The Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) has released a study claiming that algae-derived oils could replace 17 percent of the nation’s imported oil by 2022. Mark Wigmosta, et al., “National microalgae biofuel production potential and resource demand,” Water Resources Research, April 13, 2011. “Algae has been a hot topic of biofuel discussions recently, but no one has taken such a detailed look at how much America could make— and how much water and land it would require-until now,” lead author and PNNL hydrologist Mark Wigmosta said. “Algae could be part of the solution to the nation’s energy puzzle—if we’re smart about where we place growth ponds and the technical challenges to achieving commercial-scale algal biofuel production are met.”

Researchers factored in how much water would need to be replaced due to evaporation over 30 years and “analyzed previously published data to determine how much algae can grow in open, outdoor ponds of fresh water while using current technologies.” Concluding that “water use could be drastically cut if algae is grown in the sunniest and most humid climates: the Gulf Coast, the Southeastern Seaboard and the Great Lakes,” researchers estimated that the amount of land needed to produce the algae would be roughly the size of South Carolina. They also determined that “21 billion gallons of algal oil, equal to the 2022 advanced biofuels goal set out by the Energy Independence and Security Act, can be produced with American-grown algae.” See PNNL Press Release, April 13, 2011.

In a related development, photosynthetic bacteria called cyanobacteria may reportedly provide promise in the advancement of algae fuels. Cyanobacteria, which “used to be known as blue-green algae—just another kind of pond scum,” do not store oily fats in their cells like microalgae. Evidently, many varieties can easily integrate foreign DNA, making them “ideal fuel candidates,” some microbiologists believe. See Greenwire, March 29, 2011.