If you want a comprehensive snapshot of the state of algae biofuel development you may want to read a 178-report put out by the Energy Biosciences Institute in California. RenewableEnergyWorld.com hits the key findings in this article, but the general observation is that the market is in “early gestation” and there’s at least a decade to go before algae biofuels — specifically, those based on algae oils — achieve the production economics that make them competitive with conventional fuels. “It is clear from this report that algae oil production will be neither quick nor plentiful — 10 years is a reasonable projection for the R&D to allow the conclusion about the ability to achieve relatively low-cost algae biomass and oil production, at least for specific locations,” according to the report, which also goes far in separating hype from reality. “Despite the scores, if not over 100, companies in the U.S., and more abroad, now in this field, there are as yet (mid-2010) no pilot plants (> 100 mt algae biomass/yr) for autotrophic algae biofuels production operating in the U.S. or elsewhere… The total output from all experimental facilities over the past year was only a few tons of biomass and less than 100 gallons of actual algae oil, if that much.”
I should point out that the report specifically excludes analysis of algae-to-ethanol production, such as that being pursued by Algenol, which says it is only a few years away from commercial-scale deployment.
Overall, I found the report to be a bit of a downer. “The availability of the resources required for microalgae production — land, climate, water, and, perhaps most critically, carbon dioxide — at the same site, will likely limit the U.S. potential for algae oil production to less than a few billion gallons annually. While minor compared to total U.S. transportation fuels consumption (about 200 billion gallons per year), renewable algae oil could be a major contributor to biofuel resources, particularly in specific markets, such as aviation fuel.” I agree on the last part with regards to jet fuel, but I’m a bit more optimistic on the overall market impact. The good news is that 10 years isn’t such a long time to wait, unless you’re a VC firm waiting to cash out.