Friday, December 14, 2007

Shell to make Biofuel from Algae.

I have written on the subject of producing biodiesel from algae before, and it now looks that Royal Dutch Shell plc and HR Biopetroleum are to build a plant in Hawaii to grow algae and turn it into fuel. One very attractive feature of the strategy in general is the amount of diesel that might be "grown" per hectare compared with that derived from plants. According to the best estimates, somewhere over 100 tonnes of fuel might be synthesised per hectare from algae while 10 tonnes would be good going for the best crops, e.g. palm soya or jatropha, and probably just a tonne or so from rape.

Furthermore, since the algae need to absorb CO2 to grow their carbon weight, they offer a potential advantage of carbon sequestration, since although CO2 is released when the diesel is burned, the growth of the next crop of algae will take-up more of this important greenhouse gas. However, it is my understanding that the highest yields of algae involve using forced conditions of CO2 concentration which must be pumped into the reactors rather than simply leaving them open to the atmosphere to absorb ambient concentrations of the gas. It would be beneficial perhaps to locate algal production plants next to fossil-fuel powered electricity generating stations from which to catch CO2 and feed it to the algae.

However, the Hawaii facility intends to use open-air ponds to grow the algae in, which will be unmodified marine microalgae, indigenous to Hawaii, using patented methods. Presumably the latter have got around possible risks of contamination by other algal species with a lesser final yield of what is sometimes called "algoil." The technology has one more substantial benefit, and that is that unlike growing crops for fuel, which must eventually compete for a limited area of arable land with growing crops for food, the algal ponds can be placed on any land, including coastal areas which are no use for conventional agriculture.

The facility under question will be run by a Shell/HR Petroleum venture company, called Cellina, and will actually be located on the Kona coast of Hawaii Island, near to other facilities which also grow algae mostly for pharmaceuticals and food. The Cellina facility will use high pressure CO2 from cylinders to explore the potential of applying the gas from industrial e.g. power plants, as noted above. There is also a reduced demand on freshwater, which is likely to fail in supply worldwide and which some have predicted there will be wars over, since the algae can be grown in ponds filled with seawater.

I think this a very positive step, and it will be interesting to see how the project develops and if it is successful, just how easy it is to scale up the technology to match anywhere near the 30 billion barrels of oil from petroleum the world uses annually. In the latter respect, if technology based on algae is to provide part of our salvation in the Oil Dearth Era, it needs to be installed large and soon.

Related Reading.


Anonymous said...


Working the bugs into petroleum refining
Plans afoot to use microbes to tap vast stores of energy now beyond reach

CanWest News Service

Friday, December 14, 2007

An international team is planning to"feed" microbes in Canada's "deep biosphere" in a bid to liberate vast stores of energy now beyond reach.

"It's not as crazy as it sounds," says Steve Larter, a petroleum engineer at the University of Calgary, who heads the team that has identified a suite of micro-organisms that can transform gooey, heavy oil into clean-burning gas.

The microbial process, described in a paper in the journal Nature Wednesday, is already converting oil to methane and hydrogen in the lab.

And Canadian field experiments are planned for next year to see whether "feeding" and "fertilizing" naturally occurring organisms can accelerate the process underground, Larter says. He is not yet releasing details of the experiments being planned with the oil industry, but says heavy oil reservoirs near Lloydminster, which straddles the Alberta-Saskatchewan border, would be a good initial target.

The researchers have filed for patents on the microbial processes, which they estimate have the potential to "double" the amount of energy that could be produced from the world's known oil reserves.

"You are talking about a very substantial amount of energy," Larter says.

The implications could be huge for Canada, he told a media teleconference this week, speculating that the microbes might be able to produce "trillions" of feet of natural gas.

The scientists also raised the more distant, but tantalizing, prospect of manipulating the underground organisms to produce hydrogen gas from heavy oil.

The organisms could, at least in theory, liberate hydrogen while leaving the rest of the oil, its sulphur and carbon underground. Carbon dioxide, now generated in huge amounts by burning oil and other fossil fuels, is the major greenhouse gas linked to global warming and climate change.

"There's potential for a much greener version of the oil industry," Larter said in an interview.

The researchers have yet to prove the organisms can produce gas commercially.

But their research shows nature has been doing it on a vast scale for eons. Most of the six trillion barrels of heavy, or biodegraded, oil on the planet has been produced by microbes living in the "deep biosphere," which extends about two kilometres underground, says Ian Head, an environmental microbiologist at the University of Newcastle. He is co-author of the Nature report, which details the microbial pathways for the first time.

The microbes chew away on hydrocarbon molecules, releasing methane and hydrogen gas. In the process, they create heavy oil reservoirs, which Head describes as the most important and dramatic "hot spots" in the deep biosphere.

While microbes were first seen in oil in the 1920s, scientists are only now identifying the organisms and teasing out details of how they thrive in the absence of oxygen. There are several teams, including one led by U.S. gene expert Craig Venter, racing to put microbes to work producing clean energy.

Slater's team sealed samples from oil reservoirs in small glass flasks - "microcosms," as the scientists call them - and documented how the naturally occurring microbes in the samples transformed much of the oil into gas over the course of two years. They have also shown that the processes in the flasks mimics those seen in reservoirs across northern Alberta and other parts of the world, says geoscientist Jennifer Adams, a team member from the University of Calgary.

