Life cycle analysis of algae biodiesel

  • Kyle Sander
  • Ganti S. Murthy
LCA for Energy Systems


Background, aim, and scope

Algae biomass has great promise as a sustainable alternative to conventional transportation fuels. In this study, a well-to-pump life cycle assessment (LCA) was performed to investigate the overall sustainability and net energy balance of an algal biodiesel process. The goal of this LCA was to provide baseline information for the algae biodiesel process.

Materials and methods

The functional unit was 1,000 MJ of energy from algal biodiesel using existing technology. Systematic boundary identification was performed using relative mass, energy, and economic value method using a 5% cutoff value. Primary data for this study were obtained from The USLCI database and the Greenhouse Gases, Regulated Emissions and Energy use in Transportation model. Carbohydrates in coproducts from algae biodiesel production were assumed to displace corn as a feedstock for ethanol production.

Results and discussion

For every 24 kg of algal biodiesel produced (1,000 MJ algae biodiesel), 34 kg coproducts are also produced. Total energy input without solar drying is 3,292 and 6,194 MJ for the process with filter press and centrifuge as the initial filtering step, respectively. Net CO2 emissions are −20.9 and 135.7 kg/functional unit for a process utilizing a filter press and centrifuge, respectively. In addition to the −13.96 kg of total air emissions per functional unit, 18.6 kg of waterborne wastes, 0.28 kg of solid waste, and 5.54 Bq are emitted. The largest energy input (89%) is in the natural gas drying of the algal cake. Although net energy for both filter press and centrifuge processes are −6,670 and −3,778 MJ/functional unit, respectively, CO2 emissions are positive for the centrifuge process while they are negative for the filter press process. Additionally, 20.4 m3 of wastewater per functional unit is lost from the growth ponds during the 4-day growth cycle due to evaporation.

Conclusions and recommendations

This LCA has quantified one major obstacle in algae technology: the need to efficiently process the algae into its usable components. Thermal dewatering of algae requires high amounts of fossil fuel derived energy (3,556 kJ/kg of water removed) and consequently presents an opportunity for significant reduction in energy use. The potential of green algae as a fuel source is not a new idea; however, this LCA and other sources clearly show a need for new technologies to make algae biofuels a sustainable, commercial reality.


Algae biodiesel Life cycle analysis Coproduct allocation Ethanol GHG emissions 

Supplementary material

11367_2010_194_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (391 kb)
(PDF 390 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Oregon State UniversityCorvallisUSA

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