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.
This article was initially titled “Pretenders, Contenders, and Niches.” However, the section on pretenders grew to the point that I have decided to split the essay up into three parts. The first part, Biofuel Pretenders, will cover many of the current media and political darlings. The second part, Biofuel Contenders, will discuss some options that have received less attention, but in the long term are more likely to have staying power. The final part, Biofuel Niches, will discuss situations in which some of the pretenders might actually work.
Reality Begins to Sink In
There was an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal this past week:
A few pertinent excerpts:
The biofuels revolution that promised to reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil is fizzling out.
Two-thirds of U.S. biodiesel production capacity now sits unused, reports the National Biodiesel Board.
Producers of next-generation biofuels — those using nonfood renewable materials such as grasses, cornstalks and sugarcane stalks — are finding it tough to attract investment and ramp up production to an industrial scale.
This all boils down to something I have said on many occasions: You can’t mandate technology. Just because you mandate that 36 billion gallons of biofuel are to be produced by 2022 doesn’t mean that it has a remote chance of happening. This is not a hard concept to understand, but it seems to have eluded our government for many years. The government would probably understand that they couldn’t create colonies on the moon in 10 years via mandate. They know they can’t cure cancer via mandate. But in the area of biofuels, they seem to feel like they can just conjure up vast amounts of hydrogen, cellulosic ethanol, or algal biodiesel.
Domestically produced biofuels were supposed to be an answer to reducing America’s reliance on foreign oil. In 2007, Congress set targets for the U.S. to blend 36 billion gallons of biofuels a year into the U.S. fuel supply in 2022, from 11.1 billion gallons in 2009.
Cellulosic ethanol, derived from the inedible portions of plants, and other advanced fuels were expected to surpass corn ethanol to fill close to half of all biofuel mandates in that time.
But the industry is already falling behind the targets. The mandate to blend next-generation fuels, which kicks in next year, is unlikely to be met because of a lack of enough viable production.
Most people don’t realize that the Germans were the first to produce ethanol from cellulose. That happened in 1898. For our political leaders and many industry boosters, cellulosic ethanol is a recent discovery, and thus they expect big leaps in the technology in the next few years. These expectations completely ignore the fact that researchers have been hard at work on making cellulosic ethanol a reality for decades – with little success.
In President Bush’s 2006 State of the Union address, he broadly expanded the mandate for ethanol. He voiced his strong support for cellulosic ethanol, and included billions of gallons in the Renewable Fuel Standard – as well as billions of dollars of financial support.
How quickly our politicians seem to have forgotten the 2003 State of the Union, in which Bush set forth his vision of the hydrogen economy:
“A simple chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen generates energy, which can be used to power a car producing only water, not exhaust fumes. With a new national commitment, our scientists and engineers will overcome obstacles to taking these cars from laboratory to showroom so that the first car driven by a child born today could be powered by hydrogen and pollution-free.”
We spent some two billion dollars toward that goal. Once again, this ignored many technical and economic realities, and so in May 2009 the headlines read:
Hydrogen Car Goes Down Like the Hindenburg: DoE Kills the Program
The dream of hydrogen fuel cell cars has just been put back in the garage. U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced yesterday that his department is cutting all funding for hydrogen car research, saying that it won’t be a feasible technology anytime soon. “We asked ourselves, ‘Is it likely in the next 10 or 15, 20 years that we will covert to a hydrogen car economy?’ The answer, we felt, was ‘no,’” Chu said.
My prediction is that in the not too distant future we will start to see headlines like this for cellulosic ethanol. The troublesome barriers to commercialization are quite fundamental, and aren’t likely to be resolved by government mandate. If enough money is thrown at it, cellulosic ethanol will of course be produced. But it can never be a scalable, economic reality.
Broadly speaking, in the world of next generation biofuels there are contenders, pretenders, and niches. Over the past decade, we have thrown a lot of money at pretenders and have little to show for it. There are many reasons for this, but fundamentally I believe it boils down to the fact that our political leaders can’t sort the wheat from the chaff. If a proponent extols the benefits of hydrogen, cellulose, or algae – the politicians just don’t know enough to ask the right critical questions. They listen – often to the very people who will benefit from more funding – and then they allocate money. Billions of dollars and little progress later, they or their successors may begin to realize that they have been misled and they start to dial the funding back.
