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Study Says Algae Biofuel Has Dirty Life Cycle

Algae has seemed like a great biofuel candidate because it's extremely efficent at creating energy from sunlight and it could potentially form closed loops for power plants - absorbing exhaust while creating new fuel - but a recent study has knocked algae off its pedestal.

University of Virginia researchers have found that the life cycle of algal biofuel produces high levels of greenhouse gas emissions -- much more than it sequesters.

The culprit is the large amount of fertilizer used to produce the algae.  The fertilizers come from petroleum-bases sources and emit nitrous oxide.  The researchers propose using fertilizer from sewage plants as a way around the problem.

It looks like we're still far away from an ideal biofuel, if there is one.

via Yale e360

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Comments (16)Add Comment
written by Alessandro Machi, January 26, 2010
Ouch, I feel like I've been kicked. Any chance to fast track this research?
Also - land use?
written by David Herron, January 26, 2010
I heard Mark Johnson of Stanford Univ speak last year about this. He made a comprehensive model of the full lifecycle cost of various "green" methods to fuel all U.S. transportation. The most astonishing figure was the land use requirements for each technology. e.g. making ethanol from crops would require more acreage than the whole of the state of California. On the other hand wind farms (because of the dual use nature) could generate enough electricity to power a fully electrified U.S. vehicle fleet on a teeny tiny smidgeon of land.
"ideal biofuel"
written by gregg, January 26, 2010
hmm, I think I've got it.
If we eat, and then use our bodies to replace external motor devices, we should be efficient enough to survive, with the added bonus of being healthy

I know, not the coolest, hi-tech solution out there. But forgive me for trying to hit to birds with one stone. I mean, we're in an energy crisis and an obesity epidemic... So when I see stairs or an elevator I find all arrows pointing to the stairs.

I recently picked up a treadle sewing machine made back in 1915. In case someone doesn't know, a treadle is a foot powered device that uses the motion kind of like a calf machine at the gym to power some device.

The thing still works! Every moving part is accessible and can be cleaned with a rag and a little lubricant. I patched some pants and made curtains from used materials. How many computers have you seen that could provide any function after that kind of life? I mean, paperweights maybe, a museum too I suppose.

I guess I just feel like we might want to reevaluate how we got into this environmental mess in the first place, I think it was always our desire to captain the coolest forces in the universe without really knowing what we were getting into... So when the discount generic cialis scale of viagra approved our operations became too big the consequences of our non-perfection plan became visible- or catastrophic rather.

So is the answer to outsmart the laws of physics and defy entropy? I think most hi-tech plans can sound great but when they get tested on the scale of the solutions that we consider... the cracks open up.

I'm not saying never utilize technology, that would be foolish, but take it in stride, and don't buy the coolest thing right after it's created.

Maybe my attitude wouldn't have put a man on the moon by now, but then again we would have a healthy planet and good choice buy cialis without a prescription wouldn't be considering making a moon colony to move too once the atmosphere has a run away greenhouse effect. To me the biggest drawback is that Gene Roddenberry isn't going to make a tv show about it, but I could deal with that if it meant a future for those who come after me.
written by Paul Kenjerski, January 26, 2010
Why are they using petrol based fertilizers? couldn't they use cow manure from a local farm or any other type of organic fertilizer? It's seems backwards that they would choose to use an inorganic petrol based fertilizer while trying to eliminate the we like it what is cialis professional use of petrol. What oil company is sponsoring this experiment anyway?
This is your standard fake research project to discredit green technologies.
written by ManDrake, January 26, 2010
Look at the funder of the research that was done. The American Chemical Society. They are against the notion of climate change and things like that. To take seriously any research funded by a corporate front group is a bit foolish. They are just trying to justify a radical political agenda. Corporations do the same thing over and over again to make sure there isn't any change at all. At some point we should stop repeating it like it's legitimate.
written by Gordon, January 27, 2010
I agree. We should stop repeating nonsense about CO2 based global warming as if it is true too.
written by Jacob, January 27, 2010
Algae grows well in human waste. Why can't we recycle sewage as algal feedstock? I know at least one firm had a plan to do just this.
Do you think cow dung will scale?
written by Eamon Keane, January 27, 2010
The limiting factor for most plants, and for algae, is phosphorus.

