Using the present methods in scaling up algal biofuel production is not environmentally sustainable to meet fuel demands, according to a report conducted by the National Research Council (NRC). The report also said, however, that this will not be a permanent limitation, but rather a challenge that could be surpassed through innovations which would require research and development.
The goal of algal biofuels production is to meet at least 5% (i.e. about 10 billion gallons) of fuels for transportation in U.S. The problem is, in order to meet this capacity, given the current capabilities of the production process, a colossal amount of:
- water (about 33 billion gallons),
- phosphorus (1 to 2 million metric tons), and
- nitrogen (6 to 15 million metric tons)
would be required which are unsustainable. In addition, the NRC is also concerned on the amount of land area required for algae ponds and the efficiency of greenhouse gas emissions reduction.
NRC suggests the need for research and development to improve algal strains, design the combination of the materials and methods for growing and processing algae into fuels, and reduce the energy requirements for multiple stages of production. Ultimately, the innovations would be focused on five factors: water, nutrients, energy, land use, and greenhouse-gas emissions.
“Our report brings awareness to address the concerns of making production not only commercially viable but environmentally sustainable. In my opinion, you can’t divorce the two. As a matter of fact, most efforts aiming at lowering the production costs is to make the process more sustainable in terms of energy, water and nutrient use,” said Joel Cuello, a NRC member.