Biofuels are a growing industry of energy products that we are using every day. Everything from diesel to ethanol helps us to continue taking advantage of the benefits of modern infrastructure while reducing the impact those activities have on the environment.
Countries might look at the opportunity to develop biofuels for a variety of reasons. Whether it is a desire to reduce domestic reliance on imports or a desire to help the environment, one of the most promising biofuel projects currently under development involves the use of algae.
There are several vital points to look at when reviewing the advantages and disadvantages of algae biofuel. This natural growth creates oils through the process of photosynthesis to consume carbon dioxide emissions. We can grow it in open ponds or bioreactors that provide a closed-tank environment. It is such a useful natural resource that some strains produce usable products every day that we can turn into usable energy.
Each point below offers the potential for environmental and economic impacts that could be both positive and negative.
List of the Advantages of Algae Biofuel
1. Algae grows at higher efficiency levels than other biofuel crops.
We can grow algae strains in almost any climate thanks to the open- or closed-tank approaches that are available today. As long as we can provide this natural product with enough sunlight to create photosynthesis, then it has the capability to grow quickly. That process reduces the need to look at replanting forests or using our farms to produce cash crops instead of food so that we have enough fuel to use. The size and spatial requirements are even a positive attribute with this advantage because it can grow in spaces that other foundational items for biofuel are unable to manage.
Under optimal conditions, algae farms can produce about 5,000 gallons of fuel per acre. That figure is far higher than any other renewable feedstock.
2. Algae is more productive than other forms of biomass.
We can create biofuels from several agricultural products. Some of the most common choices are switchgrass and sugarcane. The United States tends to produce biofuels using corn-based products like ethanol. When we look at the potential for algae production in this area, then the capabilities of this natural resource go to a different level. Some strains produce 80 times more oil per acre than what even fossil fuels can generate on their best days.
When you add in the benefit that algae helps to reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere if left to grow in the outdoors, our atmosphere can potentially enter a healing phase that it hasn’t had since the start of the Industrial Revolution.
3. Algae is a renewable resource.
Many of today’s fuels are either finite or intermittent. Natural gas and oil might have reserves that eventually run dry. Solar and wind energy stops when the sun isn’t shining, or the air isn’t moving. When we take algae production under consideration, then we can grow it quickly and efficiently throughout the year. Studies that are over a decade old suggest that the most viable and productive strains of algae could remove half of the petroleum-related products that we consume every day. That includes the number of imports from fossil fuel producers that are necessary for all industries.
Although there are still elements of production that can contribute to greenhouse gas emissions with this biofuel option, we can take large steps toward a carbon-neutral environment with a conversion to algae-based items.
4. Algae produces viable hydrocarbons for numerous products.
The oils that we harvest from algae production offer organic hydrocarbons that we can refine into a variety of products. It’s a process that is similar to what we use with petroleum to create items like shampoo, plastic, and creams. If you use petroleum jelly on your skin, then you’re consuming a fossil fuel. It might not sound as attractive to say “algae jelly,” but the product would be extremely similar.
That means we can still produce cleaners, fertilizers, and food stocks using algae. This wide range of products means that several different industries can benefit as we refine the processes that help us to create biofuel from this product. Many of the items in question would also be immediately profitable.
5. Algae is something that almost anyone can grow.
We don’t need to use commercial or industrial processing methods to create algae farms capable of producing usable biofuel. Its capability of doubling in size in only a day means that we can grow it in places where we’re already producing energy. Even wastewater products could produce this resource for us so that we can take advantage of the infrastructure that’s already in place.
The versatility of algae means that it can grow on marginal lands to improve production levels. We can also produce it on non-crop lands too so that it doesn’t compete with our current agricultural processes. It even grows in salt water and polluted areas, so there isn’t a need to taint freshwater supplies.
6. Algae can grow in virtually all waters.
There are several marine plants in the ocean and in freshwater supplies that qualify as “macroalgae,” a product that also produces oils that we can turn into biofuel. These plants grow to a considerable size, providing us with a significant resource that we can grow independent of the natural habitats that currently exist. The oils we can produce from these large selections are similar to what microalgae colonies produce, creating two separate methods of sustainable production that let us produce biofuels at the rate we require.
