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Life cycle assessment of microalgae-derived biodiesel

Lookup NU author(s): Dr Tom Bradley, Dr Mohammad RajaeifarORCiD, Dr Andrew Smallbone, Professor Tony Roskilly, Sharon Joyce, Professor Oliver Heidrich



This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC BY 4.0).


© 2023, The Author(s).Purpose: Microalgae-derived biofuels are considered a low-carbon alternative to fossil fuels. Nevertheless, as with all biofuels, there is still uncertainty around their sustainability. Most life cycle assessments (LCA) of microalgae biofuels so far used lab-based, scaled-up lab experimental data or data from the scientific literature. This article, provides evidence and analysis, undertaking an LCA using real-world data from an industrial facility that uses a combination of photobioreactor and fermenter systems. Methods: The current well-to-wheel LCA study aimed to compare the environmental impacts of microalgae biodiesel production—under different energy regimes—and with petroleum-derived diesel. The functional unit was considered as “combustion of 1 MJ (Lower Heating Value) of algal biodiesel in an internal combustion engine (as B100)”. This LCA study considers the environmental and energy impacts from the construction of the facility, as well as those impacts from the operation of the facility. The foreground LCI data was collected from a real-world one-hectare microalgae production pilot facility. ReCiPe, IPCC AR5 (GWP100 and GWP20) and Global Temperature Potential (GTP) were implemented to assess the life cycle environmental impacts. Results and discussion: The assessment shows that when infrastructure is included, microalgae-derived biofuels are not yet favourable over petroleum-derived fuels on GWP100, and this becomes worse over shorter timescales. In terms of climate change (GWP100), whilst 1 MJ (LHV) of fossil-derived diesel would emit 8.84 × 10−2 kg CO2eq, 1 MJ of microalgae-derived biodiesel from a solar photovoltaic powered facility would emit 1.48 × 10−1 kg CO2eq. To be equal to petroleum-derived diesel in terms of GWP100, or perform better, productivity of the microalgae production system needs to be improved as the most effective solution. The results also showed that electricity and infrastructure were major sources of environmental impacts, as well as the yeast used within the fermenter. Moreover, it takes 0.99 MJ of direct energy per 1 MJ of microalgae biofuel produced, similar to the fossil fuel industry for 1 MJ of diesel. Conclusions: Using infrastructure and operational models, the study shows that the facility does not compare well with petroleum-derived diesel unless productivity can be increased. Productivity improvements, be it through improvements to microalgae strains or improved photobioreactor designs, should be a priority to ensure microalgae become a sustainable fuel feedstock. Electricity use should be reduced as well, again, through improved cultivation system designs. In terms of the current system, the high impacts of yeast should be addressed, either through co-locating yeast production or through ensuring specific sources with lower impacts. Extracting lipids will effectively waste some high-value products, whilst the waste can be expected to be a mixture of unextracted lipids, polysaccharides or fibre, some proteins and minerals. It is also shown that harmonisations of the assessments are needed for future studies and real-world operation facilities to conclusively decide if microalgae should be used as fuel or if they would be better used for other products, such as feed or high-value products.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Bradley T, Rajaeifar MA, Kenny A, Hainsworth C, del Pino V, del Valle Inclan Y, Povoa I, Mendonca P, Brown L, Smallbone A, Roskilly AP, Joyce S, Heidrich O

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment

Year: 2023

Volume: 28

Pages: 590–609

Print publication date: 01/05/2023

Online publication date: 04/04/2023

Acceptance date: 27/01/2023

Date deposited: 28/04/2023

ISSN (print): 0948-3349

ISSN (electronic): 1614-7502

Publisher: Springer Science and Business Media Deutschland GmbH


DOI: 10.1007/s11367-023-02140-6


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Funder referenceFunder name
GTP 50/100/500