Monday, October 26, 2009

Biofuel From Algae - Different Prognoses.

I have read two entirely differing articles about the imminence and feasibility of growing algae and converting it into biofuel to stave-off the paucity of oil in the "post peak oil era" as that final descent has been dubbed in some quarters. We have on the one hand the valourous trumpet "Algae biofuel propels a brave new world" in fanfare that the status quo of plentiful liquid fuels can be sustained even in the absence of crude oil, and on the other is a rather more Job's comforting title: "Commercial fuel from green algae still years away." Well, of course it is, but it is a better bet than other alternative schemes particularly hydrogen which has gone rather quiet of late... or is that just my imagination, or perhaps I read the wrong papers these days?

Why do I say "of course it is"? For the simple and sustained reason that appends all efforts to find alternative energy, that it must be got up from scratch. In all cases, there is no commercial scale output from them, beit hydrogen or fuel from algae. Liquid fuels are remarkable and without them the modern world would not have arisen in the form it has. For transportation alone we need to find something like 60% of 30 billion barrels worth of crude oil each and every year, and to ramp up that supplication year on year if we are to believe that the market forces will continue to dictate further demand - i.e. that capitalism is sustainable both as a practice and a philosophy.

I doubt the preservation of either and the energy and resources curve is connecting its ends into a finite loop, set at an elastic limit bent only now in contraction. I have dismissed the hydrogen economy in the immediate term, and since that is defined by plentiful energy which will not be available in the later term, (even beyond a few decades), it isn't going to happen, at least not on the scale of the crude oil economy and there rests the crux of the problem. Algae at least can be grown, with sufficient engineering, on a large scale that does not require prime crop land in competition with growing food crops (as rules out conventional biofuel strategies beyond grants from governments and the European Union), and there is no demand for freshwater since saline water does even better to promote the growth of certain highly oil-yielding strains.

Algae can be fed from waste-streams of CO2 from fossil-fuel power stations as a carbon elimination strategy and can also decontaminate groundwater, so there is a potential mix of environmental solutions in aid of a common goal of fuel beyond oil. That said, it is going to take years, and the sooner we get going the better. I have argued before that the best use of algal technology is to sustain smaller settlements of perhaps a few thousand grown in a "village pond" and processed for local use. There is still no means to maintaining global transportation and globalisation in the absence of cheap oil, and the time limit for this gargantuan and conceptual change is perhaps a decade.


Related Reading.
(1) "Algae fuel propels a brave new world,"By Dominic Rusche: http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/industry_sectors/natural_resources/article6823231.ece
(2) "Commercial green fuel still years away," By Laura Isensee: http://www.reuters.com/article/GCA-GreenBusiness/idUSTRE5975OT20091008

4 comments:

Soylent said...

This doesn't make any sense to me.

If you can produce large quantities of protein and fat, omega-3 fats in particular, you shouldn't be trying to convert the fat into biodiesel and the left over biomass into ethanol/DME/diesels.

What you should be doing is producing a fish-feed that can replace fish-meal and soy for fish-farming. It requires much less processing than making biodiesel and it puts an armada of fishing vessels out of work(including the fuel they consume). Fully half the worlds fish is farmed rather than caught, with cheap protein and high quality fat from algae this industry could grow even more rapidly.

Next you should be thinking about how algae can be used directly, safely and deliciously for human consumption. Wheat was once disgusting; then we figured out that you can make bread, pasta, pizza, buns, cookies, textured gluten meat-substitutes and all sorts of other goodies that make wheat delicious.

I think it's very likely that oil is already well into decline at the point where you're ready to move on to biofuels from algae. Oil will have already been partially substituted for by electrified rail, electric or CNG vehicles and nuclear powered ships. You're probably going to want to make use of algae oil as a feedstock for pesticides, plastics, medicine, explosives, elastomers, glue etc. rather than a fuel.

energybalance said...

Good point. I see algal production working well on a local level grown in a "village pond" you might say. So indeed, as a crop that can be grown without using high quality crop-land, with saline water and its other advantages, it may serve to contribute as a food source.

I gave a lecture at Kingston University in London a couple of weeks ago entitled " providing Fuel, Food and Pharmaceuticals - Once There is no More Oil" where I dos tress that algae in particular can serve as non-oil-based carbon feedstock for food and chemicals, rather than just an oil-fuel substitute.

I might summarise that in a posting here to show my views on the subject.

Regards,

Chris.

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Monica said...

see http://replenishenergy.org/default.aspx for algae start-up info