Original Article

Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change

, Volume 18, Issue 1, pp 137-158

First online:

Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.

Life cycle comparison of hydrothermal liquefaction and lipid extraction pathways to renewable diesel from algae

  • Edward D. FrankAffiliated withCenter for Transportation Research, Argonne National Laboratory Email author 
  • , Amgad ElgowainyAffiliated withCenter for Transportation Research, Argonne National Laboratory
  • , Jeongwoo HanAffiliated withCenter for Transportation Research, Argonne National Laboratory
  • , Zhichao WangAffiliated withCenter for Transportation Research, Argonne National Laboratory


Algae biomass is an attractive biofuel feedstock when grown with high productivity on marginal land. Hydrothermal liquefaction (HTL) produces more oil from algae than lipid extraction (LE) does because protein and carbohydrates are converted, in part, to oil. Since nitrogen in the algae biomass is incorporated into the HTL oil, and since lipid extracted algae for generating heat and electricity are not co-produced by HTL, there are questions regarding implications for emissions and energy use. We studied the HTL and LE pathways for renewable diesel (RD) production by modeling all essential operations from nutrient manufacturing through fuel use. Our objective was to identify the key relationships affecting HTL energy consumption and emissions. LE, with identical upstream growth model and consistent hydroprocessing model, served as reference. HTL used 1.8 fold less algae than did LE but required 5.2 times more ammonia when nitrogen incorporated in the HTL oil was treated as lost. HTL RD had life cycle emissions of 31,000 gCO2 equivalent (gCO2e) compared to 21,500 gCO2e for LE based RD per million BTU of RD produced. Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions increased when yields exceeded 0.4 g HTL oil/g algae because insufficient carbon was left for biogas generation. Key variables in the analysis were the HTL oil yield, the hydrogen demand during upgrading, and the nitrogen content of the HTL oil. Future work requires better data for upgrading renewable oils to RD and requires consideration of nitrogen recycling during upgrading.


Algae Life cycle analysis Hydrothermal liquefaction Greenhouse gas emissions Renewable diesel