Congress has extended a tax credit for biodiesel producers through the end of 2013. And for the first time, advanced biofuels produced from algae and cyanobacteria are eligible for the credit.
A recent study from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland suggested that algae biofuels could one day replace 17 percent of the oil the U.S. imports for transportation.
Algae takes in sunlight and carbon dioxide and produces lipids, or oils. Those oils can be used to make biodiesel and jet fuel. Proponents say algae produces significantly more oil per acre than biodisel crops like corn or canola, and Bill Gates and Boeing have both invested in algae biofuel research.
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Last year, EarthFix’s Ashley Ahearn visited Matrix Genetics, a Seattle biotech firm that’s trying genetically modify blue-green algae to be obese, and produce more oils. Read about it here.
Matrix CEO Margaret McCormick says in the past, the advanced biofuel tax credit has been limited to fuel produced from cellulose, a plant fiber found in trees and grasses. Qualifying for the credit makes algae competitive with other biofuel feedstock.
“So this basically levels the playing field, it allows us to compete on our technology and our cost, and not at the disadvantage of not qualifying for these credits,” says McCormick, whose company is based in Seattle.
McCormick says that her ultimate goal is for algae biofuels to be competitive with petroleum without any subsidies or tax credits, but that it will take years to develop technology and scale the industry up.
Here are are excerpts from our conversation with McCormick:
McCormick: Interestingly enough, if you look at the history of our petroleum reserves, billions of years ago, that was cyanobacteria or blue green algae that over time was morphed into the petroleum. In essence, by going back to algae, we’re just going back to where we started from billions of years ago.
EarthFix: That’s really cool. I hadn’t thought about that. It’s actually a bunch of cyanobacteria that transformed over time that gave us good old-fashioned crude oil.
McCormick: Correct. Cyanobacteria gave us good old-fashioned crude oil. And more importantly, it gave us the oxygen atmosphere that we all breathe and enjoy. Prior to that, it was much higher CO2 based atmosphere. […]I’m a bacteria nut myself, and if you think about all the different transformative processes bacteria bring to life, the power of the single celled organism is huge and has an impact on us that we don’t even think about.>
The Northwest isn’t an ideal place for algae biofuel production, because there isn’t enough consistent sun. But many northwest companies and universities are involved in algae biofuel research and pilot projects, including an effort to use algae to reduce CO2 emissions at PGE’s Boardman coal plant.
EarthFix: So why do you think algae could potentially be a serious fuel source?
McCormick: The reason why algae is so interesting as a potential fuel source is that the productivity per acre is so much higher than any other type of terrestrial feedstock. If you look at something like corn or canola or soybean, on average those crops are able to produce 50 to 100 gallons per acre. The potential for algae is closer to 4,000 to 6,000 gallons per acre. To be honest, most companies aren’t there yet. But it’s because you can get a hundred-fold productivity increase per acre that it becomes interesting to pursue algae to be an important part of the feedstock portfolio.
I think it’s a mistake to think that algae will replace all petroleum or will be the only feedstock that will replace petroleum. I think it’s a portfolio approach. Algae grow really well in some areas, using Co2 and sunlight, and you could use brackish water, not fresh water. There are some really compelling arguments as to why algae should be thought of as a key element of our alternative fuel strategy. There’s other areas where other feedstocks could be grown, where algae is less suitable. >