Biofuels and More Unintended Consequences


algae fuels image

Under the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act signed by President George W. Bush, Americans are mandated to fill their gasoline tanks with 36 billion gallons of biofuels by 2022. To further that goal, the U.S. Department of Energy just announced $78 million in grants this week for R&D on algae-based biofuels. But are such algae-based fuels "sustainable" to use that popular environmentalist buzz-word? Perhaps not. A press release reporting the results of a new study by researchers at the University of Virginia notes:

The U.Va. research, just published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, demonstrates that algae production consumes more energy, has higher greenhouse gas emissions and uses more water than other biofuel sources, such as switchgrass, canola and corn.

The researchers suggest that using wastewater from sewage plants might make fuels produced from algae more environmentally friendly. The press release continues:

"Before we make major investments in algae production, we should really know the environmental impact of this technology," Clarens said. "If we do decide to move forward with algae as a fuel source, it's important we understand the ways we can produce it with the least impact, and that's where combining production with wastewater treatment operations comes in."

As an example of the importance of completing the environmental life cycle study, Clarens points to the 2008 ethanol boom which created a spike in corn prices worldwide and raised complex ethical issues that could have been avoided by producing separate crops for food and fuel.

"People were investing in ethanol refineries, but then we realized that it takes a lot of petroleum to grow corn and convert it to ethanol," Clarens said. "By the time you get done, you've used almost as much petroleum to make ethanol that you would have if you just put the oil straight into your car.

In addition, other researchers found that producing ethanol from corn could actually increase greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions as farmers cleared more land to grow fuel crops. One such study found:

… that corn-based ethanol, instead of producing a 20% savings, nearly doubles greenhouse emissions over 30 years and increases greenhouse gases for 167 years. Biofuels from switchgrass, if grown on U.S. corn lands, increase emissions by 50%.

No matter how good your "green" intentions, you gotta watch out for those unintended consequences. See the new algae fuels study here and the corn study here.

NEXT: That Was Then, This is Reality (Obama Is The Bestest-Ever Edition, Featuring Slate's Jacob Weisberg)

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Bio Fuels are indeed the ay to go dude. I mean seriously.


    1. An-Bot has spoken! Seriously! Put aside your childish things, people, as Bio Fuels are the “ay to go”!

      1. Maybe it’s: “Gay to go.”

        Anon-Bot wants to fuck dude-algae!

    2. So true. I mean seriously.

  2. Biofuels are the perpetual-motion machine of the environmental movement. To them, it will never NOT work; all that is required is more money and stricter regulations.

  3. it’s important we understand the ways we can produce it with the least impact, and that’s where combining production with wastewater treatment operations comes in.

    Combining wastewater treatment and algae “ranching” seems self-evident, to me.

    But that doesn’t mean it will be a net positive energy output.

    1. Or cost effective.

    2. Yeah. The wastewater angle is probably the best because you can use the glycerine from the transesterfication later in the treatment process. The clearing price on transesterfied algae is about $6/gal retail (unsubsidized). Being able to sell/self-produce the glycerine lowers the clearing level, but still.. It just ain’t there.

      I think co-locating power/waste treatment and growing algae can be done for a profit, but this is a great strategy for China and India. In the US it makes no sense because there is so much existing infrastructure.

  4. What if Congress passes a law requiring biofuels in the space program?

    We’d see some progress, then, I betcha!

    1. What if the government ate their own dog food and took care of their half of US emissions?

  5. Huh. A command economy, one-size-fits-all, eco-fuzzy-warm political decision is completely wrong and off target.


  6. These aren’t unintended consequences, by the way. The enviro-retards who think this will save the earth don’t actually give a rat’s ass about results, they just want to be able to say they “did something”, and the corn producers are thrilled that their product just got mandated to be more valuable. All consequences intended.

