The Future of Biofuel Isn’t Corn—It’s Algae

Source: By Ian Graber-Stiehl, Pacific Standard • Posted: Friday, July 15, 2016

When they hear “biofuel,” people tend to assume you’re talking about corn. That makes sense, given that corn is anticipated to provide 80 percent of this year’s ethanol production — much more, say, than algae — until we consider a few numbers.

By all accounts, microalgae is less land-intensive than corn production, and although it can pull double duty, providing high-quality feed for fish farms, it doesn’t compete with food crops. Furthermore, even by by the largely pro-corn Renewable Fuel Association’s water-consumption standards, corn ethanol is a thirsty fuel: Drinking 2.8 gallons of water for every gallon of fuel refined, corn is often outclassed in efficiency by algae-based fuels.

Algae biofuel frontrunner Algenol, for example, converts plentiful saltwater into biofuel with yields nearly 17 times higher than those of corn, while producing 1.4 gallons of fresh water per every gallon of fuel produced. But simple consumption comparisons between corn and aquatic fuels are often apples-to-oranges affairs at best. Much like the RFA’s figure, which ignores that growing an ethanol-gallon’s worth of corn costs 1,145 gallons of water, these facile metrics often miss something fundamental: Corn biofuel production consumes land, fertilizers, and water, whereas algae biofuel production can filter water, recycle runoff, and ameliorate emissions.

John Decicco, a research professor at the University of Michigan Energy Institute, has debunked this specious appraisal of corn perhaps better than anyone else. In his testimonies before two separate House of Representatives committees, Decicco notes that the change in emissions in choosing corn ethanol over gas was “insignificant at best,” and sometimes up to 70 percent worse. This deficiency is largely thanks to the chemical breakdown of agricultural fertilizers trapped in soil, and the energy-intensive filtering of those that become runoff.

Corn biofuel production consumes land, fertilizers, and water, whereas algae biofuel production can filter water, recycle runoff, and ameliorate emissions.

And therein lies a fundamental difference between corn and aquatic biofuel platforms. Looking only at the former, you’d walk away with the impression that biofuel must consume extravagant resources for, at best, a mediocre improvement over gas. When you look at the latter — systems like those designed by Cal Poly or Algae Systems LLC — you see how industrial pollution, CO2, and runoff-laden wastewater can be recycled into fuel and new fertilizer.

But if aquatic fuels are really such a comparatively comprehensive solution, why are we still so obsessed with corny biofuels?

The old argument would be that aquatic fuels aren’t yet commercially ready, that costs and yields simply aren’t there yet. But with the DoE doubling down on grants for competition-ready aquatic fuels, that story no longer holds up. Simply put, when faced with a burgeoning rank of algae-based platforms boasting well-tested estimate yields up to 2.8 times that of corn, and 32 to 70 percent fewer emissions than gas, corn looks increasingly weak.

And microalgae is far from the only aquatic flora, against which corn seems like a one-trick pony.

Macroalgae, or kelp, is a marine biofuel source promising some benefits that outstrip even its single-celled cousin. Unlike terrestrial corn monocultures, kelp — cultivated or otherwise — rows into aquatic forests. In essence, the kelp farms that would fuel a marine biofuel industry, would also form the foundation of a functioning ecosystem — one that filters shoreline pollution and sequesters 6.7 tons of carbon per acre. As both kelp cultivation and the push for more sustainable seafood continue to grow, biofuel itself might soon become just another byproduct of an entire sustainable food production system.

On the freshwater front, prolific floating plants are also gaining credibility as a candidate for wastewater-to-biofuel refineries looking to cater to small communities. The frontrunner of this movement, duckweed, has long been nearly ubiquitous in United States waterways, and very popular in the aquarium trade, thanks to its rapid ability to sequester water-borne nutrients and double its growth in as little as two days. As of this year, duckweed will see its most notable commercial venture yet: a refinery in Sparta, Georgia, with an estimated per-acre yield double that of corn.

And while the alluring superweed-cum-fuel model is still fledgling, algae-like “cyanobacteria” are already set to take flight. Piloted by up-and-coming industry powerhouse Joule, these photosynthetic bacteria will see the launch of an ambitious pilot plant in 2017: a scalable, modular system that converts wastewater and CO2 into ethanol, at 53 times the rate of corn refineries.

Aquatic farms and ecosystems are simply more productive than terrestrial monocultures. So once again, perhaps it’s worth asking why we’re still primed to associate biofuel with its most old-fashioned manifestation.

Biofuel remains a stepping stool to better solutions — and aquatic biofuel remains more promising than corn.