Monday, March 16, 2009

Of hybrids and algae

As I had mentioned in an earlier post, we are thinking of getting a second hybrid in the family, with thoughts turning toward the Ford Fusion. At the time of the decision, there still seemed to be an aura around the concept of hydrids that continued to make them seem a more desirable product. With the drop in gas prices, and their higher initial price over conventional gas models, that is no longer the case.
"When gas prices came down, the priority of buying a hybrid fell off quite quickly," said Wes Brown, a partner at Los Angeles-based market research firm Iceology. "Yet even as consumer interest declined, the manufacturers have continued to pump them out."

Last month, only 15,144 hybrids sold nationwide, down almost two-thirds from April, when the segment's sales peaked and gas averaged $3.57 a gallon. That's far larger than the drop in industry sales for the period and scarcely a better showing than January, when hybrid sales were at their lowest since early 2005
I hadn’t realized that we were planning on joining such an exclusive group. And perhaps we can see why Ford have not been more aggressive in selling (they aren’t).
executives at other automakers (than Toyota) concede they lose money on every hybrid sold. "If we were making money on the Civic hybrid, we weren't making a lot," Honda spokesman Chris Martin said.

That may help to explain why fewer than two of every 100 Chevy Malibus sold last month had the hybrid powertrain and why Ford priced its new hybrid Fusion, which dealers expect to start receiving this month, $8,000 above the gasoline-only version.

Ford expects to produce about 20,000 Fusion and Milan hybrids this year, or about 1% of its total production. . . . . . . Three weeks ago, Jerome Haig, a lawyer in Torrance, put down a $500 deposit on a Fusion hybrid, even though he hasn't even test driven one because they have yet to hit lots. "I do like the idea of getting a hybrid," Haig said.

But he admits that he may not have considered the car if not for a $3,400 tax credit on Ford hybrids and a deduction on new car sales tax. The latter was part of the $787-billion federal stimulus package. "The tax advantages are a pretty big incentive."
However sales of the Honda Insight seem to be doing better than expected, but this is because the new model is cheaper than a Prius. if the price can hold under $20,000 then that sales growth is expected to continue.

Shell appear content to continue funding of their algae program. Back in 2007 the reviews were mixed:
algae always seemed promising as a biofuel feedstock. They devour CO2, multiply like rabbits, are oily, and don’t need much land. The U.S. Department of Energy spent almost twenty years studying more than 3,000 varieties of algae to see what would work. Nothing did; Clinton pulled the plug in 1996.

That is because algae-to-oil is a balancing act: Only the hardiest strains thrive with temperature variations, and they have fewer lipids. Really greasy algae aren’t outdoors types. So a lot of small algae biofuel companies prefer “photobioreactors,” or grow closets for algae. Others go back to the farm, but keep algae under wraps.

Shell says its pilot project will determine which strains of algae are commercially viable and which will best be able to suck up CO2 emissions from power plants. In the meantime, its Hawaiian project will be using bottled CO2.
The Hawaiian pilot plant on Kona is run by a joint venture called Cellana and uses non-modified species in a surface “racetrack” set of ponds. The first step in the process was to find the right local species. This involved putting test tubes of different strains out to find which ones grow the best.

In the next step in the development last June the partners were talking of having the first commercial plant available within three years. A site has been found in Maui near a power plant, that would provide a source for the CO2, and with high interest from officials, the date for the plant to be started moved up to 2011. The technical breakthough has been to limit the amount of time that the algae spend in the open ponds, the crop is harvested, and a new stock is injected, with new nutrient, at an already high concentration, so that the residence time is short, and competition from other species is limited before the algae have consumed the nutrient, multiplied, and are ready for harvesting. By doing it this way, it is claimed that costs are reduced. To bring the feed stock up to the required volume needed for injection, the algae are first bred in plastic tubes. In regard to the volumes of carbon dioxide that are consumed
A very rough calculation would be a minimum of 250,000 tons of CO2 per year captured by 1,000 hectares (roughly 2,500 acres) of algae, for a coal-fired or diesel-fired power plant. So a very large commercial facility, say 20,000 hectares (roughly 50,000 acres), could perhaps capture 5 million tons of CO2 per year. This calculation will be further refined during the joint venture demonstration phase.
The nutrient added to the seawater will largely be nitrates and phosphates, as it depletes in the water, the concentration of oil in the algae increases.

