Researcher Ron Pate says using algae could produce several thousand gallons of biofuel per acre.

As Americans demand new and cleaner ways to meet the country’s energy needs, researchers are turning to algae as a promising new fuel source. (See related story link at bottom page.) The approach has the potential to significantly reduce the nation’s reliance on imported oil while contributing to rural economic development and lowering greenhouse emissions.

Experts project that algae-based biofuels could displace large volumes of diesel and jet transportation fuels. One of the field’s leading experts, researcher Ron Pate, serves as a technical consultant to the emerging algae biofuels program within the Biomass Office of the Department of Energy’s Office of Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency.

“We’ve been heavily involved in supporting the Office of Biomass Program for the past year-and-a-half on the Algae Biofuels Roadmap and a couple of specific projects that are algae biofuel-related,” Pate says.Among those projects are two international collaborations: one with industrial partners in Israel and the United States, and another with the National Research Council Canada.

“Using algae as a feedstock source for biofuels has a lot of potential benefits, but there are also some tremendous challenges," Pate says. "We’ve been working very hard to determine what the needs are, the current state of the technology and the areas that really need some focused investment and work.”

Through stimulus package funds and other investments will provide about $180 million specifically for algae biofuels research and development.

With algal oil productivities that could potentially reach annual average levels in the range of 3,000 to 5,000 gal/acre, the land footprint required for large volumes of renewable fuel production would be minimal when compared with other conventional oil crops, such as soy and canola, that produce between 50 and 120 gallons per acre per year, according to Sandia National Laboratories, Albuquerque. (Algal is primitive chlorophyll-containing, in large part, aquatic eukaryotic organisms lacking true stems, roots and leaves.)

“With algae, we’re talking about annual average productivities that could reach several thousand gallons per acre per year - with practical values that analysis has shown might be able to reach more than 6,500 gallons per acre - so if you do the math, you can see the reasoning behind this research,” Pate says.