In June 2010, the U.S. Energy Department (DOE) commissioned the National Academy of Sciences’ National Research Council (NRC) to convene a committee to investigate the potential for an environmentally sustainable domestic algal biofuels industry. The NRC’s report identifies priority areas for improving the long-term, national-scale sustainability of algal biofuels and notably finds no showstoppers. 

Phase 1 of the Sapphire Energy Green Crude Farm

Phase 1 of the Sapphire Energy Green Crude Farm—supported by the DOE Bioenergy Technologies Office Integrated Biorefinery program, the USDA Loan Guarantee program, and significant private investment—located outside of Columbus, New Mexico. Green Crude from algae is a direct replacement for petroleum and can be refined into gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel. When complete, this 100-acre facility is expected to grow to 300 acres. Sapphire Energy continually prioritizes improving sustainability. (Photo courtesy of Sapphire Energy, Inc.)

The Bioenergy Technologies Office believes research and development (R&D) to advance algal biofuels must seek to improve technology and promote long-term environmental sustainability. In 2010, the Program commissioned National Academy of Sciences’ NRC to conduct an independent assessment of environmental and social sustainability issues as they relate to algal biofuels. NRC recently released the report, Sustainable Development of Algal Biofuels. The report concluded that technology improvements are needed for algal biofuels to achieve their full potential, but the challenges aren’t viewed as insurmountable.

The overall conclusions of the report are encouraging to the Bioenergy Technologies Office. The Office is already funding activities that address the report’s “concerns of high importance” (water, nutrients, land area, energy return on investment, and GHG emissions), as well as many of those identified as “concerns of medium and low importance.” Furthermore, we have seen many examples of industry and academia tackling these sustainability hurdles through innovation. In order to keep the scientific community and the public informed of these strides in industry, it is important that these innovators share their successes.

The study’s conclusions will help the Energy Department and its partners continue to address these concerns as the algal biofuels industry develops. The report provides practical and actionable strategies, and it identifies opportunities for mitigation, indicators for assessing natural resource use and environmental effects, and an overall framework for assessing sustainable development of algal biofuels. This report—combined with the Bioeergy Technologies Office’s Algae R&D Roadmap, funded projects, and continued stakeholder interactions—will inform and guide the Program’s R&D portfolio.

NRC will be hosting a webinar on November 27, 2012, at 1:00 p.m. ET, during which Dr. Jennie Hunter-Cevera, commission chair, and Dr. Mark Jones, member of the authoring committee, will give a brief overview of the report and answer questions.


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