Biodiversity Improves Life Cycle Sustainability Metrics in Algal Biofuel Production

David N. Carruthers, Casey M. Godwin, David C. Hietala, Bradley J. Cardinale, Xiaoxia Nina Lin, Phillip E. Savage

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Scopus citations


Algal biofuel has yet to realize its potential as a commercial and sustainable bioenergy source, largely due to the challenge of maximizing and sustaining biomass production with respect to energetic and material inputs in large-scale cultivation. Experimental studies have shown that multispecies algal polycultures can be designed to enhance biomass production, stability, and nutrient recycling compared to monocultures. Yet, it remains unclear whether these impacts of biodiversity make polycultures more sustainable than monocultures. Here, we present results of a comparative life cycle assessment (LCA) for algal biorefineries to compare the sustainability metrics of monocultures and polycultures of six fresh-water algal species. Our results showed that when algae were grown in outdoor experimental ponds, certain bicultures improved the energy return on investment (EROI) and greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) by 20% and 16%, respectively, compared to the best monoculture. Bicultures outperformed monocultures by performing multiple functions simultaneously (e.g., improved stability, nutrient efficiency, biocrude characteristics), which outweighed the higher productivity attainable by a monoculture. Our results demonstrate that algal polycultures with optimized multifunctionality lead to enhanced life cycle metrics, highlighting the significant potential of ecological engineering for enabling future environmentally sustainable algal biorefineries.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)9279-9288
Number of pages10
JournalEnvironmental Science and Technology
Issue number15
StatePublished - Aug 6 2019

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Chemistry
  • Environmental Chemistry


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