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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.

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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 | Comments Off on Another Response to the DARPA Claim

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.

February 17, 2010 Posted by | algae, algal biodiesel, DARPA | Comments Off on Algal Oil for $2 a Gallon?

Energy Policy and Renewable Hydrocarbons

The following guest essay is by Frank Weigert, a retired DuPont chemist who was involved in some of DuPont’s early work on alternatives to petroleum in the mid-1970’s. This work spurred a lifelong interest in a renewable hydrocarbon economy. Recently Frank sent me an e-mail in which he described his views on a pathway that could lead us away from our dependence on petroleum. It was a very detailed and technically interesting e-mail, and I asked him if we could turn it into an essay for others to read. What developed from that request was the essay below.

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Many people find it hard to think rationally about our energy problems because there is so much misinformation and disinformation out there. Some is the innocent confusion of people misinterpreting scientific terms in layman’s language. An example is the word “oil”.

Some is more sinister, with whole industries planting lies and distortions to confuse the issues. Corporations and their lobbyists spend large amounts of money protecting their short-term interests from reforms needed to promote long-term good.

Politics distorts good decision making. If Iowa didn’t hold a Presidential beauty contest every four years, ethanol would not be on the agenda. If corn-based ethanol wasn’t on the agenda, then ethanol from cellulosics wouldn’t be either.

Economics is used as a weapon against change by polluting industries who are not now held accountable for the damage they do. Utopians refuse to see just how expensive some of their proposed solutions are. While the magnitude of our energy problem is orders of magnitude greater than the CFC / ozone problem of two decades ago, some of the precepts used to solve that problem also apply to the current one.

The world needs to think outside the box. We have a remarkable opportunity to establish a sustainable energy future that could last centuries. Short-term solutions which profit existing businesses should not be allowed to crowd it out.

1) Biofuel Definitions.

Non-chemists all too often get confused by the differences in chemical nomenclature and more conventional terms. Oil as an ingredient in salad dressing is not the same as oil as a synonym for petroleum.

Green plants make nucleic acids, proteins, hydrocarbons, carbohydrates, and lipids. Only the latter three need concern us as fuel precursors. Hydrocarbons have only carbon and hydrogen in their structure. Examples include natural rubber and other materials made from isoprene oligomerization.

Carbohydrates have formulas around (CH2O)n: Carbo (C) – hydrates (H2O). Glucose, C6H1206, is a monomer. Sucrose is made from glucose and another sugar fructose with the loss of one water molecule. Both sugars are soluble in water. Polysaccharides such as starch and cellulose are insoluble in water. Yeasts ferment soluble sugars to ethanol, an alcohol. The technology to ferment insoluble carbohydrate polymers practically does not yet exist.

Lipids are esters of the alcohol glycerin and long-chain fatty acids. Transesterification with a short chain alcohols such as methanol or ethanol converts these lipids to glycerine and esters generically known as biodiesel. Biodiesel is not a hydrocarbon.

Hydrocarbon reactions are generally many orders of magnitude faster than the reactions of polar molecules such as those involving alcohols or esters. That means that the equipment required to reform hydrocarbons is much smaller than that required to ferment carbohydrates to ethanol or transesterify lipids to biodiesel. Hydrocarbon chemistry does not require a solvent. Fermentation must be carried out in water, and yeast generally can only produce an ethanol concentration of 10% or so. The ethanol must then be separated from a large excess of water. Transesterification to make biodiesel is an equilibrium process that will not go to completion without a large excess of the small chain alcohol. That means large equipment for separation and recycle. While a hundred or so refineries provide all the transportation fuel America uses, many thousand fermentation or biodiesel facilities would be needed to produce the same amount of fuel.

The new investment required to convert from a hydrocarbon economy to one involving either ethanol or biodiesel is going to be very high. Why bother? Use hydrocarbons. Hydrocarbons such as gasoline or diesel are global warming neutral if produced entirely from biological materials.

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2) What defines a Climate Change / Hubbert’s Peak solution.

Four precepts should guide our work in solving the world’s Climate Change and Hubert’s Peak problems.

a) These are world problems. An expensive solution that works for the United States but not for China, India or Kenya is not a valid solution. America might be the Saudi Arabia of coal, but coal is not a solution for the Hubbert’s Peak problem because it exacerbates the climate change problem. Where is China going to get the land to grow corn to make ethanol? Solutions that depend on local conditions such as desert sunlight or constant high winds are not solutions to the global problem. Venture capitalists who want to get rich selling high investment solutions are part of the problem.

b) Consumers should not have to change anything.

