Stop trying to make algae biofuels happen

Hundreds of millions have been wasted on doomed algae efforts. The latest venture is unlikely to succeed where others have failed, Canary’s resident skeptic argues.

The algae biotechnology center at the Anhalt University of Applied Sciences in Germany (Jan Woitas/Picture Alliance via Getty Images)
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I don’t have time to refute every error-ridden energy story in the news (see Brandolini’s law), but I’ll make an exception for this credulous and confused Bloomberg article on a misguided new venture that aims to use algae to produce biofuels and other products. The article reports:

Oil refiner Eneos Holdings Inc. and Honda Motor Co. are among a group of more than 35 Japanese companies and institutions that have banded together to try to tap the potential of microalgae to help replace fossil fuels and to provide an array of food and consumer goods products. […]

While most projects are focused on food and cosmetic ingredients, the big prize is to find a cost-effective way to make auto and jet fuel.

Eneos, which has been working on bio-jet fuel for more than 15 years, aims to begin commercial production of algae-based biofuel once [the proposed plant] starts operation in 2025

Everyone involved in this initiative seems to have forgotten the Great Algae Biofuel Bubble. From 2005 to 2012, venture capitalists poured hundreds of millions of dollars into dozens of companies that were attempting to make fuel from algae. 

In 2009, one shameless booster projected what was possibly history’s least accurate market forecast, estimating that algal biofuel capacity would reach 1 billion gallons by 2014. Now, in 2022, we can look back and see that approximately zero gallons of algae fuel oil have been produced at anything close to competitive pricing.

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Algae farming has never been shown to be an economically viable solution to transportation fuels. Scores of algae biofuel companies have gone bankrupt or tried to pivot to higher-value products; here’s a 2017 list of two dozen of them.

Food vs. fuel

The Bloomberg article conflates producing algae for food and nutraceutical use with the fool’s errand of extracting oil from algae for transportation fuel applications. The new initiative being reported on supposedly intends to serve both markets, but the two are radically different and have wildly divergent pricing requirements. 

The article alleges that the proposed algae farm would use carbon dioxide from a thermal power plant to feed the algae and produce 140,000 tons of microalgae a year. This claim is unencumbered by evidence or fidelity to basic mathematics. It parrots the failed promises made during the Great Algae Biofuel Bubble a decade ago.

Algae products in the food, feed, fuel and chemical sectors could have a combined annual market of $320 billion in 2030,” the article states, citing 2019 report from the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.

That forecast suggests a market growth of 65× over 10 years and rivals even the 2009 billion-gallon forecast for the sheer audacity of its magical thinking.

Honda admits it is in the research stage for possible uses for algae but still engages in fantasist claims: We are mainly expecting to use algae as a fuel for aviation, which is hard to electrify, as well as resin autoparts,” the company said in an email, according to Bloomberg.

The promise of algae

The promise of algae is tantalizing. Some algal species contain up to 40 percent lipids by weight, a figure that could be boosted through selective breeding and genetic modification. That lipid content can be converted into diesel, synthetic petroleum, butanol or industrial chemicals.

But can algae be economically cultivated and commercially scaled to make a material contribution to humanity’s liquid fuel needs? Once you factor in the high capital expenditures, water availability, energy balance, algae’s pickiness about light and CO2, and the work required to grow, collect and dry the algae, the answer is an emphatic no.

ExxonMobil, which got some greenwashing mileage out of its 2009 algae oil joint venture with Craig Venter’s Synthetic Genomics, retreated from this nonsense after squandering $100 million on it over four years. In 2013, then–ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson said that its algae fuel venture was probably further” than 25 years away from commercial viability.

Even Vinod Khosla, a profligate investor in alternate biofuel pathways in the olden days, said in 2011 that he couldn’t justify an investment in algae fuel sources.

Putting today’s 22 percent efficient solar panels on the same parcel of land as impractical algae ponds would yield more energy as electricity than the theoretical maximum yield of algae as biodiesel. 

We certainly need an all-of-the-above strategy to tackle climate change, but that shouldn’t include all-of-the-above-ideas-that-have-already-been-disproven. (See Julian Spector’s take on the return of the tech that didn’t work 10 years ago.)

Eric Wesoff is the editorial director at Canary Media.