Jan 282010
Algae in the Matrix
Image by jurvetson via Flickr

A new analysis suggests so because of the need for copious fertilizer

Growing algae for use in biofuels has a greater environmental impact than sources such as corn, switch grass and canola, researchers found in the first life-cycle assessment of algae growth.

Interest in algae-based biofuels has blossomed in the past year, sparking major investments from Exxon Mobil Corp. and Dow Chemical Co., and it has gained steam on Capitol Hill, as well. But the nascent industry has major environmental hurdles to overcome before ramping up production, according to research published this week in Environmental Science and Technology.

“What we found was sort of surprising,” said Andres Clarens, a civil and environmental engineering professor at the University of Virginia and lead author of the paper. “We started doing this with as much optimism as everybody else.”

Algae production consumes more energy, has higher greenhouse gas emissions and uses more water than other biofuel sources, like corn, switch grass and canola, Clarens and his colleagues found by using a statistical model to compare growth data of algae with conventional crops.

“From a life-cycle standpoint, algae are not nearly as desirable as you would think they are,” Clarens said. “And that was surprising to us.”

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