It's true that research labs are experimenting with algae-based biofuels, and we wish them well. If someday in the future, we're all driving cars based on inexpensive fuel from algae, it's possible that would be a positive development. But there's a big difference between that and offering algae today as an answer to high gas prices, or using taxpayer money to subsidize this particular technology -- such as the $14 million grant the administration gave an algae experimenter, or the tens of millions of dollars in loan guarantees the Department of Agriculture has handed out.
Even compared to other biofuels, it is extremely expensive to
produce. For fuels such as ethanol (which is widely used even today), the cost of growing the crop is essentially the cost of the agricultural land. In many parts of the country that means a few thousand dollars per acre. With algae, however, a large amount of equipment is involved, including machinery to mix the water constantly, equipment to separate the algae from the water, and an impermeable liner so water doesn't leach into the ground. Even if we assumed all this cost $1 per square foot -- less than cheap linoleum flooring -- that would
be nearly $44,000 per acre. That is much more expensive than the cost for alternative crops.
To achieve high yields of algae, growers have to enrich the water with large amounts of carbon dioxide (which algae consumes). This means the CO2 would likely need to be captured and transported from fossil fuel plants, most of which are not located anywhere near the best locations for algae farming -- the desert. The capture of CO2 and the pipeline to transport this CO2 add significant cost (which, again, even other biofuels do not entail).
The process requires large volumes of water, but if algae production takes place in the desert, large volumes of water are also hard to come by.
Producers of algae have to somehow dispose of the actual algae once they have separated it from the oil. The mass of this algae would add up very quickly, and producers can only sell so much of the "algae bodies" as animal feed.
All of these things suggest that algae fuel is not likely to be competitive with other forms of fuel anytime in the foreseeable future. And more importantly, it is definitely not a solution to Americans' urgent energy crisis brought on by unnecessarily high gasoline prices. President Obama recently compared those who doubted his green energy fantasies to the "Flat Earth Society" and claimed that his side of the debate represented "the Wright Brothers, Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs." I don't recall any of those people receiving $50 million loan guarantees from Teddy Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan -- and their technologies worked. Next week: the revolution in natural gas.