R-Squared Energy Blog

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Another Response to the DARPA Claim

Many of my essays here are reprinted at The Energy Collective. Following a reprint of my recent essay examining DARPA’s extraordinary claim on the cost of algal fuel, a reader named Durwood Dugger (this gentleman, I presume) posted some very interesting comments that are worth reproducing here. His original comment can be found here.


I was at the AIAA (American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics) meeting in Orlando in February and participated in the biofuel for aviation workshop round-table discussion at the invitation of NASA. I have been producing algae (not for fuel) for commercial purposes for the last 38 years. None of the presentations or the discussions in round table discussion in which I participated leads me to believe that DARPA is going to reach their $2/gal. algae goals and especially not anytime soon.

So, is DARPA just trying to protect it’s current research contractors after several studies have shown algae is neither cost efficient, nor environmentally friendly as a net carbon reducing primary energy source at the near term prices of petroleum? If you look at 2008 DARPA there is nothing more in the PR release than a restatement of their original goals and projections. As someone who is very familiar with the research in this field, I can see no factual evidence given in this current PR or other published data that provides a credible basis that anyone is anywhere near obtaining those $1-2 gallons cost/price goals. No current researchers have produced and published audited and credible results anywhere close $2/gal costs. NREL and several private developers can’t get algae oil production costs below $18 gallon. (See NREL’s Road Map For Biofuel Development).

As you so well pointed out, most of the algae oil costs are energy costs in extraction, separation, drying and stabilization. It isn’t probable that DARPA is any closer because of improbable cost differences between current research and what McQuiston is claiming for DARPA.

I know several DARPA research contractors and they certainly aren’t anywhere close to $2/gallon in their cost estimations. Algae production and extraction technologies are not new – they have been around for 80 years or more. This makes the probability of sudden scientific breakthroughs that also seemingly violate the laws of thermodynamics – even more improbable.

What isn’t being broadly recognized is that for algae to contribute to our energy needs in any significant way, algae cultivation will require chemical fertilizers (again I’ve been doing this for a while.). This dependent relationship between biofuel production and petroleum based fertilizers are being ignored, denied and or dismissed by many government grantor’s who are either too ignorant or too self-servingly corrupt to address this obvious contradiction of logic in pursuing biofuels in a declining petroleum/fertilizer environment producing rapidly increase costs of the same.

The use of petroleum based fertilizer is of no small consequence. As petroleum prices rise – necessarily so do fertilizer prices and consequently so do the costs of the biofuels that are produced with them. More than 85% of the world’s food supply is produced with petroleum based fertilizers – 95% of world foods are petroleum dependent in transportation to market and consumers. Peak oil – no matter when it inevitably occurs – does not bode well for for biofuel economic feasibility, or for that matter – the global human food supply.

Photosynthesized biofuels incorporate two forms of energy – solar and chemical. The solar comes from an off planet sun and the chemical energy comes from an on planet and therefore finite petroleum supply. The net energy to be derived from photosynthesis is essentially from the solar energy coming from off Earth. Photosynthesis is less than 20% efficient (not to mention the processing energy algae oil requires) so it takes a lot of sunlit area to make much biofuel energy. Then combine the need for finite petroleum based fertilizers and biofuels literally have an uphill battle in cost efficiency over time – and one which they cannot win under the current technological criteria.

Clearly, if there were biofuels that could be produced for $2/gallon we would all be driving on this fuel. The petroleum companies would be selling off their drilling rigs. Instead we are not using biofuels and petroleum companies are expanding there drilling rig fleets as we discuss this and greatly – check it out on the web. Since oil platforms cost billions and have a 30 year life, you can tell where the petroleum producers are putting their money and it’s not in algae oil.

Everyone – about this time is saying, “Oh, but we can use waste to grow algae.” Using waste water as a nutrient source turns out to be problematic because most waste sources are not in areas with sufficient space to allow commercial scale algae production. Looking at all waste water sources that are feasibly located, you end up with a very, very small fraction of the amount space required to significantly impact energy requirements – probably less than 3%. Waste from humans and CAFO’s could be a significant source of nutrient for algae production, but only if we re-configure the nations waste treatment and CAFO infrastructure systems to use if effectively. This is something that isn’t going to happen in our current economic environment – where the nation’s tax revenues are being used almost exclusively to wage wars for… wait to guarantee middle eastern oil field access and to prop up it’s failed greed corrupted banking system and related stock market financial instrument sales systems.

It would seem more logical economically – in the face of declining petroleum reserves to invest in primarily in photovoltaic solar, wind, tide, and wave energy which is less reliant (only uses petroleum energy and products in initial fabrication) in the long term on petroleum than any biofuels. If we used our remaining petroleum reserves just for lubricants, fertilizer, special chemicals and even plastics, but not for transportation fuel – it would last us a much longer time. Perhaps enough time to bridge the technological gap between petroleum and the next most economically and environmentally efficient (really the same thing) source of energy.

Poorly phrased and misleading PR from DARPA’s hapless McQuiston only compounds our energy problems and even further reduces the publics confidence in our government and it’s faith in science and technology. Not exactly what is needed in the face of the problems that face us.


February 19, 2010 - Posted by | algae, algal biodiesel, DARPA

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