Study shows marine algae is suitable for biofuel production

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A study has concluded that marine algae is a viable and sustainable alternative to freshwater algae in biofuel production.

The research, conducted at the University of California at San Diego, is documented in a peer-reviewed paper published online in the current issue of Algal Research.

‘What this means is that you can use ocean water to grow the algae that will be used to produce biofuels. And once you can use ocean water, you are no longer limited by the constraints associated with fresh water. Ocean water is simply not a limited resource on this planet,’ said Stephen Mayfield, PhD, a professor of biology at UC San Diego, who headed the research project.

According to a Pacific Northwest National Laboratory report, algal fuels grown in saline water from existing aquifers and recycling nutrients would be able to provide up to twice the amount of advanced biofuels set under the US Energy Independence and Security Act, which is said to be approximately 40 billion gallons or 20 per cent of annual transportation fuel demand.

‘The results of Dr Mayfield’s research should remove concerns about the exclusive use of fresh water to scale commercial production of algae for fuel and other co-products,’ said Mary Rosenthal, executive director of the Algae Biomass Organization, a trade association for the US algae industry. ‘Although leading algae production companies are already leveraging saline aquifers and ocean water, this… paper will update the current body of research on the topic of sustainability of algae production.’

According to a statement, Dr Mayfield estimates that there are about 10 million acres of land in the US alone that are no longer suitable for traditional agriculture due to high salt content in the soil, but that could support algae production facilities.

The paper’s authors also believe their research will determine how algae grown in these environments could also be used for animal feed, stating: ‘We hope to eventually determine whether whole algae, post-oil extraction, may be used as a feed additive to improve animal feeds. Animal feed is a relatively high-volume market that may be able to benefit from algae-produced proteins as a feed additive.’

The UC San Diego biologists collaborated on the research with scientists from Sapphire Energy, an algae company that is operating a saltwater algae farm in Columbus, New Mexico, that is expected to be producing 100 barrels per day of Green Crude oil in 2013.