2 Simple Reasons for 1 Major Absence

The 2011 U.S. DOE’s Billion Ton Study left out algae—here’s why
| September 20, 2011

When the U.S. DOE released the updated version of the Billion Ton Study, the algae world had reason to be alarmed. The 2011 version, like the first version released in 2005, provides a detailed analysis of the potential biomass available for bioenergy use throughout the U.S., and most importantly to algal biomass developers, the report did not include algal biomass as a viable option for biomass utilization. A source at DOE said that although algal biomass met most of the original criteria created for the 2005 study, “it did not meet this new criterion.” The new criteria, in part, were based on a county-level study of available biomass. For algal biomass, the source says, “there was insufficient information and data to estimate and project the availability of algal feedstocks at a county scale with any degree of accuracy.”

Unlike the existing millions of metric tons of agricultural residues and woody biomass, the source says very little algae is being produced today at a commercial level. “As a result, actual field data on the productivity for a variety of different possible algae strains is not available,” the source tells Biorefining Magazine. “But that doesn’t mean the DOE believes algae isn’t worth the effort.”

The DOE Biomass Program is funding an initial strategic national assessment of the resource potential of algae grown for biofuels, although the source says this set of studies will require additional work as agronomic data for the productivity of different algal strains under different climate and cultivation system environments are developed. “This data will be complex as productivity will need to be evaluated under different daily and seasonal temperatures and solar resource regimes,” adding, “the aquatic algal cultivation and processing systems are still being designed, which may further add or subtract from current productivity estimates.”

The study will be based, or at least start, on a Pacific Northwest National Laboratory study conducted earlier this year by Mark Wigmosta and his team at PNNL. The study indicates that the U.S. potential for algae used for renewable fuels is in the several billion gallons range. The combination of results from the PNNL study and the early work done by the DOE, while encouraging, are in the early stages, with more work needed before “there is enough credible public data to consider algal biomass grown for biofuels to the same level of detail as lignocellulosic feedstock in the Billion Ton Update.”

Of course, many algae developers may argue that at some level algae biomass is available (on a small scale), but regardless, the recent biomass update appears to show two things. One, the devil, in this case, really is in the details and lack of detailed data available at the county level. And two, the algae industry simply needs to produce more biomass to avoid skirting the line of being in, or being out. 

—Luke Geiver