Current Status of Bio-diesel from Algae: “Your Fishtank is Not a Goldmine.”

Michael Giberson

Reporting from the National Biodiesel Conference this week in San Fransisco, Michael Kanellos writes:

You can grow algae with carbon dioxide and sunlight, but that doesn’t mean it’s free.

Although many believe that algae will become one of the chief feedstocks for diesel and even hydrocarbon-like fuels, growing large amounts of algae and then converting the single-celled creatures remains expensive, said experts at the National Biodiesel Conference taking place in San Francisco on Tuesday.

Algae biofuel startup Solix, for instance, can produce biofuel from algae right now, but it costs about $32.81 a gallon, said Bryan Wilson, a co-founder of the company and a professor at Colorado State University.

Various refinements in the production process are projected to reduce the cost to about $3.50 a gallon, but as the article observes, that is still the equivalent of $150 a barrel of oil.  Or, as the story subtitle has it, “Drying, breeding and growing algae – particularly in large quantities – isn’t there yet, which means your fishtank is not a gold mine.”

While many biodiesel analysts see algae at the ultimate base for generating large quantities of biofuel, at least until the technological wrinkles are worked out, other feedstocks are also being pursued.  From Texas Tech University (where I teach), plant science professor Dick Auld was promoting use of castor at the biodiesel conference.

Closer to home, last night at the Tech Renewable Energy Society meeting chemical engineering professor Nazmul Karim discussed his research on cellulosic ethanol, which promises ways to reduce costs and increase productivity.  (Algae biofuel researchers take note: Karim has an opening for a post doc in his research group to work on algae issues.)