Climate Implications of Next Generation Biofuels Produced from Algae

Liu, Xiaowei, Civil Engineering - School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Clarens, Andres, Department of Civil Engineering, University of Virginia

Algae-based fuels are being widely investigated in an effort to develop renewable and carbon-neutral bioenergy feedstocks. Despite this, there is little evidence that large-scale algae cultivation can achieve carbon reductions relative to conventional, petroleum-derived liquid fuels. This work explores a variety of systems-level aspects of algae-to-energy processes in an effort to understand the real potential of algae fuels to achieve deep reductions in carbon emissions. This work is both challenging and important because the algae-to-energy industry is still in its nascent stage and few commercial scale facilities currently exist to model. Those that do exist are seeking guidance on how to produce low carbon fuels. To provide insights into this question, I made four specific contributions to the academic literature. The first contribution is the development of a meta-analysis of life cycle studies that modeled algae-to-energy systems. The literature is seemingly inconclusive about the anticipated impacts of algae-based biodiesel and this analysis was structured to reconcile these inconsistencies. The results indicate that algae biodiesel has environmental performance on par with that of traditional biofuels with room for improvement as the process is optimized. The second contribution of this work is the development of a comprehensive life cycle model of algae fuels produced via hydrothermal liquefaction. This model, which was developed in conjunction with an industry partner, is the first of its kind to use pilot-scale data. The model suggests that algae fuels can achieve significant reduction in GHG emissions compared with petroleum alternatives and will have viable energy return on investment when algae are cultivated at full scale. The third contribution from this work is the development of a method for characterizing land use effects of biofuel feedstock cultivation. The novel approach that I propose is based on the use of historical cropland data, rather than indirect or direct land use. This approach addresses several persistent issues in existing frameworks and the results of this analysis side step much of the uncertainty intrinsic to existing models and represent the first step toward developing a more integrated and equitable land use emissions framework. The fourth and final contribution from this work is to develop a nation-wide model of CO2 industrial sources using newly available CO2 emissions data collected by the US Environmental Protection Agency. This model suggests that there are significant portions of the country without access to commercially relevant volumes of CO2 and this could impact pond location selection. The characteristics of the CO2 sources are such that much of the CO2 in the US is relatively ‘dirty’ coming from a source with a high carbon footprint of its own. This suggests that there are opportunities to optimize our CO2 supply chain in an effort to achieve system-scale reductions and improve the sustainability of algae-to-energy processes.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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