In honor of the Bioenergy Technologies Office's (BETO) upcoming Algal Biofuels Strategy Workshop, the Office is introducing some of the top five things you didn't know about algae. These basic outline will get you up to date on some of the key reasons why algae is such a valuable resource for the development of biofuels, bioproducts, and bioenergy.

1. There are thousands of different kinds of algae; they grow in a variety of colors and forms, and can even be found growing on snow and ice. Many people think of the green film on ponds or the seaweed that washes up on the beach while you're on vacation. Those are both types of algae that represent just a fraction of the total diversity of known algae species. One notable group of algae is blue-green; it's not actually a eukaryotic cell like many algae and all plants and animals, but a type of prokaryotic cell (or bacteria) that uses photosynthesis—absorption of carbon dioxide to create oxygen—in a similar fashion to other algae and plants. Blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria, are known for having an extremely high photosynthetic rate, making it an exceptional candidate for use in biofuels and bioproduct creation. For example, researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory are focused on developing cyanobacteria strains that produce photosynthesis-derived ethylene, an environmentally friendly and renewable alternative to one of the world's most widely produced petrochemicals.

2. Algae require only a few things to grow: water, sunlight, a source of carbon, and nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus. One of the qualities that makes algae appealing for use as a biofuel feedstock is their ability to grow in a variety of water types. From salt water to fresh water, and everything in between, the diversity of algae means that a suitable strain can be found to take advantage of nearly any water resource.  In fact, BETO provided funding to the University of Toledo to test algae's ability to grow in dairy wastewater, converting a problematic waste stream into an abundant resource.

Algal bio-oils in a tank

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory is one of BETO's many partners that works in developing strains of algae for more effective production of biofuels, bioproducts, and bioenergy. (Photo courtesy of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory)

3. Because algae are photosynthetic organisms, using them for biofuel and bioproduct creation can significantly reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This is a result of algae’s use of carbon dioxide during cultivation. Advanced algal biofuels reduce GHG emissions by more than 50%, (relative to baseline 2005 petroleum emissions). To capitalize on this unique asset of algae, bioindustry researchers are investigating the benefits of co-locating algae beds near traditional, high-emissions factories and refineries.

4. Naturally occurring algae in the world’s oceans are the Earth's primary energy producers today (and ancient algae are the source material for many fossil fuel deposits). Algae in some circumstance can accumulate high intra-cellular levels of oils. When algae are cultivated specifically for energy production, these oils can be extracted from harvested algae and used for conversion into biofuels and bioproducts. Algae can have a much higher oil yield than plants; research has shown that algae could potentially produce up to 60 times more oil than some terrestrial plants. BETO aims to demonstrate annual yields sufficient to produce 2,500 gallons of algal biofuels intermediates (per acre equivalent) by 2018. BETO's longer-term goal is to obtain yields that enable 5,000 gallons by 2022, supporting a selling price of $3 per gallon gasoline equivalent (gge). There are technical barriers that must be overcome to produce cost-competitive algal biofuels in these quantities. To meet its objectives, BETO is funding four projects with Hawaii Bioenergy, Sapphire Energy, California Polytechnic State University, and New Mexico State University to conduct integrated research and development on algae growth and harvesting at up to a minimum of a one-acre equivalent cultivation scale.  These projects will help systematically address barriers to the production of high-yield algal biofuel intermediates that will eventually lead to cost-competitive and renewable aviation fuel, diesel, and gasoline that can be transported and sold using today's existing fueling infrastructure. 

5.  In addition to their potential as a biofuel feedstock, algae are also used to create a variety of valuable products across multiple industries. In the nutrition industry, companies have used algae to create non-animal-based fish oil replacement, a source of healthful omega-3 fatty acids. Red algae are also used to create agar, a natural thickening agent for ice cream, pastries, and other desserts, as well as a clarifying agent for brewing beer. Algae also are an ingredient in numerous cosmetic products, as well as sustainable animal feed for fish, chicken, and pigs. Lastly, they are used to create biochemicals that produce plastic, concrete, fertilizer, and more. All of these various products are key to offsetting initial capital expenses for algal biofuel production, enabling faster commercialization in the market and more competitive prices. 

Are you interested in learning more about algae and the products and fuels they can produce? Visit the Bioenergy Technologies Office’s Algal Biofuels Web page, read the Algae fact sheet, or check out our Algae 101 video.

Beyond these resources, BETO is also planning a series of algal biofuel strategy workshops. The first will be held November 19–20, 2013, at Arizona State University. During these technical workshops, stakeholders will be able to discuss, assess, and prioritize research and development needs for the realization of affordable, scalable, and sustainable algal biofuels. These workshops are targeted to university, national laboratory, industry, advocacy, and government stakeholders, and will focus on current technical barriers, strategies for overcoming these barriers, and assessing the industry’s progress. More information on these workshops is available online.