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By Robert Rapier on May 10, 2010 with 28 responses

Some Random Notes of Algal Fuels

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The first draft of my book chapter on jatropha and algae as fuel sources has been submitted. My posting frequency here will now go back to normal. Those book chapters are a lot of work, but I enjoy writing them because I always learn a lot as I am doing the research. Here are five issues that I covered in the chapter, with references in case you want to read up on some of the issues.

1. The present cost of algae production from open ponds is too high to make fuel production economically viable.

There are a number of commercial algae operations around the world today, and costs per ton are well known in the U.S. It costs at least $5,000 to produce 1 ton of algae. If you optimistically presume that there is 30% oil embedded in that ton, then that translates into around $50 per gallon of oil, before it has been extracted and converted to diesel. Therefore, commercial operations based on open ponds will have that problem to contend with (Benemann 2009).

2. Photobioreactors (PBRs) are too expensive.

The capital cost for photobioreactors is at least $150 per square meter, approximately ten times the cost of open pond systems (Abayomi et al. 2009). Optimistically, the best possible yield you are ever going to get from that square meter, based on the amount of sunlight that algae can convert into biomass, amounts to less than 2 gallons. The actual current best yields as reported in the literature are under 0.5 gallons per square meter. So the problem there becomes a capital cost of $150 to produce at best 2 gallons of fuel a year. And we haven’t even gotten into operating costs.

3. The energy inputs into the algae production process are very high.

There were numerous reports in the literature that cited the high energy inputs required to produce algae and convert it into fuel. At least one comprehensive life cycle assessment done by the University of Virginia concluded that algae yields less energy than it takes to produce it (Clarens et al. 2010). This LCA was cradle to gate, and did not consider the energy cost of converting the algal oil into fuel.

4. Some algae don’t need sunlight, and can produce oil in a fermentor.

The fermentation approach appears to hold some promise. Cited costs in the literature were roughly an order of magnitude lower than either the open pond or PBR approaches. The caveat here is that the algae must be fed a sugar source, but the ultimate goal is to produce that sugar from cellulose. This is the approach that Solazyme is taking, and I am not betting against their eventual success.

5. Don’t believe the cited per acre yields that some proponents claim.

The very high algal oil yields that you see some proponents suggest are all fictional. Nobody, anywhere, is making thousands of gallons of algal oil per acre. What people do is extrapolate best case lab results to thousands of acres, and then report those numbers – often as if they are actually achieving them. Or, they calculate best cases based on theoretical solar insolation. So it is best to treat those claims of high algal yields skeptically. As my friend John Benemann says, when you hear someone talk about yields like that, ask them how much oil they have for sale.

My conclusion is that with the possible exception of the fermentation approaches, the issues that caused NREL to abandon algae in the mid 1990’s are still pressing issues today. I see very little likelihood that companies basing their plans on either open pond systems or photobioreactors can be successful without heavy, perpetual doses of government funding.

Algae is still a lab project for the most part, and companies that have moved to commercialize it presently have little chance of economic viability. However, having said that, I think there are some niches in which it might eventually work, and I do favor spending research money in the hopes that in 10 or 15 years, commercialization is a realistic goal.

References

Abayomi, A., Tampier, M., Bibeau, E. (2009). Microalgae Technologies and Processes for Biofuels/Bioenergy Production in British Columbia. Retrieved May 2, 2010 from http://www.bcic.ca/images/stor…..report.pdf.

Benemann, J. (2009). Microalgae biofuels: a brief introduction. Retrieved April 24, 2010 from http://www.adelaide.edu.au/bio…..uction.pdf

Clarens, A., Resurreccion, E., White, M., Colosi, L. (2010). Environmental Life Cycle Comparison of Algae to Other Bioenergy Feedstocks, Environmental Science & Technology, 44 (5), 1813-1819

Footnote

For anyone interested, below is the Table of Contents in the draft I just submitted:

