Standards for a New Industry
Today, the biofuels and biomass industries face more scrutiny than fossil industries ever did. For better or for worse, we can expect a constant stream of research about various new technologies and their impacts on water, greenhouse gases, land use and other important issues.
Nobody asked these questions when the first oil wells were being drilled. Even today, as new wells are drilled in locations from the deep oceans to the field next door, fossil-based fuels are exempt from the high bars set for renewable fuels.
Like it or not, that’s the way it is. That's why we must equip ourselves with tools that can offer standardized and honest comparisons of the benefits and impacts of various technologies, even within industries.
The Algae Biomass Organization recently released “Industrial Algae Measurements, Version 6.0,” a significant update to common standards, established by ABO members, which measures and compares algae industry operations across almost any technical approach, regardless of size or outputs. The document is the result of the hard work, foresight and expertise of the ABO’s Technical Standards Committee and dozens of industry experts.
All algae operators should consider how the IAM methodologies apply to their systems. These include heterotrophic, autotrophic, open pond, photobioreactor and open water algae production, as well as harvest and conversion processes. The IAM considers inputs such as the carbon, water, energy and nutrients required by algae cultivation, as well as land requirements, process consumables and labor. Outputs measured by the standards include the different classes of algal products as well as industrial waste emissions such as gas, liquid, and solid discharges.
To maintain comparable results, IAM establishes a "green box" approach that measures inputs and outputs as they pass through analytical boundaries that can be established for almost any algae farm, fermentation facility, or even separate components of a biorefinery.
These measurements systemically allow for techno-economic analyses and sustainability calculations. Identifying this total footprint will become increasingly central in the funding, regulatory and sustainability review of an expanding algae industry, and will ultimately come to define the commercial viability of specific ventures.
Those in the industry know the most recent examinations of algae production systems have been enormously positive. For land use, algae have already been shown to grow successfully on marginal lands at yields far above other crops (exceeding 5,000 gallons of oil per year). Using saltwater as a growing medium means a robust algae industry won't pressure our freshwater supplies. Fuel from algae has been shown to reduce CO2 by 68 percent or more in comparison to fossil fuels.
Recently, a team at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory showed that with existing technology, microalgae could generate a volume of fuel equivalent to 48 percent of current U.S. petroleum imports for transportation.
Remember, these encouraging analyses are based on existing technology. ABO members know they will quickly outpace the capabilities of today's technology, and many undoubtedly have already done so. You will likely hear about those advances at the Algae Biomass Summit, taking place Sept. 29-Oct. 2 in San Diego.
Standard measurements are vital to keeping momentum in today's business environment. All algae operators should be examining their systems with the IAM methodology. As scrutiny of biomass technologies increases, they will be glad they did.
Author: Margaret McCormick
Chair of Board of Directors, Algae Biomass Organization