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Algal Oil for $2 a Gallon?

By now I have had at least a dozen people send me the link or ask me to comment on the recent DARPA announcement that they can produce algal oil for $2 a gallon. My fellow blogger Lou Grinzo has already made a few comments, and I share his skepticism. It is an extraordinary claim, to me ranking up there with “We have invented time travel.” Then again, if you invented the Internet, I suppose people tend to cut you a lot of slack.

But it is true that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and in this case I find the latter to be lacking. First, the claim:

US military to make jet fuel from algae

Scientists at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) have already successfully extracted oil from algal ponds, and is now about to begin large-scale refining of the oil.

My son and I successfully extracted oil from algae as part of his 8th grade science project. Extracting oil is not particularly technically challenging. But here is where it gets interesting:

Special assistant for energy with DARPA, Barbara McQuiston, said unrefined oil produced from algae currently costs $2 per gallon, but the cost is projected to reduce to around $1. The refined and processed jet fuel is expected to cost under $3 per gallon.

My friend John Benemann once said to me that whenever people make claims like this, offer to buy all of the oil they have to sell. What you quickly find out is that they have no oil to sell. So that would be my question to Barbara McQuiston. If you can produce it for $2 a gallon, would you sign a contract to deliver it to me in volume for $3 a gallon? I suspect I already know the answer to that. It’s like the guy whose sign advertises the cheapest gasoline in town, but when you stop in his tanks are empty.

Perhaps McQuiston was misquoted. But anyone who has ever done a major project knows that unless construction is well underway, the claimed time schedule is completely unrealistic:

The refining operation would produce 50 million gallons of oil derived from algae each year and is expected to begin full-scale operations in 2011. Each acre of algal farm pond can produce 1,000 gallons of oil. The projects are run by private companies General Atomics and SAIC.

Digging a little deeper, I found this, which puts things in a bit more perspective:

SAIC Awarded $25 Million Contract by Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency

Under this contract, SAIC will lead a team of industrial and academic organizations to develop an integrated process for producing JP-8 from algae at a cost target of $3/gal. SAIC and its team will develop technologies and processes to help achieve DARPA’s goal including integrating algae strain selection, water and nutrient sourcing, farming, harvesting, separation, triglyceride purification, algal oil processing, and economic modeling and analysis.

Hmm. That refers to ambitious goals rather than targets that have actually been achieved.

SAIC’s work on the contract will happen in two phases. Phase 1 will concentrate on technology selection and development, pilot plant site analyses, system integration, and economic modeling and analysis, culminating in a lab-scale production capability, preliminary production facility design, and the delivery of samples for testing. SAIC will also develop detailed commercialization and qualification plans showing a path to commercial and military systems viability. Phase 2 will focus on the final design, integration and operation of a pre-pilot scale production facility.

Those statements – from 3 weeks ago – don’t mesh at all with the claims from McQuiston. In Phase 2 they will build a “pre-pilot” facility? How on earth then could they have any idea of how much it is going to cost them to produce the oil? 

No, I don’t believe they can produce algal oil for $2/gallon. I don’t believe anyone can, particularly if they are growing the algae in open ponds. I think back to my Interview with an Algae CEO, and his comment “Boy, you should see my electric bill.” The entire chain of algal oil production is energy and water intensive. So my suspicion is that McQuiston didn’t really mean that they can produce oil for that price. She may have stated that as a goal, and that got turned into a claim.

The other possibility is that because DARPA is a branch of the U.S. government, and government agencies need funding, maybe they are being a bit liberal with their claims in order to ensure funding.

I suspect that in a couple of years we will be doing the post-mortem on this one when we find that there is no $2 algal oil to be found anywhere.

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February 17, 2010 - Posted by | algae, algal biodiesel, DARPA

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