The precept needs to be considered separately for electricity and transportation fuels.

Electricity is easy. Consumers don’t care whether the electrons that power their lights, televisions or computers come from falling water, burning coal, or splitting atoms. An electron is an electron.

Transportation fuels are harder. Hybrid cars like the Prius come closest to meeting the criterion. Consumers fill up their gas tank and don’t have to worry about the battery until it wears out. The cost of the replacement battery has not sunk in yet. A typical battery pack costs $5000 and will last five years. Thus during the life of the electric car, owners will have to pay $10,000 to replace their battery twice. You can buy a lot of expensive gasoline for that amount of money.

Plug-in hybrids WOULD be different. Suppose you live in an apartment and park 100 feet away. That’s an awfully long extension cord. A better option is to continue making gasoline and diesel, only from renewable resources. Cars powered by fuel cells or hydrogen are even more far out. People like personal transportation. Walking is not a solution. Shutting down the airline industry is not a solution.

c) Use existing investment when at all possible and minimize the need for new investment.

This is where most of the pundits get it wrong. Venture capitalists love high investment projects because they earn their fees as a percentage of the capital required. The November cover story of Scientific American is about sustainable fuels. It limits the discussion to Big Physics projects. Only toward the end do the authors offer an estimate of the capital investment required: $100 TRILLION. Ain’t gonna happen. Many of the proposed remediation projects are also horribly capital intensive and will never fly.

Many physics solutions claim they will be competitive with oil “soon.” But oil at what price? In the Middle East, countries can pump oil to the surface for a COST $5 a barrel. Americans VALUED that oil at $150 a barrel in 2008. Europeans and Japanese are willing to pay twice that, including taxes. So what is the free-market PRICE of oil? OPEC can set it anywhere within that range. If photovoltaics become competitive with oil at $100 a barrel, OPEC can lower the price to $90 a barrel until the venture capitalists give up. They then buy up the investment for pennies on the dollar, destroy it, and raise the price again. I don’t see any way to compete with $5 a barrel Middle East oil. I would be hopeful that biofuels could compete with $25 or $30 a barrel oil.

d) Biofuels should not compete with food production or cause land use issues.

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3) The algae Botryococcus braunii can potentially meet all my criteria for a solution to the Climate Change / Hubbert’s Peak problem.

Nobel Prize winner Melvin Calvin discovered a shrub growing in the Brazilian rain forest related to rubber tree in the 1970s. When tapped, this shrub exuded a latex. Calvin collected the material, (a mix of isoprene trimers) broke the emulsion, dried the organic layer, poured it into the fuel tank of a diesel powered car and drove off. No refining necessary! He correctly realized there was not enough land in the Brazilian rain forest to grow this crop. Genetic engineering did not exist back then.

Calvin made a bad mistake when he attempted to breed a modification that would grow in the desert. Making hydrocarbons needs more water than making carbohydrates. He should have been experimenting in a swamp.

Later, Calvin found the pelagic algae genus Botryococcus and studied the hydrocarbons they produce.

A summary of his work is available online, but cannot be accessed directly. You have to link through a bridge site. Here is it’s URL.


http://www.osti.gov/bridge/product.biblio.jsp?osti_id=7286

Click on the 1 MB PDF file icon. The discussion of algae begins on page 15.

Calvin reports that 86% of the dry weight of the algae is hydrocarbons, isoprene oligomers averaging n = 6 degree of polymerization. The structures include linear oligomers and cyclic structures related to steroids. They are not directly useable as transportation fuels.

The algae Botryococcus is among the slower growing breeds. It has a reported doubling time of two days. Presumably, producing hydrocarbons is harder than producing carbohydrates. Nevertheless, it is an interesting exercise in powers of 2 to calculate how quickly 1 g of algae can turn into the 100 million barrels of oil needed each day. Once you have the ocean surface carpeted with the algae, you can then harvest half the crop every doubling period in a self-sustaining manner.

One of your discussions (RR: e.g., this one) laments the fact that useful algae cannot generally compete with trash species. True, but farmers have learned how to grow crops and eliminate weeds. Farmers of the ocean will have the same incentives. Agricultural chemical companies have been very successful at finding selective herbicides for important crops. If growing algae becomes important, they will attack this problem as well.