7. Algae biofuels work with our current distribution system.
There are thousands of miles of pipeline that we use to distribute gasoline, ethanol, and other fuels for consumption around the world. We can also utilize this infrastructure to transport biofuels from algae. Even the transportation networks that are in place right now for oil and natural gas could be converted into an asset that we can use for this sustainable product. The refinement processes are similar, allowing us to transition the fossil fuel industry into something that is equally profitable under the right set of circumstances.
We already know that the capability of biofuels made from algae have a lot of potential. Airlines have already experimented using a 60/40 blend of standard fuel and biofuel made from this resource.
8. Algae growth helps us to curb our greenhouse gas emissions.
Greenhouse gas emissions from our transportation needs can make up the majority of the carbon dioxide, methane, and other pollutants that we release each day. When we start using sustainable biomass to create fuels instead of natural gas or oil, then the photosynthesis process of the plants converts the CO2 into oxygen for our atmosphere to enjoy. Algae farms give us the potential to create a neutral environment where the growth cycle absorbs the gases that we create when meeting our everyday needs.
Although some proponents see this advantage as a renewable or sustainable feature of biofuel development, we can all agree that consuming more of this resource can immediately cut the number of emissions that occur around the world.
List of Disadvantages of Algae Biofuel
1. Algae has the same concerns of monoculture that the agriculture industry experiences.
Producers that focus on a single cash crop each year face an increased risk of pest development, water pollution, and catastrophic failure. Algae might reduce some of the concerns since it can grow in brackish water, but this disadvantage is still in play. If growers settle on a strain that produces the most oil and that is the only product grown to create biofuel, then the amount of diversity for the species would become artificially limited.
When we have encountered this scenario in the past, diseases have all but wiped out the entire supply chain. One issue could create significant losses for the entire industry.
2. Algae growth may create quality variations during the refinement process.
When we take oil from algae, it must go through several refinement steps before we have a usable product. The organic material is pressed out, then filtered and refined before we can begin the biofuel production process. Most crops go through a similar process. We already see that variations in corn or sugarcane quality can alter ethanol viability. There is nothing to suggest that the same thing wouldn’t happen to algae-based products either.
When you’re working with a crop that can produce up to 10,000 gallons of fuel on an acre of production, there must be consistent practices in place to minimize this disadvantage. Since climate and water quality can alter the photosynthesis profile, there might not be a way to guarantee success.
3. Algae biofuel doesn’t always meet its energy efficiency targets.
Algae biofuel requires the energy equivalency of about 10 gallons of oil-based fuel to produce a single gallon of this sustainable resource. Our current farming techniques might make it an environmentally friendly product to create, but we’re still using 20% more energy to grow the plant-based hydrocarbons than the fuel we refine from them. This ratio is one of the critical disadvantages that we must solve before this option becomes viable economically.
Some governments subsidize this work to create a consumer market for the biofuel, but this temporary measure does not produce long-term viability unless production methods can improve.
4. Algae growth creates regional sustainability problems.
We might have the opportunity to grow algae almost anywhere thanks to closed-tank technologies, but the varying climates that occur worldwide dictate what we can or cannot produce. Outdoor cultivation methods are necessary to make this biofuel a sustainable product. Some strains do have resiliency against changing weather conditions, most of them don’t have the ability to grow in the Arctic or Antarctic Circles except for brief periods during the summer.
This disadvantage does more than negate the eco-friendly features that proponents of algae biofuels support. It also adds to the cost-per-gallon of what we can produce, reducing the market viability of the eventual product.
5. Algae might grow quickly, but it still needs time to produce viable oils.
Some algae strains can produce oil daily. Most of them will not let you produce a biofuel product that is usable immediately. There are several different steps in the production process that refineries must follow to turn the organic materials into something that are vehicles can burn or homes can use for heating and cooling. The best eco-friendly method to use is an oil press, capturing about 75% of the available oil from the product. We often use hexane solvents because it only experiences a 5% loss instead.