The Potential of Algae and Jatropha as Biofuel Sources

1            Introduction

2            Sustainability

3            Renewable Diesel

3.1        Biodiesel

3.2        Green Diesel

4            Jatropha Curcas as a Source of Biofuel

4.1        Jatropha Description

4.2        Cultivation

4.3        Harvesting and Processing

4.4        Jatropha Oil

4.5        Jatropha Biofuel Feasibility Calculations

4.6        Conclusions on the Near Term Viability of Jatropha-Based Biofuel

5            Algae as a Source of Biofuel

5.1        Algae Description

5.2        Algal Oil

5.3        Algae Production Systems

5.4        Algae Life Cycle Assessment

5.5        Algal Biofuel Feasibility Calculations

5.6        Conclusions on the Near Term Viability of Algal Biofuel

6            Conclusions

7            Conversion Factors

7.1        Lower Heating Values

8            References

  1. By Klaus-Martin Meyer on May 11, 2010 at 1:10 am

    I am quite optimistic for Jatropha since Airlines like Deutsche Lufthansa are testing Jatropha Oil

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  2. By rrapier on May 11, 2010 at 1:50 am

    Hi Klaus,

    Jatropha makes a nice fuel. There is no doubt about that. The problems are in the costs of production and scalability. The fact that Lufthansa has tested jatropha doesn’t say anything about commercial viability, but BP’s abandonment of their jatropha partnership with D1 Oils does speak to the short term commercial prospects.

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  3. By paul-n on May 11, 2010 at 2:19 am

    RR, I presume the “oil producing” algae is a specific strain, and not ordinary blue-green algae?  Because it is VERY easy to grow lots of blue green algae, often when it’s not wanted.  I have seen algae ponds used for final polishing of sewage effluent (lots of N and P, ideal conditions).  The algae was then skimmed and sprayed onto farmland – a pretty good use for it, I’d say.

    if you wanted to grow algae for bulk biomass, as opposed to oil, I would expect the economics to be much better, though what you do with the (wet) biomass is a different question.

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  4. By DHARMESH MAHAJAN on May 11, 2010 at 6:52 am

    Hello RR & fellow cohorts :-) ,

    Thanks RR for another interesting article on a very enticing subject for thousands (if not hundred of thousands) admirer of Algal biofuels.

    On 15 May 2008, God of Algae (His fan following calls him Dr John Benemann) sent a small note to my mail-id alongwith one of his presentation on the topic of “Ponds Vs PBR” . That single Presentation was sufficient enough for us to get enlightened on many things which we missed. In any case, Dr. Benemann has spent more years in Algae than the days I have spent on mother earth (I am 1978 born) so it was an honor that he reverted back. Such a sweet & down to earth person he is even though his words decides “Go/No Go” for many projects around the globe. In contrast, I saw many self proclaimed tribe of super genius guys who knew nothing but carried tons of arrogance.

    RR, you are very correct to say that people claim exorbitant figures which simply fails on Laws of nature majority of the time (7.2 GJ insolation/m2/Year for US Southwest X factors equation). Still Algae has become a Darling of many for multiple reasons. The kind of potential it has in terms of Productivity (Oil produced/Year/Hectare) is mind blowing & has made it one of most prominent figure on Biofuel Red carpet events. Still problems are many to be resolved till it realy see the light of day.

    Just for ref to fellow cohorts, Vinod Khosla has discussed few factors which they consider before investing in his presentation titled “Algae – What will it take?”. They somehow summarize the core issue with Algae as well. Here are the points that VK mentioned:

    • Attack manageable but material problems
    • Technology that achieves unsubsidized competitveness (Remind me of Biodiesel !!! Subsidies lost, commercial viability lost)
    • Technology that scales (Managing big ponds, a pain !!!)
    • Manageable startup cost & short innovation cycles ( Short innovation cycle….Dr. Benemann knows it far far better than anyone else)
    • Declining cost with scale – trajectory matters (Ultimate rule of success for all big businesses around the globe)

    In short, he has further discussed about he key areas which still need answers & need some Black Swan solutions in the days to come. Issues that he touched were Algae harvesting, containment cost (Volume), energy cost (Move/Mix/add light to thousands of gallons of Media round the clock).

    I personally believe that it is not that Algae is not produced commercially so far. That is being done for decades but in all those cases, as cited by Dr. Benemann in many of his presentations, end products are High value nutraceuticals etc (Astaxanthin/Spirulina). One must check Dr. Benemann’s presentation titled “Overview – Algal Oil to Biofuels”. What a beautiful piece of work that presentation is Dr. Benemann. Fortunately many companies are working on maknig down stream operation commercially viable. I just stumbled on one such firm some 2 weeks. Check
    Also, the video posted by Origin Oil is worth a watch
    . One more company in the harvesting arean is Aquaflow .

