Biofuel production from algae unsustainable: another already-known fact re-discovered

28 October 2012

The USA’s National Research Council has concluded that the production of ‘biofuels’ from algae is an energy-sucking, unsustainable option, much like devoting crops that could be used as food sources, for the same purpose.

Biofuels made from algae, promoted by President Barack Obama as a possible way to help wean Americans off foreign oil, cannot be made now on a large scale without using unsustainable amounts of energy, water and fertiliser, the US National Research Council reported on Wednesday.

Several companies are already making fuels derived from algae and cyanobacteria – mostly for the military – but in tiny quantities. With hopes of scaling up, the U.S. Department of Energy called on the group of experts to investigate the sustainability issues that might arise if production grew to meet 5 percent of U.S. transportation fuel needs.

It turns out there would be plenty of issues. In a statement that accompanied the report’s release, the National Academies summarized them:

The committee pointed out several high-level concerns for large-scale development of algal biofuel, including the relatively large quantity of water required for algae cultivation; magnitude of nutrients, such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and CO2, needed for cultivation; amount of land area necessary to contain the ponds that grow the algae; and uncertainties in greenhouse gas emissions over the production life cycle.  Moreover, the algal biofuel energy return on investment would have to be high, meaning more energy would have to be produced from the biofuels than what is required to cultivate algae and convert them to fuels.

Bottom line is that if you have put in more energy than you can get out, you are not going to get very far – at least not insofar as meeting the demands of the often oxymoronic “sustainable development” are concerned.  The debate about algae as a fuel source has been around for a long time – which is why I was so surprised that it has been pursued again with so much vigour during the past couple of years.  I am not sure that we have time or money for re-invention of wheels.

Fish consumed from some 15 Arizona lakes, including Lake Powell should come with a health tag:  their mercury levels are a tad on the high side.

The public should avoid eating too many striped bass out of southern Lake Powell, state agencies warned this week, because of possible exposure to toxic mercury that could affect the nervous system and brain.

They recommend no more than 4 ounces of striped bass per month for pregnant women and children younger than 6, no more than two 8-ounce meals of bass per month for women who could become pregnant and kids ages 6 to 16, and no more than eight 8-ounce meals for all other adults.

This makes 15 Arizona lakes — including Upper and Lower Lake Mary — where people are advised to limit fish consumption due to mercury.

There are still some algal blooms hanging around in the US:

Pass Lake (Skagit Country, WA); Black Lake (WA) and Not-so-Clear Lake  (WA).  In Kansas, Logan City Lake is still under a warning, while the following lakes are still subject to advisories: Harvey County East Park Lake, Harvey County; Hiawatha Lake, Brown County; McPherson County State Fishing Lake, McPherson County and Memorial/Veterans Lake – Great Bend, Barton County (Downgraded from Warning)

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