Hexane is an alkane of six carbon atoms. We create this chemical from crude oil. That means we must still use fossil fuels to maximize the refinement process of algae biofuel, limiting the total amount of achievable carbon savings. When the processing of the fatty acids through transesterification gets added to this process, we can produce petroleum-based fuels much faster than we can make this resource.
6. Algae biofuels come with higher production costs.
Why do governments subsidize algae biofuel to encourage market development? Because the cost of production is more than $30 per gallon. Even when we use perfect methods of oil extraction and fuel refinement, the cost of this resource exceeds more than $5 per gallon. The U.S. Energy Information Administration reports that the highest average price for gasoline from petroleum resources was $4.11 per gallon, achieved during the Great Recession on July 7, 2008. Even if you include the profits from algae byproducts that come from hydrocarbon processing, the price per gallon would still be over what the highest “standard” fuel average ever was for a week in the United States.
We’re a long way from achieving a perfected pricing scheme for algae biofuels. The Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy has the goal to reach affordable pricing levels in their 10-year forecast that ends in 2030. That means our best solution from a cost perspective is to continue using ethanol until prices stabilize.
7. Algae growth requires high levels of fertilizer to maximize production.
Algae colony growth doubles only when there are significant quantities of fertilizer available to encourage photosynthesis. Current estimates suggest that an additional 15 million tons of nitrogen and 2 million tons of phosphorus would be necessary to achieve the duplication rates needed to begin maximizing oil production in this area. This figure represents about 50% of what farmers are using in the United States annually to produce cash crops and food items.
Boosting our use of fertilizer could create several different adverse outcomes that may decrease the quality of life for many communities. Setting aside the issue of root burn since algae grows in wet conditions, the additions used to produce enough of a crop would impact rivers, lakes, and natural waterways. It uses up the oxygen that fish and other animals need, and there is an increased risk of ammonia releases occurring.
Adding too much fertilizer to an algae farm could even diminish the health of the colony. That outcome would then create biofuels of inferior quality.
8. Algae requires significant water resources to produce oil for collection.
Algae can grow in open ponds or closed systems. Both options require the presence of significant water resources to inspire the colonies to grow. Producers must keep the liquid at specific temperatures to maximize duplication at the same time, which means evaporation begins to happen. Unless there is a way to collect the moisture as it rises, the amount of water needed to create this biofuel is significantly higher than most other options in today’s marking – including ethanol.
9. Algae contamination occurs more often with large-scale production methods.
The companies that began to make algae biofuels ran into unexpected problems when they started ramping up their production methods. Large-scale efforts did not retain the same high levels of oil as smaller farms because the presence of predators was more frequent. The economics of the work didn’t make sense either because providing enough light and nutrients to larger colonies didn’t make sense. When the price of crude oil is very high, then this disadvantage begins to disappear.
Because of this specific disadvantage, most algae biofuel producers transitioned to become “biorefineries” instead. Sapphire Energy took the lead on this diversification, announcing in 2014 that they would produce nutritional supplements in addition to their biofuels.
Algae biofuel gives us a viable solution for our future transportation and energy needs when we work with strains that produce significant levels of oil. It is not a viable product for most situations yet because production costs continue to stay high.
This product is proven to work, but it is too expensive to create using today’s technology. The industry must continue to look for new ways to maximize the refinement process while minimizing the time investments and capital costs that are necessary to create something usable.
That means the advantages and disadvantages of algae biodiesel must look toward the future instead of what we can accomplish with it today. If we can drop the price per gallon from over $30 to below $4, then it may have an opportunity to compete with gasoline and ethanol for our daily needs.
Keith Miller has over 25 years of experience as a CEO and serial entrepreneur. As an entrepreneur, he has founded several multi-million dollar companies. As a writer, Keith's work has been mentioned in CIO Magazine, Workable, BizTech, and The Charlotte Observer. If you have any questions about the content of this blog post, then please send our content editing team a message here.