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Algae biomass as a substitute for coal

September 9th, 2010 | 2 Comments | Posted in Algae, Algae-CO2-Capture

In the past few months, the Oilgae team members have been asked by at least a dozen companies what we thought of having algal biomass as a substitute for coal in future.

Fat chance if you are looking to microalgae.

I will focus this article on microalgae and prove without much ado why it stands almost no economic chance of being a substitute for coal.

Coal is not one single commodity – there are many grades of coal (here is a detailed page giving you list of coal grades as seen by the industry – http://coal.nic.in/point4.html ). Whatever be the grade, you are looking at a minimum price of about $80 per T. For higher quality grades of coal, the cost per tonne is over $100. The highest grade of coal will possibly cost about $150 per T.

Now, this is what you are trying to achieve with microalgae – a price of $150.

Now, such a price disparity alone might not mean it is impossible to bridge. You could argue that the price gap might vanish if the price of coal goes up and the cost of making microalgae biomass comes down, or in the best case scenario, both events occurring.

The price of coal increased from around $30.00 per short ton in 2000 to around $150.00 per short ton as of September 2008 (Source – Wikipedia), though it declined to about $110 soon after. Even at

Fat chance, wouldn’t you agree?

At Oilgae, we had been modelling a low-cost model for algae to process. We did significant empirical research while building this model and thus have with us what we feel is a very-low-cost, feasible algae to fuel process. Even under this scenario, it costs about $400 per dry ton of algal biomass.

$400 vs $150 – it’s a no brainer that it not going to fly. And remember, many of the industries using coal use humungous quantities. I remember having a discussion with the head of alternative fuels research last month at ACC, India’s largest cement company (they make about 25 million T of cement a year). ACC uses about half a million T of coal A MONTH. That’s about 6 million T a year. A price difference of $ 250 per T will mean a total cost difference of $1.5 billion. Even if they are looking at replacing just 5% of coal with algal biomass, that alone would be a cost increase of about $100 million.

Wouldn’t you agree with me now that there’s a fat chance?

Adapted from the Oilgae Newsletter

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2 Responses to “Algae biomass as a substitute for coal”

  1. Aisha Miller Says:

    Nice post. Thank you very much for sharing interesting post. However, burning coal releases carbon dioxide into the air that has been out of the carbon cycle for millions of years and leads to a buildup of greenhouse gases that has been shown to contribute to global climate changes. Simultaneous burning of biomass and coal reduces CO2 emissions by a significant amount. I have found more about Biomass and Coal at http://www.biomass.net/Biomass-and-Coal.html

  2. Mcizin Says:

    $100 to $150 for coal, does not take into account the cost of POLLUTION that coal generates when burned.

    A more realistic cost for coal would be double that much, since coal-generated pollution costs run into the billions, including respiratory problems, not to mention global warming effects, which are both global in spite of local coal-burning.

    If Algae can be made at $400, and is carbon neutral, the world should adopt it and mandate it, to replace polluting coal burning, which is causing more damage than is considered in such a simplistic pricing scenario.

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