“There aren’t any silver bullets” in regards to biofuels, declared John Sheehan of the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, and former head of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s algae research program until it was closed in 1996. Recently released research on algae suggests Sheehan is right. Researchers from the University of Virginia (UVA) in Charlottesville examined energy costs and the environmental impact of using algae for fuel, reported Science News, and said algae as biofuel comes with “tradeoffs.”
The UVA researchers compared the results of their study with studies on corn, canola, and switchgrass. They found that “algae farms need to minimize use of fertilizer and fresh water to compete with other biofuel plants.” Putting algae plants next to wastewater treatment plants would be one way to minimize water use, the article said, and in addition, the .nutrients from wastewater sewage could be used instead of fertilizer.
Algae as biofuel can be energy intensive and release more carbon dioxide emissions than it would potentially save, according to the UVA research. However, algae as biofuel is still in its infancy said co-author Andres Clarens of UVA. “Corn and canola we’ve been growing for a long time. We’ve gotten pretty good at it,” said Clarens.
“The energy problem is the most fundamental, most difficult challenge we have faced for a long time,” Sheehan said. “After 150 years of punching a hole in the ground and getting fuel to come out as a liquid, it is not going to easy.”
Perhaps the problems the UVA researchers discovered with algae as biofuel will be solved with more research. The Department of Energy announced on January 14 the investment of $44 million for algae-based fuels. Even ExxonMobil Corp. is pumping money into algae research, $600 million worth. Last summer, ExxonMobile announced its partnership with scientist Craig Venter’s Synthetic Genomics Inc. to develop algae into fuel.
Algae biofuel companies respond to UVA research
Mary Rosenthal, executive director of the Algae Biomass Association said the UVA research is not based on current information. “We expect such research to be based on current information, valid assumptions and proven facts. Unfortunately, this report falls short of those standards with its use of decades old data and errant assumptions of current production and refining technologies.”
“It’s absolutely right if you think of it as last generation algae,” said Riggs Eckelberry, CEO of the algae biofuel company OriginOil. “But we’ve got to make this stuff viable now.”
Clarens said he used the most recent data available to him. The problem is that biofuel companies “keep their research a closely guarded secret,” as a New York Times article put it.
“Everybody talks about the next generation – what is the next generation?” Clarens asked. “I’d be happy to model it if somebody produces it.”
A partnership between the UVA researchers and algae biofuel companies may be in the works. Rosenthal called Clarens last week, and Clarens said that if companies make data available to him, he will do another study.
“It sounds like that could happen, where we could work together and produce more research,” he said.
Using E.coli to make biofuel?
A study published last week in the journal Nature said researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Joint BioEnergy Institute engineered E.colil bacteria to produce fatty acid derived biofuel from plant sugar.
“The primary goal was to get closer to being able to make a viable renewable biofuel that could be directly burned in today’s engines without modifications,” said Eric Steen, a researcher at the institute and an author of the study.
According to the study, E.coli is suitable for biofuel production partly because it is “exceptionally amenable to genetic manipulation.
E.coli has the “icky factor” when you first hear its name, but if researchers are able to make cost efficient biofuel with a low impact to the environment, bring on the icky.