A new report from the Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI) in Berkeley projects that development of cost-competitive algae biofuel production will require much more long-term research, development and demonstration. In the meantime, 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,” write authors Nigel Quinn and Tryg Lundquist of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), which is a partner in the BP-funded institute.
Their 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 the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, and Berkeley Lab.
The algae biofuels industry is still in its early gestation stage, the new report notes. Although well 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 several major oil companies such as ExxonMobil (which a year ago announced a $600 million commitment to algae biofuels technology), Shell (with a joint venture project, “Cellana,” in Hawaii), and Eni (the Italian oil company, with a pre-pilot plant in Sicily).