Algal biofuels have been discussed quite extensively lately, as a very promising alternative to fossil fuels. Researchers at Cornell, however, published a study last month, indicating that further research is needed before the technology becomes economically and energetically viable.
The team consisted of Deborah Sills, a postdoctoral associate in the research groups of Charles Greene, director of the Ocean Resources and Ecosystems Program and professor of earth and atmospheric sciences, and Jefferson Tester, associate director for energy at the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future and the Croll Professor of Sustainable Energy Systems in the School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.
They conducted a series of computer simulations to analyze the uncertainties. They established that currently the energy invested in the biofuel production is much more than what is anticipated to produce.
It is certain that in comparison with land plants for biofuel, algae have the potential to produce 10 times more oil per acre, use nutrients more efficiently and at the same time does not take up agricultural land.
This is the reason why the research was initiated, analyzing carefully each step of the process from growing algae to fuel production. The work outlined a list of values and improvements that have to be estimated and made so that the algae-to-biofuel industry can start.
According to the researchers, the information now is incomplete and does not allow people to draw strong conclusions.
The process of making biofuel is described by the team in five steps: cultivation, lipid oil extraction, conversion to liquid biofuel and estimating the added value. The researchers point out that currently each one of the steps requires improvements.