An Algal Biofuel Obituary

This caption from Monday, Oct. 11, 2010 did not age well: Jonathan Wolfson, CEO and co-founder of Solazyme, speaks to a reporter while standing in front of a 600 liter fermenter in the Solazyme pilot plant in South San Francisco, Calif. Many of the U.S. Navy’s ships and jets will soon be running on prairie grass, sugar beet pulp and sawdust that’s been eaten by microscopic algae and turned into fuel. The Navy has already started doing it on a small scale, and in September they ordered more than 150,000 gallons of algae fuel from South San Francisco-based Solazyme. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

During the advanced biofuel craze of the past decade, many companies made claims that weren’t remotely credible. A long list of companies claimed they could economically convert biomass like straw or wood chips into fuel for around a dollar a gallon.

Investors and taxpayers funded many ventures that were destined to fail. Technologies that were abandoned decades ago because the economics weren’t viable were revived and received government funding to once again prove that the economics aren’t viable.

Cellulosic ethanol was probably the biggest offender. It isn’t cheap to convert straw into ethanol, but companies continue to try. In fact, “commercial” cellulosic ethanol is now being sold into the fuel supply, albeit it is heavily subsidized via the Renewable Fuel Standard and being produced at only a tiny fraction of the projected amounts.

But right behind cellulosic ethanol in hype was biofuel produced from algae.

It is true that some species of algae produce oils that can be converted into fuel. It is also true that crude oil originated from algae and plankton that lived millions of years ago, died, sunk to the bottom of the ocean, and were ultimately converted into oil.

So the notion of converting algae into fuel isn’t far-fetched. However, executing this process in real time is quite expensive.

Here is an analogy that I have used to explain the problem. Shred up a newspaper and then put that into a bucket of water. The newspaper represents fuel. Obviously, it’s useless as it is, so all the water has to be removed it and the newspaper must be dried.

If you had to do this on a continuous basis at a large scale, the reason for the high costs becomes obvious. Just the act of removing the water is energy-intensive, but then the oil must be removed from the algae, and it must be converted into fuel.

But that didn’t stop companies from claiming they could do it economically, and seeking (and receiving) government funds to do so. One by one these companies went out of business. Last year, Greentech Media published an extensive list of these companies, some of which claimed “an acre of algae could yield 5,000 to 10,000 gallons of oil a year.”