In late February, at the University Miami in Coral Gables, Fla., President Barack Obama touted how remarkable it would be if the United States could “grow” it’s own energy through the algae plant:
‘We’re making new investments in the development of gasoline, and diesel, and jet fuel that’s actually made from a plant-like substance…algae. You’ve got a bunch of algae out here. If we can figure out how to make energy out of that, we’ll be doing alright,” he said.
The president added, “Believe it or not, we could replace up to 17 percent of the oil we import for transportation with this fuel that we can grow right here in America. That means greater security. That means lower costs. That means more jobs. It means a stronger economy.”
Science Online recently reported that the National Research Council of the U.S. National Academies released a new report saying that “large-scale production of biofuels from algae is untenable with existing technology.”:
…it would require the use of too much water, energy, and fertilizer. To improve matters, the report’s authors suggest that the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), which supports much of the research in the field, should conduct assessments of proposed technologies that examine sustainability at all stages of fuel production, including growing or collecting algae and harvesting their oil and converting it into transportation fuels.
The report continues:
But there are many different approaches to growing algae, such as growing the microscopic plants in shallow outdoor ponds, or in enclosed plastic tubes called bioreactors. And the industry is far from settled on a single approach. No matter what the strategy, however, the NRC committee concluded that current technology scaled up to produce 39 billion liters a year—approximately 5% of U.S. transportation fuel needs—would require an unsustainable level of inputs. Current technologies, for example, need between 3.15 liters and 3650 liters of water to produce the amount of algal biofuel equivalent to 1 liter of gasoline, the panel concluded.
The report does say that “The committee does not consider any one of these sustainability concerns a definitive barrier to sustainable development of algal biofuels because mitigation strategies for each of those concerns have been proposed and are being developed.”
However, should the president have been proposing algae as an energy source that could replace “17 percent of oil we import for transportation” before it is even shown to be sustainable on a mass scale?