, Volume 3, Issue 2, pp 204-213
Date: 08 Oct 2009

Theoretical Maximum Algal Oil Production


Interest in algae as a feedstock for biofuel production has risen in recent years, due to projections that algae can produce lipids (oil) at a rate significantly higher than agriculture-based feedstocks. Current research and development of enclosed photobioreactors for commercial-scale algal oil production is directed towards pushing the upper limit of productivity beyond that of open ponds. So far, most of this development is in a prototype stage, so working production metrics for a commercial-scale algal biofuel system are still unknown, and projections are largely based on small-scale experimental data. Given this research climate, a methodical analysis of a maximum algal oil production rate from a theoretical perspective will be useful to the emerging industry for understanding the upper limits that will bound the production capabilities of new designs. This paper presents a theoretical approach to calculating an absolute upper limit to algal production based on physical laws and assumptions of perfect efficiencies. In addition, it presents a best case approach that represents an optimistic target for production based on realistic efficiencies and is calculated for six global sites. The theoretical maximum was found to be 354,000 L·ha−1·year−1 (38,000 gal·ac−1·year−1) of unrefined oil, while the best cases examined in this report range from 40,700–53,200 L·ha−1·year−1 (4,350–5,700 gal·ac−1·year−1) of unrefined oil.

Employees of the Alliance for Sustainable Energy, LLC, under Contract No. DE-AC36-08GO28308 with the U.S. Department of Energy have authored this work. The United States Government retains and the publisher, by accepting the article for publication, acknowledges that the United States Government retains a non-exclusive, paid-up, irrevocable, worldwide license to publish or reproduce the published form of this work, or allow others to do so, for United States Government purposes.