Daniel Kammen: From our analysis, probably the most interesting feature about algae is that it’s a wildcard. Algae might be a big player, but right now, it’ll take some breakthroughs for us to see that.
Daniel Kammen is energy and policy advisor to the Obama administration in the U.S., and director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California-Berkeley. Dr. Kammen spoke to EarthSky about the potential of algae–tiny ocean plants–to meet future energy needs.
A variety of algae, the common pond scum to various plants, produce different oils in their cell walls. There can be large amounts of it. What we’re talking about is harvesting those materials that look very similar to the types of biodiesels we produce right now.
Kammen said oils from fast-growing algae could either be converted into liquid fuel that could run your car, or into more efficient hydrogen fuel. The idea is promising, he said, but the key to success is scaling up the technology–that is, making massive amounts of it.
We can do it in the laboratory, in a Petri dish, no problem right now. But the question is, can we do it at scale? And no one really knows.
Kammen added that algae is significantly behind other renewable energy sources, like solar and wind, in terms of development.
Even if algae performs at its theoretical maximum, it may not be a big enough deal soon enough.
Kammen said that despite growing investments in renewable energy and talk of a ‘clean energy future,’ the world is still far from a low-carbon energy system.
Most of the forecasts right now, either business as usual or a little bit of an increased rate of innovation–deployment of solar, wind, cleaner biofuels, or transitions to electric vehicles–are ones that wouldn’t get us to where we need to go, which is an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions over the next 40 years.
Kammen is not optimistic that 80% reduction goal can be met. He said the U.S. government is shooting much lower, and currently, no single renewable energy source is poised to take over the role of fossil fuels.
We’re not actually looking for a silver bullet. We’re looking for a silver buckshot.
Many scientists and companies are exploring the possibilities of algae, because algae yields high volumes of fatty oils that can be used as biofuel, and it can be produced year-round. But Kammen said that as far as algae entering the energy market–using what he calls a ‘pathway’–it is still far behind other renewables.
A pathway is not just producing a given species of algae, but the whole pathway to do the research, to do a pilot scale plant, to scale it up and see a company really take of and be profitable. So when one looks around, there are no such algae companies yet. It’s very hard to forecast how a given product will evolve until you start seeing it in the market.
Kammen said scientists have yet to answer big questions about algae, such as what strains will be used, whether the algae will be genetically modified, and how to reduce the amounts of land and water required to get high yields.
We’ve looked at algae in a number of settings in terms of both growing it as a primary product, and also making biofuels from algaes. There’s certainly a role. There’s a role right now for any low-carbon fuel out there. In terms of the big scale-up, really cutting into U.S. petroleum use, it’s hard to see right now, algae becoming a large player.
Daniel Kammen is an advisor on energy and environmental policy to the Obama administration. He is the director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory and professor of Energy & Society at the University of California at Berkeley. Dr. Kammen is a coordinating lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007. He also hosted the Discovery Channel’s TV series Ecopolis (2008). Dr. Kammen holds a Ph.D. in physics from Harvard.