Another possibility is to begin with an invasive species and modify it genetically to produce the hydrocarbons we want. Caulerpa taxifolia is an algae that escaped from a Monaco aquarium and now carpets the northern edge of the Mediterranean sea. When it also got loose from the Monterrey aquarium outside San Francisco, the U.S. government spent $8 million chlorinating the Pacific Ocean to eliminate the infestation. While it doesn’t make useful hydrocarbons, it does make a toxin caulerpenyne, which presumably is the secret to it success. The structure is available in Wikipedia. As the name suggests, it includes both double and triple bonds. It also has 2 acetates which according to biochemical studies are added last. The main chain contains 15 carbon atoms arranged in a way that suggests derivation from an isoprene trimer. Inhibit the acetylation steps and you have a precursor to diesel fuel. Adding the gene sequence to produce the hydrocarbons or disabling the genes that acetylate the product and you have another way to get at hydrocarbons from algae.

I believe conventional oil refineries could process this hydrocarbon mix to produce gasoline and diesel. Refineries could shut down much of their catalyst guard investment because these hydrocarbons have no nitrogen, sulfur, phosphorus, metals, or ash. This is an extremely sweet crude. These hydrocarbons should be able to replace coal as a fuel in electricity generating plants. Similarly, because it is a high quality fuel, much of the pollution abatement equipment at the back end could be shut down.

Check out the MIT Website Whatmatters for more details The URL is:

http://alum.mit.edu/news/WhatMatters/Archive/200111/

January 17, 2010 Posted by | algae, guest post, reader submission | Comments Off on Energy Policy and Renewable Hydrocarbons

Slides from the Pacific Rim Summit

I am hopping on a plane again today, this time bound for the Orlando Energy Conference. The topic I will present is An Overview of Global Energy Issues. Good thing they asked for something easy and non-controversial. 🙂

This is the last trip I have scheduled for this year, and I am hoping not to have to travel again for a while. Following Orlando, I will spend a few days at the family farm in Oklahoma, where Internet access has yet to make an appearance. Therefore, I will be slow to return e-mails and respond to comments. If all goes according to plan I will be back in Hawaii on November 21st (after having missed my wife’s birthday for the 4th consecutive year).

I quite enjoyed the presentations at the Pacific Rim Summit. I got to talk to a lot of people about what they were doing, and I got to hear the latest from the algae and cellulosic ethanol camps. With the exception of the guys doing algae fermentations, the mood wasn’t great as the challenges of turning cellulose into ethanol and algae into fuel start to manifest themselves. Like I have said before, we have been trying to commercially make ethanol from cellulose for 100 years. There were multiple panels going on simultaneously, though, and I didn’t get to see all of them. Maybe the news in some of the other panels was better.

Then there is Joule Biotechnologies. They gave one of the talks at lunch one day. To say people are skeptical is an understatement. I don’t really know what to make of them. I can’t find enough information yet to give them a really thorough critique, but I am not a big fan of issuing press releases following lab tests. Note that they haven’t yet advanced to pilot scale (that comment came out during the talk – that they were moving toward piloting), and they are already making pretty bold claims about yield, cost, and solving the energy crisis. Personally, I think I would wait to see how these things scale. As one cellulosic ethanol executive commented this past week, “These things don’t scale like you think they should.” That’s right, they don’t. That’s why most technologies don’t make it out of the lab. Always better to make conservative claims and then deliver beyond expectations than to make wild claims and fall short.

Anyway, here are the slides I presented at the Pacific Rim Summit. There is some overlap with what I presented at the First Nations’ Futures Program at Stanford University on September 27th, but there are a number of new slides there.

At some point I will probably write some posts around the theme of these slides, throwing in my notes pages to put the slides in context. To put these slides in some sort of context, here were three of the slides and the notes I had jotted down for them. From the Outline slide:

We have talked a lot about sustainability this week. I must have heard that word a few dozen times the past couple of days. So who in here lives sustainably? We don’t, and our parents didn’t. Some of our grandparents may have, but for the most part they didn’t either. As a society, it has been a very long time since we lived sustainably.

