Saturday, March 3, 2007

Scum of the Earth

Readers of this blog are familiar with my interest in algae as a source of biofuel. A past entry, Love of Diesel, tells of the advantages I see in algae: it does not compete with food crops for land; it can grow in salty or waste water and thus not compete with the rest of us for freshwater; it produces far more oil per plant mass than other crops used for alternative fuels (soybeans, corn, rapeseed, sunflowers); it grows continuously and quickly year round.

But, as a friend of mine once said, if it were easy to grow mass quantities of algae, someone would already be doing it.

The most recent comprehensive study of algae as a source of fuel that I have found is the Department of Energy’s Aquatic Species Program summarized in a report dated 1998. While I am not a scientist and I do not grasp the details of this report, it seems that it presents algae as a possibility for energy, but much research remains to be done to make it feasible.

Japan’s Research Institute of Innovative Technologies for the Earth has also done extensive research on this matter, but also did not kick off a mad scramble to develop algae farms.

Meanwhile, in the United States, it seems that, when talking about growing fuel in plants, everyone is talking about ethanol from corn. To a large extent, this is probably because we already have lots of corn growing, and a corn lobby with much influence in the government. As another friend said once, we have no algae lobby. Not only is the corn lobby steering our thinking away from algae, it is steering it away from a land crop that is better than corn for producing ethanol, which is sugarcane. According to this Christian Science Monitor article, ethanol from sugarcane, like they have in Brazil, is 8 times more efficient to produce than ethanol from corn, but high tariffs in our country prevent importation of a fuel that would compete with corn ethanol.

Some folks also want to mess around with hydrogen fuel, but if you ask me, this is a lot farther off than biofuels. At least diesel engines exist, and are commonplace, for crying out loud. And diesel gas pumps and distribution also exist. There are no hydrogen cars in common use, no hydrogen gas pumps whatsoever.

And then, regarding the issue of combating global warming by using vegetable fuels, you have folks like Jonah Goldberg who, on NPR last week, said that the United States should not take steps in this generation to mitigate global warming, because no matter what we do in this country, China and India will surge forward with their own fossil fuel consumption and offset any progress we make. Furthermore, he says, future generations will be better able to deal with global warming anyway, because technology will be more advanced then.

Huh? So we should do nothing now? That would prevent us from knowing more in future generations. Doing something now will ensure that technology is more advanced then. And we should do something before we become desperate, either because of scarcity of fossil fuel, or because of extreme effects of global warming.

But suppose algae is just too low-class for any policy maker or lobbyist to support. Corn is noble, upright; algae is slimy and grows where you don't dare swim. Could there possibly be anyone in the private sector who wants to put some money into this thing, continue the research, maybe with the help of venture capitalists? After all, it's not the craziest idea to come down the pipe in the past 10 years.

Green Fuels Technologies, founded by MIT scientist Isaac Berzin, has been experimenting with using algae to clean up smokestack emissions from power plants. The algae would help power plants meet stiffening environmental standards, and would also provide biodiesel or ethanol fuel for the power plant to use or sell. A press release from December 2006 states that Green Fuels has already joined with Arizona Public Service, that state’s largest electric utility, and produced the first transportation grade biofuel from this process. Another press release, from January 2007, states that Green Fuels is joining with a German research institute to further investigate opportunities for using algae in industry. These press releases can be accessed on the right side of the Green Fuels homepage linked above. Their industrial applications page clearly speaks to industry’s pocket books, stressing that a power plant stands a chance of deriving great benefit from algae with no major re-engineering of the plant.

This MSNBC article has a picture of the algae in tubes at the Arizona power plant, looking all beautiful and bright green like crème de menthe. In the article, a scientist who worked on the Japanese algae research project says that many problems with algae farming have not been resolved yet, and he does not have high hopes for this project. Well, we will see. In 2008, Green Fuels and Arizona Public Service expect to be producing biofuel with their algae. We wish them luck.

Here is some more action. An oil drilling company, PetroSun Inc., has a subsidiary, Algae Biofuels Inc., which has met with officials in Alabama to discuss building algae farms along the Gulf Coast there. Plans are described in this Yahoo News article, wherein this encouraging quote appears:

Independent studies have demonstrated that algae is capable of producing 30 times more oil per acre than the current crops now utilized for the production of biofuels. The algae biomass material could also supply annually up to 100,000 pounds of animal feed per acre with a 50% protein content.

Again, we will see how it goes. Who knows what could happen if algae fuel could compete with other fuels on the open market and become a significant alternative energy source.

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