DF Cast: Researchers, Advocates Clash on Algae Biodiesel Feasibility

John Davis

Some researchers say that, at current production levels, algae biodiesel is not a commercially viable product. But some algae advocates believe researchers might have some ulterior motives for coming to that conclusion.

One of the study’s authors, Dr. Peter Pfromm, a professor in Kansas State University’s department of chemical engineering, says that while they found that it’s possible to produce enough biodiesel to make it a net energy gain over the amount of energy that goes into the green fuel’s production, it won’t make money. In fact, he says the algae would have to produce perhaps three times the amount of oil it currently does in order for algae-for-biodiesel production to be economically feasible, and it would take a pond 11 square kilometers big just to grow enough algae for the green fuel to replace just .1 percent of this nation’s diesel use. Pfromm says the real work needs to go into boosting the level of oil output from the algae.

But But Barry Cohen, the executive director of the advocacy group, the National Algae Association, says Pfromm is not looking at real-world conditions, and Cohen says Pfromm’s assumption that the algae would be grown in open ponds is an old, out-dated technology, and most algae growers are using vertical photo bioreactors and fermenters. He also contends that algae researchers have a financial reason for not seeing algae commercialized as the U.S. Department of Energy is only funding research, not production, done on algae-biodiesel. He says that if researchers ever found a way to make algae-biodiesel commercially viable, that federal money for the research would dry up.

Pfromm says they received no outside money, especially no DOE money, for this project.

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