Here is how I define a next generation Biofuel Pretender: A company or group that makes grandiose promises about the ability of a technology to displace large amounts of fossil fuel, despite facing significant (and often unrecognized) barriers to commercialization.
Here are some examples:
The poster child for the pretenders. Proponents ignored practical realities in many different areas, including fuel cell vehicles that cost a million dollars, the fact that most hydrogen is produced from natural gas, the fact that the energy density of hydrogen is very low, and the fact that there are multiple issues with hydrogen storage and transport. Technical breakthroughs were being counted on to solve these challenges. After all, we put a man on the moon. Surely we could solve these challenges.
The real problem is that the potential for success falls rapidly as the number of needed breakthroughs pile up. Imagine for instance that the following – cost of production, cost effective storage, and cost effective transport – each have a 25% chance of achieving commercial viability in the next 20 years. The total chance for success of all three in that case falls to 1.5% – so this is overall probability of success. Thus, the vast majority of technologies that require multiple technical breakthroughs will fail to materialize commercially except perhaps over a much longer period of time.
As was the case with hydrogen, this one requires multiple technical breakthroughs before commercial (unsubsidized) viability can be achieved. I won’t go through them all now, as I have covered them before. The fundamental reason that cellulosic ethanol won’t scale up to displace large amounts of gasoline is that the energy efficiency of the process is so low. You have the sugars that make up cellulose locked up tightly in the biomass – which has a low energy density to start with. So you add energy to unlock the sugar and turn it into ethanol, and then you end up with ethanol in water. More energy inputs are required to get the ethanol out. Even if the energy can be supplied by the by-products of the process like lignin, the net BTUs of liquid fuel that you end up with are going to be low relative to what you started with.
For example, assume you start off with 10 BTUs of biomass. You expend energy to get it to the factory, to process it, and then to get the water out. You burn part of the biomass to fuel the process, and input some fossil fuel. You might net something like 3 BTUs of liquid fuel from the 10 BTUs of biomass you started with.
Don’t confuse this with fossil fuel energy balance, though. If the external energy inputs in this example only amounted to 1 BTU of fossil fuel, one could claim a fossil fuel energy balance of 3/1. But that doesn’t change the fact the final liquid fuel input is a small fraction of the starting BTUs in the biomass.
This is analogous to the situation with oil shale, which is why I have compared the two. There may in fact be a trillion or more barrels of oil shale locked up in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming. But if the extraction of those barrels required a trillion barrels worth of energy inputs and lots of water – then that oil shale might as well be on the moon. That means that a trillion barrels isn’t really a trillion barrels in the case of oil shale, and a billion tons of biomass is much smaller than it seems when talking about cellulosic ethanol.
So despite the claims from the EPA that the “Renewable Fuel Standard program will increase the volume of renewable fuel required to be blended into gasoline from 9 billion gallons in 2008 to 36 billion gallons by 2022” – that is not going to happen unless the government is willing to throw massive amounts of money at an inefficient process.
Like many, I was initially enchanted by the possibility of weaning the world away from fossil fuels by using fuel made from algae. Proponents wrote articles suggesting that we could do just that, provided the necessary investments are made.
Sadly, the story is much more complex than that. The U.S. DOE funded a study for many years into the potential of algae to produce fuel. (For an overview of where things stand from John Benemann, one of the men who co-authored the close-out report of that study, see Algal Biodiesel: Fact or Fiction?) The problem is again one of needing to surmount multiple technical hurdles, and the close-out report states that reality. Again, I won’t go into those details, as that has been covered before.
While it is a fact that you can produce fuel from algae, the challenges are such that John has written that you can’t even buy algal biofuel for $100/gallon. He said that if you want to separate the reality from the hype, just try to secure a contract with someone to supply you with algal fuel.
First Generation Biodiesel
This story is primarily about 2nd generation fuels, and as such I won’t get into corn ethanol issues. But I will say a bit about biodiesel. As indicated in the Wall Street Journal story, conventional biodiesel producers are in trouble. Briefly, a conventional biodiesel producer is someone who takes vegetable oils or animal fats and uses methanol (almost all of which is fossil-fuel derived) and converts that into an oxygenated compound (called a mono-alkyl ester). This compound has been defined as ‘biodiesel’, and can be used – subject to certain limitations – in a diesel engine.
