Department of Energy

Study: Algae Could Replace 17% of U.S. Oil Imports

April 13, 2011

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Algae samples back at the NREL lab, ready to be analyzed and run through the Fluorescent-Activated Cell Sorter, or FACS, which separates the cells. | Credit: NREL Staff Photographer Dennis Schroeder.

Algae samples back at the NREL lab, ready to be analyzed and run through the Fluorescent-Activated Cell Sorter, or FACS, which separates the cells. | Credit: NREL Staff Photographer Dennis Schroeder.

Every day, the United States spends about $1 billion to import foreign oil, money that we could be investing in American energy and the American economy. President Obama recently announced an ambitious but achievable goal of reducing our oil imports by a third by 2025. To meet this goal, we will need to increase our use of homegrown advanced biofuels.

Today, the Department’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) came out with a new study that shows that 17 percent of the United States’ imported oil for transportation could be replaced with American-grown biofuels from algae.

Developing the next generation of biofuels is an important step towards reducing our dependence on foreign oil and advancing new economic opportunities throughout the country.

The study’s researchers found that by growing algae in strategic locations, the U.S. could produce 21 billion gallons of algal oil while reducing the amount of water that is needed for production. That amount of algal oil is equal to the 2022 advanced biofuels goal set by the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act. And by concentrating algae production in the U.S. regions that have the sunniest and most humid climates – the Gulf Coast, the Southeastern Seaboard and the Great Lakes - the process will use much less water.

Looking beyond freshwater, the PNNL scientists also noted that algae has several advantages over other biofuel sources. For example, as organisms that consume carbon dioxide, algae can feed off the carbon emissions from power plants and, through their ability to digest nitrogen and phosphorous, grow in (and clean) municipal waste water.

Next up for the team – they’re examining the potential for growing algae in non-freshwater sources like salt water and waste water and opportunities for using greenhouse ponds in colder climates.

As the PNNL study showed, there is enormous potential to develop advanced biofuels in the U.S. – creating jobs, growing our economy and breaking our dependence on foreign oil.