The researchers say micro-organisms have been living in the Canadian oilsands for close to 100 million years, degrading it to its current tar-like state.

Larter says it might be possible to produce methane gas directly from the oilsands, eliminating the need to dig up the oil-laden sand. But he said heavy oil is the first target.
© The Gazette (Montreal) 2007

As we wait for "new developments", some are building actively for a less oil intensive lifestyle, such as here:
also described by the builders as
Open Source Ecology*. I have read the 15 page website; it's a bit strange and outlandish, but it promises free designs, SW and more.

*daily blog available here:


Anonymous said...

Context is everything!
Thanks to
[] for this article -

Peak Oil Passnotes: On the Cusp

By Edward Tapamor
14 Dec 2007 at 12:30 PM GMT-05:00

PARIS ( -- In talking about the market in crude oil we often looks for items, events, and structures that repeat themselves. We pin some kind of faith on them because we are unable to see the future with any real clarity. For regular readers of this column, you will realise that this is the start of an explanation as to why we predicted crude oil would be $66.60 at Christmas. But - as well as begging the readers’ forgiveness - when these events fail to repeat, we can be sure something new is afoot.

Firstly, we would like to point out that last year our prediction for Christmas Eve was spot on at $61 a barrel. This year we felt that a similar process of shorting the market in the run-up to Christmas, as had happened in 2004, 2005 and 2006, would take place. Fourth time unlucky. It did not.

Although there is a huge amount written about the oil market, what is genuinely supporting the price of oil are the fundamentals. There is not enough spare capacity in the world and there has been increasing demand from certain areas, notably the U.S., China and India. This is not the fault of OPEC; it is not the fault of “speculators”; it is not the fault of “terrorists” and Middle Eastern governments. It is structural, it is the onset, however you see it coming - and this column does not think it is geological as such - of a peak in global oil production.

Whether the peak is at the current figure of 85 million barrels per day or can sneak up to 95 million barrels per day over the next decade is neither here nor there. In historical terms we are on the cusp. What is slightly worrying at the moment is how that cusp is taking shape.

In normal times a recession dampens oil demand. But at the moment we see many people in financial difficulty, we see a credit crisis, and we also see doggedly high inflation. But instead of weakening oil prices those prices have stayed firm. After oil breached $99 per barrel in the last month, it fell back to $86 per barrel, and many like us thought it would drop further due to impending signs of economic weakness. It did not.

In plain speaking, this is getting worrying. A recession is bad enough, but a recession with high inflation starts to create stagflation. If oil stays at, or around, the prices it achieved in 2007 then we could be in for some serious troubles. Remember that oil prices do not knock through into economies straight away, the impact is delayed, maybe as much as 18 months in some cases. For example in the European Union food prices have boosted inflation to 4.1% - those food prices have been boosted by energy, by oil.

As an example, the credit crisis has not suddenly exploded over one night, one speech or one erroneous political statement. There was no single factor that blasted it into the public consciousness. Instead we had the slow drip effect. Some people had been warning for years that printing extra money to stave off recession - by creating false liquidity - was merely postponing the hurt. It may even end up making that hurt worse.

So the bubble by all that lovely extra cash sucked up more energy at a time when major nations were emerging from the economic hinterland, notably China and India. The result has been the fundamentals that drive the oil price - short spare capacity, creating commodity inflation, creating booming costs, which in turn hinder new projects coming on stream. A vicious circle, a bubble awaiting a pin prick...(snip)


Anonymous said...

Some research I would like to share with you, starting with this:

"..Pan's arguments for environmental change are pragmatic, citing fiscal responsibility and continued development to appeal to the typical mindset of the Chinese official. He's been China's biggest advocate of adopting the forward-thinking Green GDP, which figures environmental losses into GDP calculations. Point out how much money the country is losing to fighting epidemics and cleaning up pollution, the logic goes, and leaders will start to pay attention.

More generally, Pan is a proponent of what he calls an "ecological civilization": a reordering of society around green concerns. The argument here is similar to the logic behind the Green GDP: the country has no choice. Trailing behind the West in technological development and unable to export its pollution, China has to face the effects of growth. If it doesn't, things will only get worse. But, Pan says, this gives China a unique opportunity:

It was thought that an ecological civilization would first appear in developed countries, as it is in those countries that ecological crises first occurred. Nevertheless, this expectation has failed to materialize. One reason is that Western countries are able to relieve themselves from ecological crises by depending on their strong technological and financial capacity. The other reason is that the strong inertia of Western industrial civilization will last for a long time and third is that the Western developed countries are transferring ecological problems to less developed regions. While the Western world is losing the opportunity to develop an ecological civilization, there is a possibility for China to realize a leap-forward in this regard.

Quoted from:

I'll also be grappling with the after effects of Bali; great stuff, e.g.

"..The final paragraph of the BBC report simply states:

"We need to find a new mechanism that values standing forests," said Andrew Mitchell, executive director of the Global Canopy Programme, an alliance of research institutions.

"Ultimately, if this does its job, [deforestation] goes down to nothing."

Mr Mitchell said the only feasible source of sufficient funds was a global carbon market.

But many economists believe mandatory emissions targets are needed to create a meaningful global market.."



Unknown said...

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Unknown said...

nice blog and have lots of stuff here......

Professor Chris Rhodes said...

Thanks for the link - yes indeed there is a lot of good stuff on that site.