    1. “People were investing in ethanol refineries, but then we realized that it takes a lot of petroleum to grow corn and convert it to ethanol,” Clarens said. “By the time you get done, you’ve used almost as much petroleum to make ethanol that you would have if you just put the oil straight into your car.”

      Hehehehe, gotta love those corn and biofuel subsidies; raising the price of food crop as well as bio-fuel crop and creating more supposed greenhouse gases than if just left alone.

      All this bio-fuel stuff appears to be little more than producing gold via cyclotron: yes, it’s pure and has intrinsic value, but the cost to produce the gold is far exceeds the value of the gold produced.

    2. The intended consequence you forgot was the total destruction of the American economy.

  7. Wow this is the craziest thing I have ever seen dude!


    1. I still hate you with every inch of my body Butters Anon Bot.

    2. You know what’s the craziest thing I have ever seen dude lol? Anonydouche posting twice in one thread. Someone get his iPhone away from him.

  8. Given what we know about algae production pilot projects over the past 10 to 15 years, we’ve found that algae’s environmental footprint is larger than other terrestrial crops,

    (em added)

    Algae, which are grown in water, don’t compete with food crops grown on land and also tend to have higher energy yields than sources such as corn or switchgrass. Additionally, algae’s high lipid content makes for efficient refinement to liquid fuels that could be used to power vehicles, according to the research.

    It’s hard to tell – is the UVA study using algae production pilot projects that are entirely in the ocean or those that use vats on land?

    1. Not aware of any actual ocean cultivations. The problem is that in a layer of algae you only get about 2″ of light penetration. So it’s all about surface area. I’ve seen 3 or 4 different ways of trying to get more bang for the buck by going vertical. Then you have much greater pumping duties. But you still have to clear a lot of land and use a lot of plastic for industrial scale cultivation.

    2. Yeah, it’s not ocean per se, but this pilot project was to use saltwater ponds from what I can tell http://the.honoluluadvertiser……/?print=on

  9. Ron
    Some of your commenters seem unaware that the cooler algal biofuel processes don’t depend on photosynthesis.

    They instead feed the cells sugars from cane , switchgrass, whatever , in the dark, and rely on clever genomics to achieve rapid conversion into oily biomass instead of photosynthetic roughage of the sort sunlight driven growth provides .

    As you know, I’ve written on the folly of trying to grow gasoline on food producing land, but this tech is different enough to deserve another story.

    1. Hi Russell: Yes. I met the head of Solazyme in Copenhagen and have been thinking about writing a story on just this topic — basically feeding microbes in the dark to make them fat and then harvesting them for oils.

      1. What about Microbial Rights??? Does PETA know about this?

      2. basically feeding microbes in the dark to make them fat and then harvesting them for oils.

        One step away from The Matrix, I tells ya.

  10. Your fascist Microbial Holocaust will not stand, man!

  11. trying to grow gasoline on food producing land

    Terrible idea. That’s why we can grow algae in areas that have become salinated, deserts, etc. Places food can’t grow.

    Here’s a question: Suppose we want to use a section of desert for solar power production. Which is more economical, a solar PV farm, or an algae bio reactor farm? (frankly, the answer may be neither. solar thermal concentration might be more economical.)

    Silicon PV is not a solution. Making semi-grade silicon is just too damned energy intensive. Yeah, bio reactors may take alot of plastic and pumps, but it might just work out cheaper. If your goal is to use some solar power.

    Nothing can replace fossil fuels. They have the advantage of being made long before we needed them, and they can be extracted 12 orders of magnitude faster than they were made.

    No renewable tech will ever be able to beat that advantage. And no renewable tech will be applicable in every area.

    So, nuclear will form the backbone, with renewable being used wherever it’s economical enough. And there’s plenty of those places.

  12. Forgot about water usage in an algae plant: wouldn’t it be recycled? The bioreactors would be a closed system, so seems like the only export would be leaks and the algae. And you can put the water from the algae back into the system after you press them for oil.

    So, how exactly does that compare to traditional terrestrial crops?

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.