Obama touts algal biofuels; $14M in new R&D funding; $2.28 per gallon algal biofuels in sight?

| February 27, 2012

As President Obama highlights the role of algal biofuels in the long-term energy strategy, critics and supporters duke it out over the nearer-term prospects, as R&D spending increases.

In Washington, the Obama Administration outlined a new $14 million round of R&D grants for algal biofuels, as the US President highlighted algal biofuels in a speech at the University of Miami which focused on energy policy.

In Miami, the President said: “We’re making new investments in the development of gasoline and diesel and jet fuel that’s actually made from a plant-like substance — algae.  You’ve got a bunch of algae out here, right? If we can figure out how to make energy out of that, we’ll be doing all right. Believe it or not, we could replace up to 17 percent of the oil we import for transportation with this fuel that we can grow right here in the United States.  And that means greater energy security.  That means lower costs.  It means more jobs.  It means a stronger economy.”

$14 million for algal biofuels R&D: DOE

Through ARPA-E, the Energy Department will make $14 million available to support research and development into biofuels from algae, which it said has the potential to replace up to 17 percent of the United States’ imported oil for transportation. In addition, algae feedstocks offer additional benefits, such as an ability to be grown in ponds near industrial facilities where algae can feed off the carbon emissions from power plants or digest nitrogen and phosphorous from municipal waste water.  The Department is currently supporting more than 30 algae-based biofuels projects, representing $85 million in total investments.

Through the new funding announcement, the Department will seek proposals from small businesses, universities, and national laboratories to modify existing facilities for long-term algae research and test new production processes that could lead to commercial biofuels made from algae. Specifically, the new projects will establish and operate research “test beds” for algal biofuels that can facilitate development, test new approaches to algae production, and discover innovative ways to minimize the water and nutrients needed to mass produce algae for commercial biofuels.

This research will support the Biomass Program’s goals to model pathways for significant (>1 billion gallons per year) volumes of cost-competitive algal biofuels by 2022.

A copy of the full funding announcement can be downloaded here.

Obama’s algae program “weird”: Gingrich

In Washington, Newt Gingrich rebutted Obama’s algae program, deeming it “weird”. Gingrich has been mocking the speech since Thursday night, when he stood in front of an Idaho crowd suggesting that he should take a bottle of algae with him and “go around and we can have the Obama solution.” The Republican candidate indicated concerns that algae would end up the next Solyndra “You know the President had this magnificent solar power investment and took 500 something-million of your money, (he) visited the plant because it was the plant of the future,” Gingrich said. “I suspect in the next few weeks we’ll see him at some algae plant.”

Obama responded to critics, thus: “You know there are no quick fixes to this problem, and you know we can’t just drill our way to lower gas prices.  If we’re going to take control of our energy future and avoid these gas price spikes down the line, then we need a sustained, all-of-the-above strategy that develops every available source of American energy – oil, gas, wind, solar, nuclear, biofuels, and more.”

Smearing the sector

But CJ Ciaramella penned a scathing critique of the US Government’s algal biofuels, in an article focused on Sapphire Energy and Obama Administration support, entitled “SAPPHIRE IN THE ROUGH: $100M in federal money; 36 jobs created,” which highlighted Sapphire Energy lobbying expense and drew attention to Democratic-leaning political donations by the company and its executives.

Reversing itself, the article then pointed out that the Algae-based Renewable Fuel Promotion Act of 2010 was co-sponsored by Republican House member Brian Bilbray, whose district encompasses the algae-tech corridor in San Diego, a bill which was passed in the House but stalled in there Democratic-controlled Senate.

The article has been getting some forwarding attention within the algal biofuels community.

$2.28 per gallon algal biofuels?

Also in California, OriginOil announced a new company study indicating a potential production cost as low as $2.28/gallon ($0.60/Liter) for gasoline or diesel using a blend of algae and waste feedstocks, using the latest growth, harvesting and fuel conversion technologies from OriginOil and other innovators. OriginOil’s comprehensive model analyzes the entire algae production process at scale, integrating the latest advances in growth, harvesting and fuel conversion.

In the lowest-cost scenario, algae harvested using OriginOil’s Algae Appliance is blended with waste feedstocks and converted onsite to achieve a modeled production cost of $2.28 per gallon for gasoline or diesel. This cost roughly doubles to $5.44/gallon ($1.44/Liter) when using pure algae feedstocks. The model assumes a production footprint of at least 50 hectares (124 acres).

Can lowest-cost biofuels even qualify as renewable fuels?

A friend of the Digest writes: One topic worth discussion as the USDA’s BioPreferred [and other programs] are rolled out is the use of fossil carbon. For example, the use of waste CO2. What if the CO2 comes from a coal burning power plant? This is a great use of the CO2, perhaps better than sequestering it underground, but would the resulting succinate be biopreferred? What if a company like Proterro makes sugar from coal plant CO2?  Can that sugar be used for biobased materials?  My concern is that the program may hinder the types of novel innovation we need to creatively and effectively deal with waste CO2 and to have options other that sequestration.”

Continue the discussion forward

The Digest has re-ignited its commentary section, here at Biofuels Digest: The Community.

Many of you will recall that the Digest maintained a lively comments section for its articles for a long time. So many spam comments were coming in – as much as 5% of the entire size of the Digest article database, in a matter of a few hours, that it was crashing the website, forcing us to shut down the Comments section.

We’ve re-established a commentary section here, where you can respond to articles, start your own commentary threads, and interact directly with other members of the Digest community. Right now, there are threads on “Waste CO2, should it count?”; the Renewable Fuel Standard; the Cleantech Conservative, and new ideas for financing aviation biofuels.

More will appear every day, in the Biofuels Digest Community, your Community.



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