Again, the problems are fundamental. It takes a lot of effort (energy, cost) to produce most of the oils that are used as raw materials, and then you have to react with methanol – which usually contains a lot of embodied fossil fuel energy. Up til now, the first generation biodiesel producers have benefited from a high level of protectionism (to the extent of punishing the more efficient 2nd generation producers). But even with the protectionism and the subsidies, producers are still struggling to survive.
There are a number of miscellaneous pretenders that we probably don’t need to discuss in depth, such as various free energy schemes or water as a fuel. If you think you might be dealing with a pretender, one caution flag is when their promoters are from backgrounds that have nothing to do with energy. For instance, the person who founded the dot.com that ultimately morphs into an energy company is almost certainly a pretender who is chasing investment funds.
To summarize, the biofuel pretenders fall into several broad categories. The big ones are:
• Most would-be cellulosic ethanol producers
• Most would-be algal biofuel producers
• Most first generation biodiesel producers
This isn’t to say that none of these will work in any circumstances. I will get into that when I talk about niches. But I will say that I am confident that none of these are scalable solutions to our fossil fuel dependence. The problem is that political leaders have been, or are still convinced that there is great potential for some of these and we waste billions of dollars chasing fantasies. This is a great distraction, causing a loss of precious time and public goodwill as taxpayer money is squandered chasing schemes that ultimately will not pan out.
In the next installment, I will talk about contenders – options that I think can compete with fossil fuels on a level playing field.
There was an announcement this past week that Solix Biofuels has started oil production at a facility in Colorado:
Solix Biofuels begins production of oil made from algae
Solix Biofuels Inc. said Thursday it has started the production of oil made from algae at its Coyote Gulch Demonstration Facility, with full-scale commercial operation set for late summer.
“We are ready to prove to the world the viability of algae as an alternative to petroleum-based fuels,” Solix COO Rich Schoonover said in a statement.
Coyote Gulch is located on a two-acre site in the Durango area on land provided by the Southern Ute tribe.
Algal oil production began July 16, Solix said. It said Coyote Gulch is expected to produce the equivalent of 3,000 gallons per acre per year of algal oil by late 2009.
Yes, this is the same Solix whose co-founder admitted earlier this year that the costs of producing fuel from algae were $33/gal. And there’s the rub.
Never mind that “full-scale commercial” output refers to less than 0.4 barrels per day. (Sometimes I wonder if the people who write these stories ever bother to pick up a calculator). Never mind that they are going to require 20 full-time employees at the site to (hopefully) produce 6,000 gallons on the 2 acre site. OK, let’s do the math on that one just for fun. That works out to 300 gallons per year per employee. Let’s be conservative and say that the average salary is $30,000/yr. That is then $100 of salary for each gallon of algal oil that is expected to be produced (it’s actually more, because the site is supported by more employees off-site). And that’s just salaries. You quickly to start to see why John Benemann claims that you can’t even buy algal fuel for $100/gal.
People struggle with these sorts of concepts. They read a story like the one above, and they incorrectly assume that some alternative fuel technologies are at a stage of development that they most certainly are not. This sort of thinking – especially when it infects our political leaders – is dangerous because it creates unrealistic expectations and distorts energy policy.
Sometimes when I am trying to illustrate this point, I use the following example. There are an estimated 25 billion ounces of gold dissolved in the ocean, which is about 10 times the total amount of gold that has been mined throughout history. At current prices, that gold is worth many trillions of dollars. The fact that the oceans are full of gold has been known for over 100 years. That gold is there for the taking. And while people have been running scams related to the ocean’s dissolved gold for over 100 years, nobody has invented a commercial process for extracting it.
I could certainly start a company based on the idea of extracting gold from the oceans. I might even convince some people to invest in the company, if I am very aggressive with my cost projections, can convincingly exaggerate the status of the technology (actually I have the worst ever poker face, so that is unlikely), and I assure investors that technical breakthroughs are inevitable. After all, there is a multi-trillion dollar payoff. What’s a few million from each investor when we are all going to make trillions? (The funny thing is that I used this example with a businessman once, and he was ready to start a company – missing the entire point of the story).
The gold in the oceans and the gold in algal biofuel have much in common. You can develop a production process in each case, but the capital and operating costs for producing each are far too high for them to be commercially viable.
