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The big push and big fall of Algal fuels

An investment bubble burst when it was realized that algal fuel costs more energy than it produces, but some holdouts are still betting on its long-term possibility.

Imagine you set out to become a widget engineer. You study hard to be accepted into the university program. It takes much more work and energy than you thought, and you spend thousands trying to achieve this goal. Then, once you graduate, you discover that the widget market has crashed and you’ll never make back the money you put into your education.

This is the story of algae. 

In 2005, companies started to invest millions of dollars into the production of algae-based fuels, only to realise years later, that is the product is not economically viable.

Various companies made big promises to investors. Collectively they claimed they would produce a billion gallons of fuel. In 2009, ExxonMobil invested over $600 million.

How would it work?

The algae itself is not the fuel. Instead, the algae produces an oil through photosynthesis, turning light and carbon dioxide into a high energy combustible. Although burning this oil does produce carbon dioxide, it is first takes carbon dioxide from the air. Algae is nearly carbon-neutral, meaning it releases almost the same amount of CO2 that it takes in. 

Also being renewable, algae can be reproduced and grown forever, in the standard conditions.

Back in 2008, a company used algal biofuel to power a Mercedes-Benz. Any vehicle that uses diesel could probably run on algal fuels, the US Department of Energy  stated back in 2012.

So over a decade later, where are algal fuels today? Nowhere. 

After years of attempts and research, companies began to drop algae all together. One of the few companies left investing and doing large scale research, is Exxon Mobil, who invested another 1 million dollars back in 2018 to MSU, to make it easier to harvest, and to study the organisms on a molecular level.  

The main problem with algal fuels is that it takes more energy to produce the biofuel than the fuel is able to produce. It is a net loss.

Fossil fuels literally spew out of the Earth, often requiring comparatively simple processes to refine for consumer use. Algal fuels require growing, harvesting, and several steps in the process of isolating and refining the oils.  Although algae can grow in a variety of conditions, it requires perfect conditions to grow it efficiently. 

So will algal fuels be implemented into everyday life in the near future? “The answer, so far, is an emphatic no,” writes Eric Wesoff of Greentech Media. 

Over a dozen algae biofuel companies have turned their focus away from fuels. It was predicted by Jim Lane of Biofuel Digest back in 2009 that algal production would reach 1 billion gallons by 2014, but by 2017, nowhere even near 1 million gallons had been made. 

According to Green Tech Media, it will take “tens of billions of dollars and decades of research and work.” In order to get to the next level, researchers need to look at details like the harvesting and conversion of the product, instead of just the just the type of algae.  

Although Exxon mobil is still working on it, no matter what they do, algae still “commercially requires a massive amount of fertilizer, land, and CO2,”  says Zoya Teirstein. And companies wanting to invest into algae, know this, and know their chances to succeed in this area are low. 

But “given the size of the liquid fuels market, measured in trillions of dollars, not the customary billions of dollars,” says Eric Wesoff, “it makes some sense to occasionally take the low-percentage shot.”

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