So, why is it important then? I once had a friend say “There really is no need to worry too much about sustainability. Mother Nature will ultimately resolve the problem.” The problem with that statement is that I might not like how Mother Nature solves the problem. Hence, it is important to move toward sustainability voluntarily.

From the Coming to Grips slide:

I am presently reading Big Coal by Jeff Goodell. Jeff opens with a comment that I think captures the nature of the problem we face. When we go to the gas station or turn on a light switch, we don’t have to face the consequences of our dependence – the externalities. The consequences are there nonetheless, as Pat Gruber of Gevo noted yesterday when he said “There’s mercury in our fish, and I don’t like that.”

Our actions have consequences. Who said that? My oldest son can tell you. He hears that all the time, because he doesn’t always connect the fact that when he takes certain actions, sometimes there are bad consequences. The difference between him and the person filling up with gas is he does get to face them immediately.

I also don’t know who said that last one – Deal with reality or reality will deal with you – but again it’s like something I tell my kids. The future is coming whether you plan for it or not. If you plan for it, you tilt the odds in your favor.

From the slide My Paradigm:

We all view the world through a set of lenses. These are my lenses, and they shape my opinions. I know where we are, but I want to know where we are going to be in 3 , 5, 20 years from now. I believe that we will end up paying a lot more for oil than we do now. I often point out to people that consumers in Europe pay the equivalent of $250/bbl for oil. Thus, I believe the technologies will need to compete against a higher future oil price.

We are burning fossil fuels at an unsustainable rate, and we have gotten away with it for a century. We won’t get away with it for another century.

As competition for biomass heats up, low-cost biomass is going to vanish. If your business model is based on tipping fees, then I don’t believe that’s a sustainable model. Jim Imbler from Zeachem commented yesterday that Macdonald’s in San Francisco used to pay to have their waste grease hauled off. A lot of people starting making their own biodiesel, and now not only does MacDonald’s charge for the grease, but the mob is stealing it. That’s my long-term view of biomass, and that theme has been repeated all week. You better lock in your feedstock. You don’t have the same luxury as an oil company to switch to a supplier halfway around the world. The energy density of biomass makes that proposition problematic.

Finally, those “renewable” solutions that are heavily dependent upon fossil fuels won’t compete. More on that later.

Anyway, off to the airport now. Probably no new posts from me for a week.

November 14, 2009 Posted by | algae, algal biodiesel, cellulosic ethanol, gevo, presentations, zeachem | 46 Comments

Algal Tidbits from the Pacific Rim Summit

My presentation is tomorrow, but I have sat through some very interesting presentations over the past couple of days here at the Pacific Rim Summit on Industrial Biotechnology and Bioenergy. They have five panels going at once, but I have been sitting in on the cellulosic ethanol, algal fuel, and biomass logistics sessions for the most part. They will have links up to the presentations at some point, but I have been taking a lot of notes (12 pages of notes so far!)

On algae, these were some of the more pessimistic comments from various presenters, some of whom are executives at algae companies:

“Algae carries a great deal of technical risk.”

Asked about expected cost of algal oil: “I don’t know, because we don’t have any plants.”

“Photobioreactors (PBRs) are not a smart way to make algal fuel.”

“To scrub the emissions from a coal-fired power plant would require 35,000 acres of PBRs at a cost of $5 million per acre. But we might be able to get that down to $1 million per acre.”

“I calculate that it will take 36,000 acres of PBRs to scrub a power plant. The bottom line for those who would propose to use algae in this way? Abandon all hope.” – comment from the next presenter

“ExxonMobil is investing in algae but they said it would take 10 years to figure out if it was going to work.”

“Based on the absolute maximum solar capture at the equator, the theoretical maximum production of algal oil at the equator is 17,486 gallons per acre per year. The reality in Honolulu is about 833 gallons per acre per year. The energy balance – even with very optimistic assumptions and not including all of the unit operations – is well below 1.7 units out per unit in.”

“25 gallons of water is consumed per gallon of algal oil produced.”

“Algal oils are not economically viable.”

Now in fairness, these were comments of various presenters and some of the audience members took exception to some of the comments. One person commented that the water usage from corn ethanol when the corn has to be irrigated is much higher. Someone else pointed out that these comments did not apply to the fermentation approaches.

