Algae Biofuels – The Hype, the Hope, the Promise

A typical raceway pond, National Renewable Energy LaboratoryThe Algae Biofuels World Summit concluded this week in San Francisco. I was on-hand and on assignment for Triple Pundit Monday at the day long pre-conference briefing featuring leaders in research, government, and business involved in pushing the infant industry toward commercial-scale production.

It was a sobering day for me, as it became clear that much of what is bandied about on blogs and in the mainstream media (to the extent algal biofuel research gets any coverage in the mainstream media) is wild-eyed optimism and pure hype. No, you can produce 15,000 gallons of algae biofuel per acre per year; no, algae biofuel will not replace oil all by itself – and the list goes on.

The plain reality is that producing algae biofuel at a commercial scale is not a given, it will not be cheap or easy, and a lot more R&D needs to be done before any real hope of algae biofuel being more than an experimental or “boutique” fuel is realized.

Wow, I’m a bit of a downer today, aren’t I? Not really, any successful path to grasping the true potential of algae biofuel rests in a clear-headed assessment of the challenges ahead. To be sure they are several and significant, but just as sure, it is worth it, if done right.

That’s what the Algae Biofuels Summit was all about, and my peek at the briefing on Monday laid out the hype, the hope, and the promise of algae biofuel, as seen by the men and women working every day on the problem.

For a full rundown of the key points from the briefing, check out my post on TriplePundit

“…engineering studies do not conclude that we can or will actually be able to produce algal oil/biodiesel. They conclude that the R&D to develop such processes can be justified, at least until it can be demonstrated to be impossible” Dr. John Benemann, Benemann Associates

Thomas Schueneman
Thomas Schueneman
Tom is the founder and managing editor of and the PlanetWatch Group. His work appears in Triple Pundit, Slate, Cleantechnia, Planetsave, Earth911, and several other sustainability-focused publications. Tom is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

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  1. There is much promise in a field paved by people who were underfunded, underappreciated, in the wrong place at the wrong time. They will all admit it can be done in the lab, which is all that needs to be said.

    Take any developing field and look back 15 years and you will find achievement of the impossible; the rarity is to predict specifics moving forward. In 1956 you could have asked the 100 top scientists or scientific organizations worldwide to predict what prerecorded audio technology would be like in 1986 and none would have predicted an integrated circuit with a laser diode to read 8 billion pits molded into a clear plastic disc. The gas laser was not invented until 1959 nor was the IC. Give up hope if you want, but anyone experienced in technology development knows algae is a once every 50 year boom waiting to explode with opportunity.

    My prediction is that algae as a centerpiece of a bio-economy will deliver more economic activity then the computer did in its first 50 years of commercial availability, because algae will be used as fuels, plastics, foods, feeds, nutraceuticals, pharmaceuticals, and other advanced materials or chemicals. Also do not forget our population is expected to increase another 3 billion people in 40 years while other non-renewable resources dwindle. We must succeed and we will.


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