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The Ecology of Algal Biofuel Production

Val H. Smith, PhD


Algae offer a promising alternative to terrestrially grown vascular plants as a future source of biofuel (feedstock):

  • Producing biofuels from algae would decrease the world’s dependence on petroleum fuels.

  • Using algae as a biofuel feedstock would greatly reduce the diversion of edible agricultural crops from food production to energy production.

  • Using algae as a biofuel feedstock would also greatly reduce the fertilizer use, environmental contamination, and water demands associated with terrestrial biofuel crop cultivation.

  • Combining facilities for the production of algae with sources of domestic or agricultural wastewater would greatly reduce the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus polluting surface waters.

  • The scientific principles of ecology provide valuable guidance for the design and stable operation of large-scale algal biofuel production facilities.

March 2011

The alternative energy industry is poised for rapid global growth as attempts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and dependence on nonrenewable fossil fuels gain traction. These efforts will be particularly intense in the transportation sector, where alternatives for car, truck, train, marine, and aviation fuels may still be decades away.1 Companies are therefore investing substantially in the conversion of plant products into renewable biofuels. The early diesel engine that inventor Rudolf Diesel demonstrated at the 1900 World’s Fair was powered by pure peanut oil, and it was soon discovered that plant oils can be modified to create better-performing fuels using simple chemical reactions (transesterification) that transform them into biodiesel.2 Diesel fuel already has a dominant position in the refined petroleum market, even in countries where standard gasoline is the primary liquid fuel, and diesel-powered vehicles dominate commerce and transportation worldwide.3

Large-scale biofuel production may require the use of algae instead of land plants.

Although conventional biofuel production relies primarily on land plants as a feedstock, many researchers believe that biofuel production on the scale needed to compete with petroleum-based fuels on the open market will require the use of microscopic algae,4 which grow abundantly and naturally in the world’s surface waters and can be converted into multiple kinds of biofuel. Algae have the potential to produce sufficient quantities of biofuel to satisfy the world’s growing energy demands, even considering predicted limitations on the availability of land and water resources.5

Val H. Smith, PhD, is a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Kansas (KU). He has also served as interim director of KU’s Undergraduate Biology Program. He has published work on a wide range of topics ranging from the ecology of eutrophication in aquatic ecosystems to the ecology of infectious diseases.

The Ecology of Algal Biofuel Production

ActionBioscience Articles and Interviews

Other Articles and Reports

Algae As an Alternative to Crop-Based Biofuel Feedstocks

Algae Quiz

Algal Biofuels: One Energy Company’s Perspective

Algal Biofuels: How Quickly Might We Move from Energy Promise To Energy Reality?

Biofuels 4 Schools

A clean air for kids campaign:

Power Shift 2010

In July–August 2010, the Australian Youth Climate Coalition presented Power Shift 2010, a continuing annual series of youth climate summits to inspire, educate, empower, and mobilize young people to take action on climate change.

The Energy Action Coalition

Energy Action Coalition is a coalition of 50 youth-led environmental and social justice groups working together to build the youth clean energy and climate movement. Working with hundreds of campus and youth groups, dozens of youth networks, and hundreds of thousands of young people, Energy Action Coalition and its partners have united a burgeoning movement behind winning local victories and coordinating on state, regional, and national levels in the United States and Canada.

Just for Kids

Check out these cool sites where kids can learn all about biofuels, as well as participate in online activities:

In addition, here are 10 cool facts about algae:

This is a funny animation of the food chain concept for young kids:

For Middle Schools

For High School and College Introductory Biology

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  4. Raehtz, K. 2009. Challenges and advances in making microalgae biomass a cost efficient source of biodiesel. MMG 445 Basic Biotechnology 5:37–43.
  5. Li, Y., M. Horsman, N. Wu, C.Q. Lan, and N. Dubois-Calero. 2008. Biofuels from microalgae. Biotechnology Progress 24:815–820.
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  13. Stephenson, A.L., E. Kazamia, J.S. Dennis, C.J. Howe, S.A. Scott, and A.G. Smith. 2010. Life-cycle assessment of potential algal biodiesel production in the United Kingdom: A comparison of raceways and air-lift tubular bioreactors. Energy Fuels 24:4062–4077.
  14. Weis, J.J., D.S. Madrigal, and B.J. Cardinale. 2008. Effects of algal diversity on the production of biomass in homogeneous and heterogeneous nutrient environments: A microcosm experiment. PLoS ONE 3(7): e2825. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0002825 (accessed Feb. 2, 2011).
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  17. Carpenter, S.R., and J.F. Kitchell. 1988. Consumer control of lake productivity. BioScience 38:764–767.
  18. Rittman, B.E. 2008. Opportunities for renewable bioenergy using microorganisms. Biotechnology and Bioengineering 100:203–212.
  19. Darzins, A., and R. Garofalo 2009. Algal biofuels: What is the real potential? Biofuels Bioproducts and Biorefining 3:426.
  20. Curtis, T.P., I.M. Head, and D.W. Graham. 2003. Theoretical ecology in engineering biology. Environmental Science and Technology 37:64A–70A.
  21. Graham, D.W., and V.H. Smith. 2004. Designed ecosystem services: Application of ecological principles in wastewater treatment engineering. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 2:199–206.
  22. Subhadra, B., and G. George. 2011. Algal biorefinery based industry: An approach to address fuel and food insecurity for a carbon-smart world. Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture 91:2–13.


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