    Anyways that is quite a post. Hope to learn many more things on the subject from fellow cohorts @ beloved Robert Rapier’s channel.

    Dharmesh Mahajan

    Disclaimer: As mentioned in earlier post, thoughts mentioned here are from my own perspective & learning that I get from Think-tanks like Dr Benemann/Robert Rapier/Vinod Khosla & others. I believe expressing what you feel on such wonderful platforms as the one provided here by RR give an opportunity to all of us to look at other’s thoughts/presumptions/misconceptions.
    We learn something & we correct something, together we become warriors to save Mother Earth or atleast try to do so.

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  5. By dharmeshmahajan on May 11, 2010 at 7:35 am

    Somehow I am not able to post weblinks properly. Either I am not getting it in a right way or there is some issue from the server side of website. Weblinks will appear at wrong places in my post above, kindly excuse me this time. I will check with the Website administrator to resolve the issue/correct my way of linking a website. Sorry for inconvenience. If others are facing this issue than please share.

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  6. By Takchess on May 12, 2010 at 6:42 am

    I stopped reading these Algae articles closely. During the past years, the articles and conclusions appear to be pretty much the same.

    * We would all like algae to work
    * Algae to Oil ratio’s are not very high
    * It’s difficult to grow consistently
    * It takes a lot of energy to move water
    * it takes a lot of energy to separate algae from oil (this may be improving)
    * equipment is expensive
    * Most articles that argue these points can not back them up with concrete examples.

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  7. By turdfurguson on May 11, 2010 at 10:20 am

    I think algae will have a large impact in a post petroleum world. The majority of liquid fuel use goes to personal transport. If you electrify personal transport, then the remainder of liquid fuel demand would be taken up by aviation and heavy equipment – things that are difficult to electrify. The problem with the open pond model is that the surface algae eventually chokes off the deeper layers and it then takes energy input to mix and / or harvest the mature algae. I had an idea that with the oncoming technology of compact and modularized fission reactors, could you create a nuclear powered matrix of “light tubes” in the ponds? I’m aware of the cost, but the future problem isn’t really a matter of cost, but a matter of scarcity of liquid fuels. If you had a nuclear power source, basically a nuclear battery, that would fuel the algae growth process – it might be very economical over the lifespan of the reactor / battery.

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  8. By fatalgae on May 11, 2010 at 10:30 am

    Klaus-Martin Meyer said:

    I am quite optimistic for Jatropha since Airlines like Deutsche Lufthansa are testing Jatropha Oil


     

    Algae ponds are old technology.  They all have contamination problems and do not produce more than 5,000 gallons per acre per year.  Most algae producers are going to vertical-closed loop PBRS and fermentors.  They produce 50,000 – 250,000 gallons per acre per year.   Also, grams per liter are going up substantially.  Algae will harvest 2-3 times per day. 

    The CAPEX and OPEX have come down substantially in the last 2 years.  Co-products are extremely profitable.  Most algae producers start with co-products and baack into the algae oil.  All big oil is invested in algae.  They want the algae industry to grow to 20 million gallons over the next couple of years.

     

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  9. By savro on May 11, 2010 at 2:58 pm

    @Dharmesh, we’re taking a look into what messed up the formatting for the links.

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  10. By dharmeshmahajan on May 11, 2010 at 3:26 pm

    Samuel R. Avro said:

    @Dharmesh, we’re taking a look into what messed up the formatting for the links.


    Thanks Samuel. I leave the cursor at the place where I need to put the weblink in the passage followed by clicking “Link” button which pops up another micro window where I need to put weblink. I did that all the time but when final replies were posted permanently, I realized that links ended up at strange location in a strange way. Feel free to mail me for correct procedure or mistake I might  have done.

    Thanks again.

    DharmeshCool

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  11. By dharmeshmahajan on May 11, 2010 at 3:42 pm

    fatalgae said:

    Algae ponds are old technology.  They all have contamination problems and do not produce more than 5,000 gallons per acre per year.  Awesome, Fatalgae, you made our day. How many Million gallons you can fetch for us at a good rate contract. we will be more then happy to have 5000 Gallons/Acre. 

