Algae Biofuels

Andrew Summerville
December 14, 2016

Submitted as coursework for PH240, Stanford University, Fall 2016


Fig. 1: An algae pond. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Algae are living organisms that have recently been considered a possible solution to our on-going energy crisis. In fact, one journal article states that algae are among the most potentially significant sources of sustainable biofuels in the future of renewable energy. [1] For example, algae has the potential to beat out corn as the next great biofuel. While scientists and engineers remain optimistic about algae biofuels, there is concern as to whether prolonged exposer to genetically modified algae could have adverse health effects. [1] Taking these concerns into consideration, many still believe that algae has considerable potential. In particular, many are suggesting that algae will be important in creating sustainable energy sources in developing countries. [2]

Costs of Production

Two primary methods of farming algae are an open raceway pond (ORP) and a photobioreactor (PBR) (see Fig. 2). There is no need to get lost in the complexity of these different harvesting methods. [3] Instead, one should simply recognize that there are alternative methods of harvesting that have associated costs. The ORP method has an associate cost of production of $109.12 per gallon of crude bio-oil. [3] On the other hand, the PRB system can produce one gallon for just $76.98 (see Fig. 1). [3] I find the differing costs of production both startling and intriguing. If one harvesting method is able to reduce the cost of production by over $30, it suggests that further innovations could reduce the costs even more. This, clearly, would increase the viability of algae biofuels for expanded commercial use.

Fig. 2: An algae harvester. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Environmental Impact

Despite algae farming seeming like an environmentally friendly activity, some researchers are concerned that the genetic modifications of the algae could have a negative environmental impact. In order to engineer the algae to have maximum lipid production (the part of the algae that produces oil), it is necessary to genetically alter the algae to increase lipid production. [1] There is concern that exposure to these modified organisms by both farmers and commercial users could have damaging health effects. [1] Currently, there is no consensus as to what health effects would occur in the long term. However, it is important to recognize that these health effects would not only impact farmers, but also consumers of any algae-based product. [1]

Uses in Developing Countries

Beyond the use of algae biofuels in developed countries, such as the United States, developing countries are considering whether algae biofuels could be the sustainable energy source they will require to spur long-term growth of their country. For example, one journal article considers the possibility of using algae biofuels to stabilize India's energy needs. [2] In addition to simply providing an alternative source of energy for India, the algae could also help curb CO2 emissions by way of photosynthesis. [2]


In summation, biofuels are an intriguing alternative energy source whose potential could be limited by its high costs of production. Perhaps developed countries with surplus resources can expend the effort to engineer a reduced-cost production system. [4] As it is, however, algae biofuels will remain too costly to be integrated in the mainstream of commercial energy consumption.

© Andrew Summerville. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] M. Y. Menetrez, "An Overview of Algae Biofuel Production and Potential Environmental Impact," Environ. Sci. Technol. 46, 7073 (2012).

[2] A. A. Adenle, G. E. Haslam, and L. Lee, "Global Assessment of Research and Development for Algae Biofuel Production and Its Potential Role for Sustainable Development in Developing Countries," Energy Policy 61, 182 (2013).

[3] J. W. Richardson, M. D. Johnson, X. Zhang, P. Zemke, W. Chen, and Q. Hu, "A Financial Assessment of Two Alternative Cultivation Systems and Their Contributions to Algae Biofuel Economic Viability," Algal Research 4, 96 (2014).

[4] T. J. Lundquist et al., "A Realistic Technology and Engineering Assessment of Algae Biofuel Production," University of California, Berkely, Energy Biosciences Institute, October 2010.