Incidentally, as a science project my oldest son is growing Spirulina at home under different conditions. We are also attempting to extract oil from some Haematococcus samples that we have. As a science project, I think this is fine (although it is more difficult than you might imagine). But nobody here seems to be too optimistic about algal fuels in either open ponds or PBRs anytime soon. I think the jury is still out on the fermentation approaches such as what Solazyme is working on.

November 11, 2009 Posted by | algae, algal biodiesel | 8 Comments

Interview With an Algae CEO

So I am finally back home for the next 10 days, and slowly catching up. I had a good trip to Panama and then to Stanford. I had my luggage sniffed by dogs when I connected in El Salvador, and then when connecting in LAX Gwen Stefani and her husband walked by within 3 feet of me. I told my wife that I probably could have touched her, but then I might have been delayed by a trip to the L.A. County Jail. I also read Oil on the Brain on the long plane trips, and will soon post a review of that. I will also put up the slides I delivered at Stanford.

One of the things I did on the trip was take a tour of an algae farm. I spent some time with the CEO, and got to ask numerous questions. He had some very interesting comments, which I will capture below. Because he has to work in this industry, I am not going to identify him or his company. Below I will indicate his comments as CEO and mine as RR.

RR: Talk about some of the challenges of growing algae.

CEO: The list is exhaustive. It takes a lot of water. It takes a lot of electricity. Solar penetration is only about an inch into the water, so we really have to keep the ponds mixed well. One thing people never mention is the phosphorous requirement. Phosphorous is a limited resource, but a critical one for the algal growth. If you are trying to make oil, then you have to stress the algae and push it into a lipid production mode. But that causes growth rates to stall. If you engineer algae for higher oil production rates, they can’t out-compete the native species in the ponds.

RR: I talk to John Benemann on a fairly regular basis, and he has said much the same. He likes algae for the potential, for the water treatment possibilities, and as something that should continue to get funding for lab research. But he is pretty harsh on the uber-optimists.

CEO: Yes, I know John as well. He has done some good work in the field. Have you seen his latest paper?

RR: (He shows me the paper, and I acknowledge that I do in fact have that one).

RR: I was looking at those open ponds and wondering if the evaporation rates wouldn’t be problematic. That could create seriously high water usage, especially for those schemes that propose to use open ponds where the solar insolation is high (like in the Arizona desert).

CEO: Yes, those open ponds require a lot of fresh water. You should see our water bill.

RR: What about photobioreactors? Some people envision them as a solution to some of the problems (evaporation, contamination) of the open pond system.

CEO: They are ungodly expensive relative to how much algae they can produce.

RR: So how do you foresee the future of algal fuels?

CEO: There is no future. Look, some of these guys are out there committing fraud with their yield claims. Nobody is making fuel except for small amounts in the lab. I just don’t see how anyone will ever make cost-competitive fuel from algae.

RR: How about fermentation approaches like Solazyme? I haven’t written that off yet.

CEO: Yes, but they are using sugar, and sugar is food. They say they won’t always use sugar, but who knows?

RR: I could see their model working in Brazil as sugarcane ethanol does. Instead of fermenting to ethanol, they could ferment to oil. I also recently had someone write to me and claim they were using a feedstock other than sugar.

CEO: Maybe cellulose?

RR: If it is cellulose, I am on the next plane to go see them. That would indeed be a tremendous breakthrough, presuming their conversions are reasonable. I presume you get a lot of phone calls from aspiring algae fuel producers wanting to do a deal?

CEO: Oh yeah. All the time. Someone with a business plan and no appreciation for the scientific challenges wants to form a company and go after investors. It used to happen every other day, but has tailed off some now.

RR: So you see the main barrier to commercialization of algal fuel as cost?

CEO: Yes, but it is important to note why the cost is high. I don’t see much hope of dramatically cutting those costs. For algae that has other uses – like in the nutraceutical market – the economics are sometimes there because the product is much more valuable. I can make 4-5 times as much revenue per acre growing algae for the supplements market, and at a lower cost than it would take to make fuel.

RR: How about if you extracted oil as a byproduct of the nutraceutical market? I could see that working if you had a much higher value product carrying the costs. On the other hand, you probably aren’t going to get a whole lot of oil.

CEO: Exactly. You could produce oil in that scenario, just not in bulk.

RR: OK, many thanks for your time.

CEO: My pleasure.

October 29, 2009 Posted by | algae, algal biodiesel, john benemann | 60 Comments