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Algae-Based Biofuels Not "Silver Bullet," Study Says

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The process of switching from petroleum is not all milk and honey, a recent scientific report says. The researchers, Andres F. Clarens and Lisa M. Colosi from the New University of Virginia analyzed algae biofuels and compared them to canola and switchgrass biofuels from a wheel-to-wheel perspective.

Algae-based transportation fuels usually come with minimal land use and are highly energetic, but producing them isn’t ultimately that environmentally-friendly as it had been thought.

Algae-based biofuel production needs more processes powered by petroleum than other biofuels. Producing electricity from such algae biofuels also uses significant quantities of water and is characterized by more greenhouse gas emissions.

“It comes down to value-driven questions,” Colosi said. “Do we value driving long distances in SUVs that require a lot of fuel? If so, we need to look at algae so we can produce as much fuel as possible. If we are concerned about energy use, climate changes and water supply, then we need to think more strongly about how we can best use canola and switch grass.”

Ultimately there is no silver bullet for replacing petroleum as a transportation energy source,” says Clarent, Colosi’s colleague. “We’ve seen that alternatives typically come with unforeseen burdens. We saw it with ethanol, and we’re seeing it now with shale gas. Our hope is that work like this will help us avoid similar pitfalls if algae-based fuels are ultimately deployed on large scale.”

Biofuels won’t ever be a silver bullet since they all need carbon to store their energy. Hydrogen is the ultimate clean solution for our energy needs but it is currently produced from petroleum, rather than from water. Until solar panels will get at their best efficiency to produce enough hydrogen and we’ll learn ways to contain that hydrogen more efficiently, biofuels are the best transition towards an electrified/clean future.

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