Thursday, October 25, 2012

Now Is Not The Time To Give Up On Algal Biofuels

Click for Photo Credit
The National Research Council (NRC) just published a report on the sustainability of biofuels and their conclusions are mixed.  Using the current technology, biofuels are not particularly sustainable due to issues of water and energy use.  However, the report highlights that the technology around biofuels is just emerging and that there is strong potential for biofuel production in the future.  In addition, the report notes that there are particular areas where industrial-scale biofuels may be particularly suitable.  It doesn't make sense, for instance, to develop biofuels in areas where there is high aridity.  It makes more sense to develop the fuel where there is an abundance of water and nutrients.  You can download the report here.  You have to go through some registration silliness on the NRC website in order to get the report after searching for it using the report's name:  Sustainable Development of Biofuels.

I became quite familiar with some of the algae biofuels research taking place in Florida due to the extensive Florida Energy Systems Consortium.  I was on the advisory group for the USF team that was looking at a variety of research issues related to energy.  Even though the report from the NRC is not very positive about the scale up potential for algal fuels using the current technology, they are very positive about the potential for the fuel with improvements.   I believe that there is a great deal of potential for biofuels in places like Florida with an abundance of water, wastewater, and warm weather.  I think there is tremendous opportunity to turn nutrient-rich wastewater into a medium for algae growth and thus some type of algal fuel.  The technology around algae biofuels is just emerging and will improve with time.

I am reminded of the struggle to build the United States' largest desalination plant on Tampa Bay.  The plant was conceived in the mid-1990's and built in the early 2000's.  It had severe problems when it first opened.  The murky waters of Tampa Bay caused severe issues with the membranes that were used to conduct the reverse osmosis process.  It took several years and huge investments in research and technology to work out the bugs from the system.  Today, the plant produces about 10% of the region's water.

If we want to move toward alternative sources of energy, it will be a bumpy path.  The development of the petroleum-based energy infrastructure did not happen overnight.  Decades of research and development got us to the present time.  It will take hard work and research if we are to develop algal biofuels as part of an integrated system of alternative sustainable energy sources.  I wouldn't use the NRC report as a reason to stop investing in this technology.

No comments: