemist with the USDA, and a recognized expert in the field of biofuels, learned incidentally that biofuels do not perform well in automobiles, warning that too much money and energy is being spent on developing a fuel that may not actually be feasible. His findings are reported in a research paper called Algae for Biofuels and Energy.
Described as the "fuel of the future," the production of algae-derived biodiesel has had a number of problems. The promise, however, has been so alluring that many companies have been established in the hopes of being the first to create a viable fuel from algae.
The biodiesel created from algae is supposed to be compatible to current diesel systems. Test flights in 2009 using a blend of algae-biodiesel mixed with petroleum jet fuel and plant biodiesel were deemed successful, reported the Scientific American.
One of the enticements of the algae is its simplicity, renew-ability and environmentally-friendly aspects. All algae needs to grow is water, sunshine and air. Developments by Australia's Aurora Biofuels show that production of biodiesel from algae has a low environmental impact. Knothe said there was a previously undescribed problem with algae biofuels -- the inability of the fuel to perform in cold temperatures, as well as a tendency to break down a little too quickly. Knothe told SciDevnet that some genetic tinkering with the algae might solve those problems, but his prognosis was that algae as an alternative fuel source was many years away from being market-ready.
A quick scan of the industry shows that Knothe has definitely found a sore point. While there are around 200 companies vying to be the first to develop a fuel from algae, as PBS reported, there is very little evidence that the companies are researching the capabilities of their end product - the biodiesel for cars, trucks, jets and all the other vehicles that use petroleum-based fuels.
There has to be some research underway, after all, there are algae biodiesel companies teaming up with other agencies to develop viable fuels, for example, Solena and British Airways. But whatever knowledge about the performance of the biofuels might exist, it is being held close to the vest by those in the industry. This might be a result of the competitiveness of the industry, or simply a failure of the industry to look past solving the current problems presented by the production of algae-based biofuels.
No one algae-derived biodiesel is the same. Every company has its own blend of algaes, it's own special way of growing the algae on top of having one of at least three ways to extract the oil from the algae.
But only one company has had its biodiesel approved for use by consumers in the United States. The Chevron-backed Solazyme, which has a contract with the US Navy to supply green jet fuel, created SoladieselRDTM, which was approved for use in vehicles in 2008. However, it is not commercially available, and Solazyme has only conducted limited tests the fuel in vehicles, not publishing the results. The Navy is testing out the algae-derived fuel, reported blogger Elisa Wood.
The lack of attention paid to the actual performance of biodiesel has been pointed out in the past, as an article written for How Stuff Works in 2007 demonstrates. Which leaves the public wondering what is going on with the 'fuel of the future.'
Some answers may be provided at the 7th annual World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology & Bioprocessing when
"Executives from companies commercializing algae technology will discuss the status of the industry, market acceptance, and the need for government policy..."
In the meanwhile, the industry appears to be concentrating on bringing down the high costs of production of the fuel, which is said to be around $33 per gallon, according to GreenTechMedia.