You can get phosphorus from human urine and manure. Where do you think the phosphorus in this urine and manure comes from? It comes from mined phoshpate rock applied as fertilizer. Over half of try it cialis where to buy manure is left on land and the nutrients are recycled by the soil so the cattle can graze the getting cialis next year.

Now you could say, why not just collect the other half, and you have a point, although the logistics of it would be horrendous. Once you've collected it, you have the option of using it as manure for conventional crops, or using it for algae. Once you've collected it, do you just dump the manure into the carefully controlled algae open pond? Algae are finicky things which require the exact right ratio of NPK, the right temperature control, the right salinity, and the right level of sunlight if you want to get optimum growth. From the homemade viagra DOE Algae Biofuels Technology Roadmap ($file/AlgalBiofuels_Roadmap_7.pdf):

"Additionally, careful control of nutrient levels is critical. Limitation of a key nutrient will 2566 have serious impacts on biomass productivity, but it may be desirable to use nutrient 2567 limitation (e.g., nitrogen, phosphorous, or silicon) as a means to induce oil accumulation 2568 in the cells (Sheehan et al., 199smilies/cool.gif. Too much of a particular nutrient may prove toxic."

You could try to extract the nutrients from the manure, although if someone has found a way to do that, please provide me a link. Also tell me how much energy is expended to remove the nutrients.

So, to grow algae you have to have the intersection of:

A large CO2 source
A large area of worthless land
A large amount of manure
A large amount of worthless water
The right level of sunshine

You'll forgive me if I don't get too excited over algae. If you read the DOE's alage biofuel roadmap, you'll notice that there are no fewer than 15 energy inputs to get the final diesel from algae. You can get some energy from the leftover biomass. Here's a quote:

"Nonetheless, this analysis shows that any harvesting/extraction scheme involving dry algae is energy prohibitive, requiring at least 60% of the energy content of algae. There is thus a need to develop strains of algae with much higher energy content than available today."

These are the reasons you will never see a mention of life cycle analysis in an algae biofuel press release. Let's not blindly jump on the algae bandwagon like we did with ethanol.
More about phosphorus
written by Eamon Keane, January 27, 2010
I forgot to mention, I wrote an article on the potential problems with sourcing phosphorus for algae here:
new direction for biofuels
written by Casey Verdant, January 28, 2010
This was a very critical study from the University of Virginia. Clarens’s research can hopefully steer biofuel research in the right director: away from greenhouse-intensive algae production toward canola, switchgrass, and tobacco production.

If you are interested in biofuels, check out this great website with hundreds of case studies on emerging green technologies and alternative energies: It has the look here levitra online 50mgs largest b2b green directory on the web and lots of sustainability white papers.
Problems with the study
written by Carl Hage, January 28, 2010
I have read the supporting material for this study and purchase cheap cialis online found many problems. First, there are errors and missing information in some of levitra prices in usa the tables, so it is difficult to identify how the water and energy usage is derived to make this conclusion.

The main problem is that they assume energy and water is used to make the CO2 injected into algae-- that is the biggest indirect cost. (Most prior algae projects did not inject external CO2.) Another large indirect expense is water and energy to make urea (N) and P2O5 fertilizer, though this is still less energy than the output (just like for corn). Indirect costs of extraction chemicals are not defined in the supporting material, but cost-effective extraction is a problem being solved by the new algae startups. Other options for fertilization are possible (recycling or wastewater).

Another big problem comparing algae vs corn vs switchgrass is that the energy compared is the HHV of the whole biomass and excludes water and energy to convert the biomass to usable fuel. For current corn ethanol, fermentation and distillation is the main consumption of indirect water and energy.

