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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 | 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?