Algae Biofuels Enviro-Impact Found Worse Than Corn Ethanol in New Study

algae photo

photo: Ethan O'Connor via flickr.
Algae biofuels certainly hold lots of promise in terms of yields. Certainly lots of fossil fuel companies seem to be betting on them to be what comes next in liquid transportation fuels. A new study in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, done by researchers at the University of Virginia's Dept. of Civil and Environmental Engineering, calculates the environmental impact of algae biofuels as currently produced to be higher than than many first generation fuel feedstocks such as switchgrass and corn. The silver lining in that is that the report also identifies ways in which this can be remedied: In completing their life-cycle analysis the researchers found that algae had greater net greenhouse gas emissions and uses more water in its production than other biofuel sources. In terms of area required for production algae did come out ahead.

Co-Location With Wastewater Treatment Plants Touted
The large eco-footprint of algae cultivation is the result of upstream impacts such as CO2 and fertilizer, the U.Va researchers found.To remedy this the they recommend building algae production ponds near wastewater treatment facilities so that they can capture phosphorus and nitrogen needed for growing the algae that would otherwise be obtained from a fossil fuel source.

Lead author Andres Clarens warns, "If we do decide to move forward with algae as a fuel source, it's important we understand the ways we can produce it with the least impact, and that's where combining production with wastewater treatment operations comes in."

At Least One Industry Insider Says It's Sour Grapes
Tempering that warning, Biofuels Digest quotes an unnamed "biofuels industry professional" as saying that the paper is just "trying to scare people into funding more wastewater research."

Why? Because in the latest $78 million of Department of Energy funding for advanced biofuels research wastewater treatment-algae biofuel production got stiffed.

Unnamed Source or Professional Journal? You Decide
While an unnamed industry source isn't exactly solid rebuttal of peer-reviewed research, the accusation is worth considering.

As is the warning made by the report authors: "Before we make major investments in algae production, we should really know the environmental impact of this technology."

In other words, just because algae was two significant advantages over other biofuel feedstocks--doesn't compete with food crops for land and has higher yields--doesn't mean we shouldn't critically examine the environmental impact.

But equally, take claims on all sides with a grain of salt. It's quite possible, being unnamed, that the industry professional did just get money from the DoE. File this one away until there's additional confirmation.

Here's the original: Environmental Life Cycle Comparison of Algae to Other Bioenergy Feedstocks [pay per read required]

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