If you think algae is just that green grime that dirties up your pool, think again: it’s also a surprisingly viable source for biofuel. The LiveFuels Alliance, funded by LiveFuels Inc based in Menlo Park, CA, is tapping into the oil producing potential of algae with an ambitious initiative to replace millions of gallons of fossil fuels with algae-based biocrude by 2010.

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While several companies like Algae BioFuels and Greenfuels and Solix Biofuels are working on algae cultivation research for biofuel, the LiveFuels Alliance differs in that it is a national initiative. Lead by Sandia National Laboratories, a U.S. Department of Energy National Laboratory, the collaborative will sponsor dozens of labs and hundreds of scientists within the next three years making it the largest endeavor focused on commercial biocrude from algae.

The current research builds off of a U.S. Department of Energy funded study that ran from 1978-1996. Through the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the 18-year-long ‘Aquatic Species Program’ focused on high-oil algae cultivation for biodiesel. At the time the program was canceled, algae was competing against low oil prices. However, surging oil prices and advances in biotech over the past decade have refueled the algae biocrude race. LiveFuels aims to infuse U.S.-based research and refine the processes to increase algae oil production at competitive prices.

The scientists involved in the LiveFuels project are focusing on specialized aspects of the algae-to-biocrude process. Some are breeding algae to find the best high-fat strains, others are refining the fat and oil extraction process and others still are developing cost-effective harvesting techniques. The biggest challenge is to make algae biocrude within a fraction of the time that nature’s biomass decomposition occurs and to do it economically, for less than $60 a barrel.

The process of extracting oil from algae is basically the same as other biofuel technology. However, algae doesn’t require prime agricultural land and has a potential yield that far exceeds other renewable sources. For instance, algae yields 10-200% more oil per acre than soy which produces about 117 gallons of oil per acre. Another perk is that under the right conditions algae grows rapidly. It’s also non-toxic, biodegradable and can be grown in fresh, brackish or wastewater.

Theoretically, algae can yield between 1,000 to 20,000 gallons of oil per acre, depending on the specific strain. The potential yield from 20 – 40 million acres of marginal land in the U.S. could produce enough algae to replace imported oil and leave 450 millions acres of current farmland for use as food crops. Turning that potential into a domestically-grown reality is the goal of the LiveFuels Alliance.

+ LiveFuels + Sandia National Laboratories + DOE NREL Aquatic Species Program: Biodiesel from Algae (PDF)