I don’t begrudge anyone trying in either case to improve upon the processes. But can we please do it with a minimum of fanfare and press releases? At some point the public and the politicians are going to become completely jaded at the repeated examples of over-promising and under-delivering (the ‘hype’), and the evaporation of taxpayer money that went into these schemes (the ‘fleecing’). When that happens the money is going to dry up for the hypesters and the promising technologies alike.
I just spent a fruitful week in Canada, learning about some of the biomass resources in Alberta. There are some interesting opportunities there for the right technology, and I expect that I will be making future trips up there.
One of the questions I was asked this week by one of my new Canadian friends was “Do you believe fossil fuels will still be the dominant power source in 20 years?” Without hesitation, I said “Absolutely.” Others around the table nodded their heads in agreement, and the questioner said “So do I.” It isn’t that this is what we want, but this is how we see it. Government agencies like the EIA see it the same way. While they show renewable energy growing, there is a very long hill to climb before they begin to challenge fossil fuels for supremacy.
I think the question was meant to gauge whether I am realistic about the potential contribution of biofuels in the years ahead. I believe that I am. While I believe that biofuels – or more appropriately renewable energy in general – will eventually become our predominant source of energy, that is going to take a long time. I also believe that it is going to happen by necessity – because of the depletion of fossil fuels – rather than a breakthrough that makes something like algal biofuel as cheap to produce as petroleum. Regardless, we need to pave the path to that potential future today, so when the need is pressing we aren’t scrambling to come up with solutions.
Speaking of algae, you may have seen the story on ExxonMobil plunking down $600 million for algal biofuel development. When I was in Canada, someone referred to this as “Dead Money Walking”:
Exxon, the west’s biggest oil company, has launched a new research programme into producing biofuels from algae, in a break from its general antipathy towards alternative energy.
At first sight, this looks a pretty bizarre thing for the company to be doing. Rex Tillerson, Exxon’s CEO, has been consistently sceptical about biofuels, even the advanced “second generation” variety. (Or, as Steven Chu, US energy secretary, described them to the FT, “fourth generation” biofuels.)
Incidentally, I did an interview in the airport yesterday on “4th generation biofuels.” I told the interviewer that I hate that term “4th generation biofuels.” Can we at least wait until we see what the 2nd generation really looks like?
But back to the ExxonMobil story. I am highly skeptical of the conventional paths to produce biodiesel from algae. In fact, John Benemann recently commented here that if you really want to know where algal biofuels stand, offer to buy some for $100/gal. He said you can’t get it. On the other hand ExxonMobil is certainly not stupid, so you have to wonder about their angle. The reporter I spoke with asked about algal biofuel, and I did say that I could see one circumstance in which it might work. If you could engineer/breed algae that excreted oil, you could potentially collect it by skimming it instead of collecting and pressing the algae. That would potentially be a much lower cost fuel, provided the production rates were decent.
Finally, it looks like I have 100 responses to the previous open thread, and I presume at least some of those are questions for me. I will try to work my way through those over the next few days. First, as indicated before I will speak with POET tomorrow about their ethanol work, and I will report on that conversation here in the next couple of days. If you have anything that you would like to ask them, let me know in the comments and I will try to get your questions answered.
I recently published a review of Mark Edward’s book Green Algae Strategy: End Oil Imports And Engineer Sustainable Food And Fuel. Following this review, I published a response from Mark Edwards. In that response, Professor Edwards mentioned Dr. John Benemann, who was Principal Investigator and main author of the U.S. DOE Aquatic Species Program (ASP) Close-Out Report:
Skeptics abound in the algae space and the leading skeptic, Dr. John Benemann, speaks at all the algae conferences and stands in stark contrast to many other equally experienced scientists who do not share his natural pessimism. John revels in his reputation for pessimism. Other scientists engaged in the Aquatic Species Report have a completely opposite view. Several are working for companies that are producing algae for fuel. Professor Milton Sommerfeld at ASU and a co-author on the Report, has been producing algal oil for jet fuel in the laboratory and a field setting for several years.
Dr. Benemann had been following the exchange, and has e-mailed me a response to Professor Edward’s response, which I post in full below.
I had only glanced at Prof. Edwards book last year, but not read it as it has little or no technical content, and thus not of great interest to me. From what I recall, what Robert Rapier wrote in his review, seems quite reasonable, actually rather mild.
