Algae to HEFA: Economics and Potential Development Trajectories for Deployment in the United States

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To reach the goals set by the US Department of Energy's Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) Grand Challenge, currently available feedstocks may be insufficient. Giving priority to developing, prototyping and reducing the cost of algal feedstock before investing and lining up locations is important. As the production of algal feedstocks advances, a simplified conversion approach using more mature technologies can help reduce the investment risk for algae-based fuels. Reducing process complexity to the steps described here [namely, conversion of lipids to HEFA (hydroprocessed esters and fatty acids) fuels and relegating the remainder of the biomass to anaerobic digestion or food/feed production] enables the near-term production of algal SAF but presents challenging economics depending on achievable cultivation costs and compositional quality. However, these economics can be improved by present-day policy incentives. With these incentives, the modeled algae-to-HEFA pathway could reach a minimum fuel selling price as low as $4.7 per gasoline gallon equivalent depending on the carbon intensity reduction that can be achieved compared with petroleum. Uncertainty about algal feedstock production maturity in the current state of technology and the future will play a large role in determining the economic feasibility of building algae-to-HEFA facilities. For example, if immaturity increases the feedstock price by even 10%, SAF production in 2050 is about 58% of the production which could have been achieved with mature feedstock. Additionally, growth in this conversion pathway can be notably boosted through the inclusion of subsidies, and also through higher-value coproducts or higher lipid yields beyond the scope of the process considered here.
Original languageAmerican English
Number of pages16
JournalBiofuels, Bioproducts and Biorefining
StatePublished - 2024

NREL Publication Number

  • NREL/JA-6A20-82155


  • algal fuel
  • biofuel
  • biomass scenario model
  • HEFA
  • system dynamics


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