Friday, October 9, 2009

Another thought on Algae

I occasionally write about the potential advantages that might come from growing algae as a source of biodiesel and other liquid fuels. However I have also tried to point out that it is not something that will allow you to drive your truck for ever on the green slime that is growing in your pond, starting tomorrow afternoon.

There is a long process of validation and scaling up that will be required to construct a viable productive industry, large enough to make a significant contribution to the nations supply. And by significant I mean in and around the million barrels a day mark. In an earlier post I tried to delineate some of the technical issues, and in another post the reasons why it will likely take between ten and twenty years before we see that level of success.

To get into that process will, of course, require some initial ideas with promise, and a significant amount of investment (for example General Atomics, Exxon, BP and Boeing - to name but four of the companies involves with very large investments in the potential of the technology). However it is often not clear how far along these developments are, relative to the hurdles that they have to overcome.

However, there has been an article by Emily Waltz in Mother Jones that recently pointed out to possible investors in the technology that they need to do at least the usual levels of due diligence before investing in the technology. It points out that there are something on the order of 200 companies worldwide that are working on the topic, but that it is not yet possible to purchase commercially available oil from any of them. It cites, in fact, the journey of one individual who visited apparently 40 of the companies in the United States, and concluded that he was better off starting up his own company than going to work for any of those that he had visited.

I remain convinced that there is a considerable potential for the process to become viable. However there are a considerable number of hurdles that have to be crossed before that point can be reached. An immediate rush to large scale trials can gloss over some of these problems with unfortunate results, not only for that individual project, but also for the reputation of the technology as a whole.

This is perhaps most recently demonstrated by the fate of Greenfuel Technologies about whom the above article does not stint its scorn:
The company insisted it could produce oil at the equivalent of more than 44,000 gallons per acre per year. Venture capitalists ponied up more than $33 million between 2005 and 2008, a sizable amount for an energy startup of its size.

GreenFuel's pilot project proved twice as expensive as projected, and the company folded in May. "They had no technology—nothing except PR for outrageous claims repeated often enough to sound believable to some poor souls who bought into their fibs," says John Benemann, a former researcher at the University of California-Berkeley who now works as an algae consultant.
Part of the problem that arises is that there is not always enough scrutiny given to the ideas that are proposed, where fancy computer created pictures of possible future plants hide the reality of the thinness of the ideas and the lack of comprehension of the scale of the difficulties that must be overcome in a number of different fields, if the technology is to come to fruition. The article continues:
Whether the algae charlatans will be exposed before the DOE sinks taxpayers' money into their companies is another question. Curtis Rich, a renewable energy attorney, says he believes the DOE's review teams will be "able to determine those projects based on press releases and those based on sound research." But Benemann is not so sure. The week GreenFuel folded, the DOE awarded an Arizona utility $70.6 million to scale up the firm's technology.
Outside of the major efforts that are being carried out, there are also a considerable number now of smaller programs that Universities such as ours are getting into, to further explore the technology. Algae have benefits not only from the oil that some varieties can form in sufficient volume to appear attractive, but also because they can adsorb significant quantities of carbon dioxide as a part of that photosynthetic process. Thus there is a potential for their use in reducing the carbon dioxide output from power plants and other gas producers. Often these experiments don’t get a lot of light, but occasionally even efforts such as ours catch a little attention.

There are some successes that have been reported on some of the subsidiary problems that have to be overcome on the way to generating a sufficient volume of oil to be realistically useful. These include ideas that relate to harvesting and separation of the different constituents of the mix. However, one of the difficulties in writing about a subject that is part of my day job, is that some of the more interesting current work cannot, at this stage, be published – for a variety of reasons – some obvious.

So let me stop before I get into too much trouble and merely note that the technology has already shown promise and some answers, but that I do not believe that it will provide the rapid response to the developing peak in oil production in sufficient time to have any impact on that situation.

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