Algae for Biofuels

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"Moving from promise to reality; but how fast?"

A new Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI) report projects development of cost-competitive algae biofuel production will require more long-term research, development and demonstration. Meanwhile, several non-fuel applications of algae could serve to advance the nascent industry.

"Even with relatively favorable and forward-looking process assumptions (from cultivation to harvesting to processing), algae oil production with microalgae cultures will be expensive and, at least in the near-to mid-term, will require additional income streams to be economically viable," according to the report.

These conclusions stem from a detailed techno-economic analysis of algal biofuels production. The project is one of the over 70 studies on bioenergy now being pursued by the EBI and its scientists at UC Berkeley, the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign and Berkeley Lab.

The algae biofuels industry is still in its early gestation stage. While over 100 companies in the U.S. and abroad are now working to produce algal biomass and oil for transportation fuels, most are small and none has yet operated a pilot plant with multiple acres of algae production systems. However, several companies recently initiated such scale-up projects, including numerous major oil companies like Exxon Mobil (which, a year ago, committed $600M to algae biofuels technology), Shell (with the Cellana JV project in Hawaii) and Eni (Italian oil company with a pre-pilot plant in Sicily). The U.S. DOE has funded several R&D consortia, pilot projects and one 300-acre demonstration project in New Mexico. The Defense Department is supporting several fast-track projects. In the UK, the Carbon Trust initiated a 10-year effort to develop algae oil production, engaging 12 universities and research laboratories and the EU recently funded three 25-acre pilot projects. These projects hope to show it's possible to mass culture algae with current or near-term technology within the technical and economic constraints required for biofuel production.

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