National Renewable Energy Laboratory researcher Lee Elliott collects samples of algae at a creek in Golden, Colorado. | Photo by Dennis Schroeder, National Renewable Energy Laboratory

1. Where It Grows

There are thousands of different kinds of algae that grow in a variety of colors and forms, and can be found everywhere on the planet -- even on snow and ice. When some people think of algae, they picture green film on ponds or the seaweed that washes up on the beach. However, that’s just a fraction of the known algae species. One notable group is blue-green algae, which consists of prokaryotic cells (or bacteria) that use photosynthesis, the process of converting light energy into chemical energy. Blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria, have an extremely high photosynthetic rate that is ideal for creating biofuels and bioproducts. That is why researchers at the Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory are focused on developing cyanobacteria strains that produce photosynthesis-derived ethylene, an environmentally friendly and renewable alternative to one of the world's most widely produced petrochemicals.

2. What It Needs to Grow

Algae only require a few essentials to grow: water, sunlight, carbon, and nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus. From salt water to fresh water and everything in between, the diversity of algae means that there are suitable strains that can take advantage of nearly any water resource. For that reason, the Energy Department’s Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO) provided funding to the University of Toledo to test algae's ability to grow in dairy wastewater, converting a formerly problematic waste stream into an abundant algae resource.

3. How It Is Used In Biofuel Production

Because algae are photosynthetic organisms that draw carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, using them to create biofuel and bioproducts can significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Bioindustry researchers are studying the benefits of developing algae beds near traditional, high-emissions factories and refineries to offset carbon emissions.

4. How Productive Algae Can Be

Naturally occurring algae in the world’s oceans are among the Earth's most prolific energy generators and ancient algae are the source material for many fossil fuel deposits. In some instances, algae can accumulate high intra-cellular levels of oils, which can be extracted and converted into biofuels and bioproducts. Research has shown that algae could potentially produce much more oil than terrestrial plants. Certain strains, for example, can yield up to 60 times more oil than plants like soybeans. 

BETO, in collaboration with industry, national laboratories, and other stakeholders, is working to transform the nation’s renewable biomass resources, including algae, into cost-competitive, high-performance biofuels.  BETO aims to increase the amount of algal biofuel intermediates (e.g., algal oil that can be refined into algal biofuels) the nation produces to 5,000 gallons per acre per year by 2022. As an intermediate step, BETO’s goal is for the nation to produce 2,500 gallons of algal biofuel intermediates per acre per year by 2018.

There are technical barriers that must be overcome to produce cost-competitive algal biofuels on this scale. To address this challenge, BETO is funding four projects with Hawaii Bioenergy, Sapphire Energy, California Polytechnic State University, and New Mexico State University to help address barriers to the production of cost-competitive and renewable aviation fuel, diesel, and gasoline that can be transported and sold using existing fueling infrastructure.

5.  Algae’s Many Other Uses

In addition to their potential as a biofuel feedstock, algae are used to create a variety of other products. In the nutrition industry, companies have used algae to create non-animal-based fish oil replacement, a source of healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Red algae are used to create agar, a natural thickening agent for ice cream, pastries, and other desserts, as well as a clarifying agent for brewing beer. Algae are an ingredient in several cosmetics, as well as sustainable animal feed for fish, chicken, and pigs. They are also used to create biochemicals that produce plastic, concrete, fertilizer, and more. All of these products offset initial capital expenses for algal biofuel production facilities, which could accelerate commercialization for algae-derived fuels and lead to lower prices for consumers.

Interested in learning more about algae and the products and fuels they can produce? Visit BETO’s Algal Biofuels Web page, read the Algae fact sheet, or check out our Algae 101 video .

The first in a series of algal biofuel strategy workshops will be held November 19-20 at Arizona State University. During these technical workshops, university, national laboratory, industry, advocacy, and government stakeholders will be able to discuss, assess, and prioritize research and development needs to achieve affordable, scalable, and sustainable algal biofuels. These workshops will focus on current technical barriers, strategies for overcoming these barriers, and assessing the industry’s progress. Learn more about the event and find out how to register.  


Christy Sterner
Christy Sterner is a Technology Manager for the Advanced Algal Systems Program in the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE's) Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy's Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO).
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