Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

The Downside of Using Algae as a Biofuel

Photo by Mose Buchele

UT Research Engineer Robert Pearsal looks into a vat of algae.

It seems like everyone’s talking pond scum these days.

This year, people ranging from the President of the United States to this humble reporter, have spoken of algae’s potential in creating a carbon neutral biofuel. A recent study from the University of Texas showed how the tiny organisms could create 500 times more energy than they take to grow.  And the promise of the slimy green stuff is made even more enticing by the fact that it consumes carbon dioxide, sewage, and fertilizer run-off. It could, theoretically, clean the planet even as becomes a new source of fuel.

Now comes the downside.

A report by the National Academies of Science has identified major road blocks to the widespread development of algal biofuel. Chief among them is water use, says Paul Zimba Director for the Center of Coastal Studies at Texas A&M Corpus Christi.

Zimba took part in the study. He says “as much as 3000 liters of water” are required to produce a single liter of fuel when algae growers use open pond systems in arid environments.

“There are commercial operations, open pond system operations in the southwest primarily,” Zimba told StateImpact Texas. He says there’s a general feeling that water loss from those systems is too much “to allow the development of large scale systems hundreds of acres along this line.”

Water availability was just one of the challenges to widespread algae cultivation outlined in the report. Others include finding space for large growing operations, and competition for fertilizer.

“There will be a competitive demand for fertilizers that could affect food production in terms of being competitive cost-wise for their fertilizer products,” he said.  

Nonetheless, Zimba believes that algae holds promise as a fuel, and scientists are working on ways to avoid the pitfalls illustrated in the report.

They suggest or using sewage or agricultural runoff to cultivate algae. And when it comes to water, there’s a lot of research being done into saltwater or brackish water cultivation.


  • buckfush

    This is ridiculous. The downside is algae takes a lot of water, but algae can grow in salt water? So what’s the downside? This planet has several oceans full of Salt water. It’s just a transportation issue. Someday we will depend on Algae to fuel our economy. Maybe 10 years from now, maybe 50 years… How we do this has yet to be engineered. Its not an insurmountable problem.

    • Mose Buchele

      Hi Buckfush, I don’t think the aim of the report was to show that algal biofuels have “insurmountable problems.” Just to highlight some challenges to widespread roll out of the technology and highlight potential solutions.

  • anonymous

    Every open-pond has daily contamination issues and very low production levels. The emerging algae industry moved away from raceway ponds over 6 years ago to vertical enclosed growing systems which have much greater production levels, recycle majority of water used and without most of the contamination issues. Even companies that have designed, built and supplied equipment to raceway ponds over the years admit that ponds are riddled with problems; some have even filed their own patents on vertical enclosed growing systems right after building raceway ponds.

    • Biofuel Researcher

      What are these vertical enclosed system?

  • David A. Puchta

    Ponds and glass tubes are stupid and out of reach of the average person to enjoy the benefits of algae oil.

  • sirhic

    take the natural gas and run generators along the freeways (toronto to windsor,) cap all co2 emiisions to produce bio, these generators supply voltage to charging bars along the freeway in which your vehicle gets direct power which can charge your storage batteries plus power to cruise at 160kl with the new communication technol. All polutions removed. Natural gas is avail accross the planet. many generators, the Canada Arm to connect to the power and communication for full saftey between vehicles and related billing. Hydro don’t read your metor by foot anymore. Cars run at safe high speeds to move rush hour traffic and all pollution is captured and recycled for various uses.

    • jd

      There’s no such thing as no pollution when it comes to batteries. They create more pollution problems than fossil fuels themselves. Besides that fact we aren’t even in a man made global warming. We have all of these trumped up theories created by scientists who leave out important information. And also how many years of temperature data do we have.. 200? This planet is 6 billion years old. We’ve had an ice age and 3 periods of jungle climate with dinosaurs. Those are two extremes created by this planet when fossil fuels and humans didn’t exist. We simply do not have enough data on temperature or “truthful” understanding of our atmosphere to conclude that the human race is causing the world to artificially heat up.

      • Vincent

        The problem isn’t that we are creating the world to heat up– you are correct, it happens naturally— what doesn’t happen naturally is the speed of which we have accelerated it to.

        These ice ages, and– for lack of better term– fire ages happened over millions of years… not a few centuries. That’s the problem.

  • Michele

    Why would you produce it in arid regions? Naturally you would want the production leaders to be in areas that naturally facilitate growth? Also, many natural agricultural runoffs create algal blooms so I want to know more about why they think this operation would create demand for something already in surplus in some places?

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