    Most algae producers are going to vertical-closed loop PBRS and fermentors.  They produce 50,000 – 250,000 gallons per acre per year.   Also, grams per liter are going up substantially.  Algae will harvest 2-3 times per day.  Now I know what is “Day dreaming” is all about. There is something called “Laws of conservation of energy” which says energy can neither be created nor be destroyed but can be converted from one form to other. Algae ponds normally gets this big chunk of energy through solar insolation, OK. Now come with some maths & show that you are getting 50,000 (Let us talk on lower side) gallons per acre of oil in a Net Energy Positive scenario. That will really enlighten us buddy.

    The CAPEX and OPEX have come down substantially in the last 2 years.  Co-products are extremely profitable.  Most algae producers start with co-products and baack into the algae oil.  All big oil is invested in algae.  They want the algae industry to grow to 20 million gallons over the next couple of years. Wow, that is how you made our day man. So many good things happening all together. Jesus, our prayers have worked so well.

     

    Jokes aside fatalgae, we will be glad to see some hard numbers, some references, some real stuff to crunch upon. You must thank god that RR is not yet back else he will chew you for this kind of joke on his blog Smile

     


     

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  12. By Benny BND Cole on May 11, 2010 at 4:49 pm

    The Israelis also looked closely at algae, and gave up. You can imagine the incentive they had to make it work,. Still, no-go.

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  13. By rrapier on May 11, 2010 at 7:22 pm

    RR, I presume the “oil producing” algae is a specific strain, and not ordinary blue-green algae?

    Paul, there are a number of different kinds of algae that produce lipids, but most do so at very low levels. There are a few select strains that can produce high oil contents, but this generally requires the algae to be stressed to shift it from growth mode into lipid production mode. The problem with that is that it stunts the growth. So algal blooms are clearly in a growth mode, and unlikely to have high oil concentrations.

    RR

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  14. By Takchess on May 12, 2010 at 6:42 am

    I stopped reading these Algae articles closely. During the past years, the articles and conclusions appear to be pretty much the same.

    * We would all like algae to work
    * Algae to Oil ratio’s are not very high
    * It’s difficult to grow consistently
    * It takes a lot of energy to move water
    * it takes a lot of energy to separate algae from oil (this may be improving)
    * equipment is expensive
    * Most articles that argue these points can not back them up with concrete examples.

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  15. By Wendell Mercantile on May 12, 2010 at 9:46 am

    Here’s the thing to remember about algal fuels:

    The oil we are burning now came from algae and plankton ~ algae that lived millions of years of ago and that was transformed into oil by millions of years of high heat and pressure.

    Clearly, oil can come from algae. The kicker is finding something to replace those millions of years of free heat and pressure. There will always be a high cost to replacing all that free heat and pressure Mother Nature provided for the original algae to oil conversion.

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  16. By Al Fin on May 12, 2010 at 12:01 pm

    No one expects algal fuels to be competitive within the next 10 years. Take that as a given. One cannot predict the technology of algae-to-fuels as it will exist 10 years from now — particularly based upon the technology of 1 to 5 years ago.

    Algae companies can produce high value products — much more valuable than bulk fuels — then leverage success in such products to more efficient processes for bulk fuel production.

    Growing algae as rapidly growing biomass, then converting the biomass to fuels via pyrolysis, gasification, fermentation etc. does not rely upon pure algal strains, or oil production and extraction.

    The long-term key is in production of oil in sustaining colonies of microbes, which excrete the oil for easy separation from the microbes — which go on living, reproducing, and excreting oil. The exact nature of the oil will be variable depending upon what is needed (and what the microbe can survive).

    Ten years to early competitiveness. Another ten years for rapid scale up.

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  17. By paul-n on May 12, 2010 at 12:13 pm

    Takchess,

     

    I would agree with all your points there about algae oil – it sounds eerily like the promises of fusion power – always a possibility, but never a reality.

     

    RR, the reason I bring up the blue-green algae is that it can be grown, easily, at large scale.  Everyone is concentrating on the oil types you describe; very difficult to grow, controlled conditions, monoculture strains etc.

