From Cultivation to Distribution to the Consumer, Microalgae to Biofuel More Environmentally Friendly Than Competitors, New Colorado State Study Says

Note to Reporters: Photos of Professors Thomas Bradley and Bryan Willson are available with the news release at

The transformation of algae into a biofuel – from the photobioreactor where it’s grown to the factories where it’s processed – is more environmentally friendly than the process for petroleum diesel or soy biodiesel, according to a groundbreaking Colorado State University study.

The research, by Professors Thomas Bradley and Bryan Willson, relied on data from the world renowned Engines and Energy Conversion Laboratory at Colorado State and spinoff Solix Biofuels Inc. With technical support from the university, Solix has developed a technology production platform for the large-scale commercialization of microalgae-based biofuels and co-products. The company has expanded into a multi-acre test facility on the Southern Ute Indian Reservation in Durango.

The study appears in this week’s Environmental Science and Technology. The work was financially supported by Solix and the Colorado Center for Biorefining and Biofuels, which is part of a statewide collaboration between the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, CSU, Colorado School of Mines and CU-Boulder.

“There has been some research indicating that algae might be more energy intensive, but this study is the first to directly compare the complete manufacturing process of algae, petroleum biodiesel, and soybean biodiesel,” Bradley said. “We made an apples-to-apples comparison and the results show that algae is net beneficial – it reduces greenhouse gas emissions more than soy biodiesel and is more scalable and it has lower energy consumption than soy biodiesel.”

Bradley and the team assessed the entire “life cycle” of the algae-to-biodiesel process including such factors as the energy used to grow algae, the diesel burned by trucks used to move the algae biodiesel from processing facilities to the pump to the energy used to make fertilizer for growth.

“We have access to the most up-to-date data and industrial-scale understandings of how this works in the real world,” Bradley said. “We’re very lucky to be doing this work here at Colorado State University.”

“We’re doing system-level analysis that can help policymakers and people who are trying to design our next energy system and help them make decisions about how to do this,” Bradley said. “We’re trying to understand the impact of this new algae energy system that everybody’s interested in.”

Also working on the paper were doctoral students Liaw Batan and Jason Quinn.

The Engines and Energy Conversion Laboratory at Colorado State University has an international reputation for its market-driven solutions. Products developed at the EECL in partnership with industrial partners have reduced pollution in the atmosphere by millions of tons and have saved more than 14 billion cubic feet of natural gas. The lab has developed solutions to reduce emissions from large industrial engines, supported dozens of companies with new engine technology, made important contributions to basic combustion science, worked to define architectures for the future electric grid, and brought clean energy solutions to the developing world.