Actual operating energy assumed in the study is small-- only 3% of the algae energy output and could be met by solar panels above the paddlewheels. Water replacement for evaporation and tramadol online extraction is less than San Diego rainfall over the ponds.

A possible source for fertilizer and CO2 is municipal sewage or farm runoff treatment plants, with recycled CO2 from biogas electric generators. The cancelled NREL Aquatic Species final report mentions the Sunnyvale, CA water treatment plant (where I live) which has 180ha algae ponds for final treatment (with no CO2 injection). The site generates power from landfill and digester gas. I calculated that the output of these generators would supply CO2 for 100ha of ponds. A dairy farm with biogas could use the soft gel cialis same approach and generate algae biofuel on the side with no extra indirect water or energy. Right now cities and certain farms have to pay extra to treat water.

Note that some people (including this study) claim that algae sequesters CO2. No, it just recycles it to be released when burned or decomposed. Digging coal out of the ground, burning it, then feeding it to algae still releases fossil CO2 into the air. But biomass heat/electric exhaust would be truely renewable.
Please teach it
written by tida_hirohito, January 29, 2010
Biofuel, ether, exhaust after having burnt. Influence to give environment and the human body.Does not the ecosystem fail?I am interested about safety.If the continuance is possible and is better, you should be able to go ahead.
written by John for Recycling, January 30, 2010
It really did surprise me, late last year, I thought we have found something good in algae,and now everything seems changing and no 1 canadian online pharmacy different. What are the plans now?
Algae research grants need to be investigated immediately
written by anonymous, February 02, 2010
The US Government has spent over $2.5 billion dollars on algae research in the last 35 years and all we have to show for it are shelves full of useless patents. Algae have been researched at universities and in laboratories in the US for over 50 years, financed in significant part by government funds. One of 5 mg viagra the largest problems is that the research has been done in laboratories and at universities, using federal funds, and there is fear at that level that commercialization will ‘ruin it for them’. What it will ruin is the steady stream of ‘free’ money flowing from the DOE, NREL, the DOD, DARPA and other Washington-based agencies to University Row. It was most disconcerting to hear from more than one agency that the funds it awards are, by Congressional mandate, restricted to research. If we could invest one years’ worth of awards into commercialization instead of research, we could easily move this industry into commercialization. The research would be needed to improve technologies, but Microsoft and the American Petroleum Industry, among others, can confirm that this is a necessary component of any industry growth.
what about the algae waste
written by Nicola Terry, February 04, 2010
Perhaps I am off the wall here, but if the algae need nitrogen and phosphorus and other nutrients to grow what happens to those elements when they die? They aren't in the biofuel so where do they go? Why can't we recycle the waste from the processed algae, or whatever, to make the next batch?
Useful, but not a big problem
written by Bob in CA, February 05, 2010
The study may well be useful in that it shows that the usual brain-dead approach using processed chemicals and viagra through canada conventional energy sources won't work, not that that's a surprise. What they don't take into consideration is that we have fertilizer sources (sewage, animal manure) that we currently have to deal with in other ways, all of which cost money and energy. Using such waste as fertilizer might not be the most efficient way to grow algae, but when you combine the benefit of using the usefull link 5mg levitra waste and producing fuel, the balance improves and studies like this tend not to take such things into account. It also doesn't consider the possibility of enter site online levitra prescriptions engineering the algae to be able to deal with waste more efficiently.

The comments above regarding government research thinking "commericalization will ruin it for them" are utterly ridiculous. If it's so easy to commericalize this technology, there would be a steady stream of venture capital to do it. I've worked in a federal research lab and the attitude is exactly the opposite. If federal research efforts prove the potential for commercialization it helps to validate those efforts, not undermine them, and such a success looks very good on one's CV. Federal research money should be spent on the basic research no one else will fund. Once the potential is shown for a technology, private capital should commercialize it.

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