    I think a better approach is to start with what grows really, really well, and see what useful biofuel you can make from it, which may or may not be oil.  Algae can be dewatered using conventional systems used for sewage sludge, right down top 10% moisture content.  At this point you can pelletize it and you have a solid combsution fuel. Of course, you gasify it to make methanol or F-T oil too, but you will only get 30% of the energy out as the finished product.  But then again, when the algae is used for oil production, that’s all the yield you get.

    I like the approach of this company in NZ;

    http://www.aquaflowgroup.com/p…..wastewater

    They are growing wild strains, in open ponds of sewage effluent, several acres of them,and harvesting an dewatering the algae.  They are still working out what to do with the algae, and have done oil production tests (Honeywell has partnered with them on this), though I am not convinced this is the best route to go.

    But the fact is, they have (by algae standards) a large operation, and a growing wild algae with minimal inputs, analagous to ordinary farming, where as the PBR approach is the equivalent of greenhouse farming – intensive and high yield, but not very scalable.

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  18. By rrapier on May 12, 2010 at 1:25 pm

    No one expects algal fuels to be competitive within the next 10 years.

    Oh, I know a lot of people who do. In fact, a number have contacted me as a result of this article suggesting they are already competitive. My feeling is that most of these people confuse the ease of growing algae – which is trivial – to the difficultly of growing, harvesting, extracting, and converting a specific high oil-yielding strain.

    By the way, I am reviewing a paper on algae right now. Interestingly, it uses you as a source that says algae can be produced for $0.05 per liter. The reference they used is:

    Algae biofuels for $0.20 a gallon? Message posted to:
    http://2100.blogspot.com/2009/…..k-oil.html. (2/23/10). The link is dead, though.

    RR

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  19. By rrapier on May 12, 2010 at 2:15 pm

    A gentleman who sent me a video asked me to put a message here if I wanted to talk to him again. So feel free to contact me, because I have a number of questions/comments after seeing the video.

    Thanks, RR

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  20. By Al Fin on May 12, 2010 at 3:57 pm

    I should re-phrase: No one in the business who is honest and responsible, expects algal bio-oils to be competitive with fossil fuels before 2020.

    Algae is very easy to grow. “Trivially” easy, as you say. So if you can efficiently use the quick-growing biomass to make substitutes for petroleum — as in plastics, fuels, chemicals — you can make an impact via algal biomass more quickly than via algal oils.

    Let me help you with that link: http://alfin2100.blogspot.com/…..k-oil.html . It reports on an invention that claimed to reduce the cost of separation, harvesting, and dewatering of algae from $875 per ton to $1.92 per ton! I mis-read the report, and hit “publish” a few minutes too soon. Wishful thinking. But that is not to say that such inventions are not important.

    Small improvements in the production of algal oils will eventually add up to big improvements over the margins you are quoting.

    I have been guilty of wishful thinking more than once. For a long time, I thought that big wind energy could be an important way to get society off of coal. Now I know better.

    Likewise with some of the claims being made for different types of biofuels, including algae. People — including myself — wanted to believe the claims, so we repeated them as if they were fact. Some of us are learning as we go.

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  21. By Wendell Mercantile on May 12, 2010 at 5:32 pm

    Algae is very easy to grow. “Trivially” easy, as you say.

    Also trivially easy to transform into oil ~ let it sink to the bottom of the ocean and wait 300 million years. Then bore some deep holes to recover it.

    The rub is the energy it takes to speed up a 300 million year process into a few weeks.

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  22. By Optimist on May 12, 2010 at 7:24 pm

    The fermentation approach appears to hold some promise. Cited costs in the literature were roughly an order of magnitude lower than either the open pond or PBR approaches. The caveat here is that the algae must be fed a sugar source, but the ultimate goal is to produce that sugar from cellulose. This is the approach that Solazyme is taking, and I am not betting against their eventual success.

    Why on earth would you use algae for that? Anaerobic bacteria would do just fine, with the added advantages of:
    1. Eating anything you throw at them, as opposed to expensive sugars.
    2. Producing a gaseous product that easily separates from the growth media (unlike ethanol, lipids, etc.).

    It seems pretty obvious that to compete you’d have to do this in open ocean (you need that kind of scale to make a dent) and harvest the fastest growing wild type regardless of lipid content. Lipid -> biodiesel? Nice for DIY, not so much for commercial. For commercial you need to take every ounce of biomass you can get and gasify…

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  23. By Benny BND Cole on May 13, 2010 at 12:27 pm

    Gee, if people can grow algae right now and make money converting it to oil, then let’s all relax. Those people will have no problem raising kaboodles of venture capital, and soon we will have flourishing algae-to-oil businesses everywhere.