Cellana meanwhile is moving ahead with algae selection at the the facility on Kona. They have screened some 5,000 possible candidates down to 75 who were evaluated for high throughput, cutting the number down to 12, of which 8 were considered viable for outside cultivation. These will be studied and screened down as the Kona pilot plant develops in 2010. That facility will be a 2.5 ha size, and will be used to help plan the full commercial facility that has now been targeted for 2014. They have now down-selected to 7 species and hope to have their first harvest this quarter, with the first oil produced in volume by the end of the year. One of the team partners, Bodo University in Norway, is evaluating the de-oiled biomass as an animal feed. The production plant has the following objectives
The project will use 10 percent of the Maui Electric plant’s CO2 emissions as feedstock. The CO2 will be delivered by pipe from the Maalaea pipe, and the plant will produce up to 3 Mgy of algae oil based on a projected 750-acre algae farm producing 5,000 acres per gallon.

The company said that it expected that it would take up to three years to obtain permits for the operation, which would be profitable in the first year of production according to HR Petroleum execs.
There are some doubts about the longer term and larger scale production that will be needed if algal biodiesel is to make a significant contribution to fuel supplies. But even with those doubts the potential for removing carbon dioxide remains attractive, and the Alberta Research Council has joined with Innoventures Canada to look at this .
The ARC says the preliminary target for its Carbon Algae Recycling System project is a 30 per cent reduction of the greenhouse gases produced by an average 300 megawatt coal-fired power plant. CARS proposes to feed flue gas (CO2, nitrogen oxides and other emissions) directly from industry into ponds to feed algal growth.

"We are in the early stage of looking at carbon dioxide bio-fixation to micro-algae," says Quinn Goretzky, project manager for strategic initiatives at the council. "Our vision is to transform carbon into a value-added good."

To date they have focused on green algae. Of 21 samples under examination, nine failed to thrive.

"Five were taken to characterization, and that relates to biomass and rate of growth," Goretzky says. "Algae is made up of fatty acids and lipids, which is the most important since they go to fuel. The carbohydrates go to ethanol and the proteins to animal feed and fertilizer."

He admits the process as it stands right now is energy-intensive. The ARC consortium favours a large greenhouse-covered pond system. "This maintains temperature, delays evaporation and reduces contamination."
The Canadian system has a target set of data (ppt)
•Total algae pond system area : 400 ha
•Algae yield : 30 – 120 g/m2/day
•CO2 captured : 77 500 – 310 500 tonnes/Year
•Algae oil = 3.5 barrels/tonne algae
•Carbon credit : 15 $/tonne CO2
It has an anticipated 7 year return on investment if it can sell the biodiesel for over $3.46 a gallon (which is currently isn’t).


  1. If you talk about green cars with Europeans this week, chances are they'll be thinking of small diesels, not hybrids. The current Ford Fiesta 1.6 L diesel, for example is a 5-passenger car that gets the equivalent of 65 miles per US gallon. It's sold only in Europe. Americans can't buy one and for that we can probably thank the EPA's emission standards and Americans' traditional distaste for diesels.

    Nissan and Honda both plan to bring small diesels to the US next year. They should be cheaper and greener than a hybrid because the fuel economy will be equivalent but they won't have the expensive batteries.

    I'm wondering how carbon credits might work for projects that recycle CO2 via algae into fuel. It seems to me they should displace fossil fuel only to the extent that the process EROEI was greater than one?

  2. One of my colleagues had a diesel for years, but the problems of getting service in rural Missouri proved large enough, over time, for him to trade away.

    Most of the folk that talk about putting in algae systems are assuming some benefit from the carbon credit side, but this is where (as in Canada and Hawaii for eg) one of the partners in the process is a generator, and thus either through reduced volume generated or other (as yet unidentified) mechanism they can see a financial benefit to help offset some of the costs. And in regard to energy input, it depends on what you are counting as input, since waste heat from flue gas, for example is sometimes otherwise a utility cost, and here it is used.

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