    More likely, there are people who want to raise kaboodles of venture capital. That is the business model. The end result is not important–the important part is raising money, and cutting off a hunk for yours truly.

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  24. By Alexander Ač on May 13, 2010 at 3:49 pm

    So, this means that we should turn to electric cars as soon as possible and as much as posible. We know how to generate low-carbon electricity (nuclear) and we know to make electric cars…

    best,
    Alex

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  25. By paul-n on May 14, 2010 at 2:17 pm

    Benny, you have summed up the business plan of almost all the alternative energy start ups right there!

    Far easier to sell VC’s on a dream of a new technology than to actually develop it.  The dot com crowd worked that one out and now they are many of the drivers behind these flashy start ups.  If the quality of their work matched their marketing and websites, that would be a different story…

     

     

     

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  26. By Enzo on May 16, 2010 at 9:25 am

    from your article

    I think there are some niches in which it might eventually work

    What are those niches?
    I hope you have more articles on butanol soon, I love those.

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  27. By rrapier on May 16, 2010 at 1:56 pm

    Enzo said:

    from your article

    I think there are some niches in which it might eventually work

    What are those niches?

    I hope you have more articles on butanol soon, I love those.


     

    Hi Enzo,

     

    I wrote about that in some detail in an earlier essay. See: http://www.consumerenergyrepor…..el-niches/

    I have something new on butanol in the works.

    RR

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  28. By Frank Weigert on May 20, 2010 at 3:13 pm

    For Wendell Mercantile

    You don’t have to wait 300 million years for plan to produce hydrocarbons. Some plants have the biochemistry to do this directly. Generally, they produce oligomers of isoprene (C5H8). Pine trees produce materials like turpentine. Calvin found a shrub related to the rubber tree that produces isoprene trimers which can be directly used as fuel for a diesel engine.

    “The Sunny Side of the Future,” CHEMTECH, June 1977, page 352

    Melvin Calvin, a Berkeley Nobel Prize winner, spent 25 years of his life studying plants that makes hydrocarbons. A summary of his work is available on the Web, but you cannot access it directly. You have to get there via a bridge site. Here is the bridge site’s URL:

    http://www.osti.gov/bridge/pro…..ti_id=7286

    From there, click on the “Full text PDF” icon to view Calvin’s work.

    The most relevant section begins on page 15.

    Calvin identified the genus Botryococcus as a remarkable source of hydrocarbons. He reports the dry weight of this algae is 86% hydrocarbon! True to his interest, he identified the structures of some of the major components in the mixture. They fall into two groups: linear isoprene oligomers and cyclized steroids. Both of these products could be burned instead of coal to produce electricity and fed to refineries in place of petroleum.

    For Optimist

    The winning solution will be the one that will use the least new capital investment. Growing plants in greenhouses or bioreactors is always going to be more expensive than farming them. The open ocean has no land use issues. Converting lipids to biodiesel requires two additional pieces of capital investment. You have to make the short chain alcohol ( methanol or ethanol) and then run the transesterification. Both add costs relative to having the algae produce hydrocarbons directly. Plant based hydrocarbons can be fed to existing petroleum refineries and burned in place of coal to generate electricity.

    Gasification followed by the Fischer-Tropsch production of hydrocarbons also adds two investment intensive steps to the production of fuel intermediates. These two steps still only produce hydrocarbons that must be furthered processed. Why not let the plants produce them?

    For Alexander Ac

    The nuclear power industry keeps harping on the fact that they generate low carbon electricity. Electricity produced from biomass can be carbon neutral. Any statement about the economics of nuclear power that does not include a discussion of the Price-Anderson Act is propaganda. Without this government subsidy, the industry would be out of business in the United States tomorrow.

    VCs

    Venture capitalists are not the solution to our energy problem. They are part of the problem because of the perverse way they pay themselves. Like real-estate brokers, they take a piece of all the money they raise. They prefer to raise money for expensive projects. The world needs cheap projects. A solution that works for rich, guilty, environmentalists in the West, but does not work for China, India, or Sudan, … is not a solution.

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