In his response, Prof. Edward wastes no time to bring up my name, for which I am honored, calling me the “leading skeptic” who “speaks at all the algae conferences” and “revels in his reputation for pessimism”. Well, I admit that I talk at way too many conferences (“all algae conferences” would be impossible), which I should give up as it seems to do little or no good. But I must correct Prof. Edwards, I am neither a skeptic nor a pessimist. I am an incurable optimist and promoter of algae technology R&D, even for biofuels. I must be, to work in this difficult, if not dismal, field. I am, however, also a realist, about such little matters as, for two examples only, engineering head loss calculations and the limits of photosynthetic efficiencies, which are of no concern to Prof. Edwards, whose avocation is marketing. And, I am afraid, are of no concern either to many, even most, practitioners in this field, who should know better but blithely ignore such realities. It is easier to be an optimist if you only need to market the idea, or do research, but creating reality is somewhat more difficult. I work hard for my optimism, trying to find ways to overcome the technical roadblock and economic limitations.
Prof. Edwards, attempting to rebut my alleged ‘pessimism” points to scientists working for “companies that are producing algae for fuel” and that one professor has been “producing algal oil for jet fuel in the laboratory and a field setting for several years”. Sorry, there are no companies producing algae for fuel, just try to buy some, even at $100/gallon (at $1000/gallon you may be able to get a few). Some are claiming to be producing, but there is not a shred of evidence that they have succeeded in any meaningful way. (Solazyme may have, but the economics still are far from proven, and using corn starch or sugar is not a good idea, and using sugars from lignocellulosic biomass, well let us not go there either).
The only company I know that is producing algae oil is Martek Corp., and that is for human food and sells for a hundred-fold that of petrol. Neither are laboratory and academic “field” pursuits a guide to reality or technology.
Prof. Edwards claims that he has “seen” one or more order of magnitude “cost reductions” of algal oil production, extraction and mixing, in the last year or two. With all due respect to his discipline, seeing is not believing, data would be, but it must be based on actual measurements and methods that can be independently verified. Nothing of the sort can be pointed to.
Prof. Edwards is, I am sure, a most qualified expert in business and marketing, but I see little here that is real business and even less than is marketing. Algae for feed and fuel still need a great deal of R&D, of uncertain outcome, like all R&D. I recommend to Prof. Edwards that he redirect his obvious talents to help the real algae industry, the nutritional supplements business. That would be most useful – it is hard to convince people that they should ingest algae (pond scum) on a daily basis. Some do, but not nearly enough. There is the real marketing challenge! And it would lead the way to increased production, to larger scales, lower costs, more R&D, and, who knows, maybe eventually get us to a price point where we can sell algae for food and feed competing with commodity crops. Maybe even fuels at that point, perhaps. I am just an incorrigible optimist.
I have received a response from Mark Edwards, auther of Green Algae Strategy: End Oil Imports And Engineer Sustainable Food And Fuel. I reviewed the book here recently, and as I indicated in the conclusion of the review I would gladly post any of Mark’s comments. So, here they are in full. I have added clarifications, such as to indicate when Mark is quoting me [e.g., RR quote]. I have otherwise tried to keep the formatting consistent with what Mark sent me. No further response from me.
Response to Green Algae Strategy Review
Thank you for the review and the opportunity to respond to your thoughtful comments. Your observations are right on target for someone focused on algal oil as a liquid transportation fuel.
Remember that food energy is actually more important to humans that liquid transportation fuels. We can survive without transportation assistance but we starve quickly without food energy. I see no way to produce algae economically purely for liquid transportation fuels. The only way production makes sense will be to grow massive amounts of algae biomass, harvest the lipids for transportation energy and use the protein and carbohydrates to produce additional forms of energy, including especially food and feed.
RR quote: “Either Mark Edwards is dead wrong, or I am dead wrong.”
On the future of any topic, especially science, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle.
Skeptics abound in the algae space and the leading skeptic, Dr. John Benemann, speaks at all the algae conferences and stands in stark contrast to many other equally experienced scientists who do not share his natural pessimism. John revels in his reputation for pessimism. Other scientists engaged in the Aquatic Species Report have a completely opposite view. Several are working for companies that are producing algae for fuel. Professor Milton Sommerfeld at ASU and a co-author on the Report, has been producing algal oil for jet fuel in the laboratory and a field setting for several years.
Speculation on cost per gallon of algal oil is useless until we see actual field production. The good news on this front is that I have seen the following:
• Cost reduction of algal oil production — one order of magnitude in the last two years
• Cost reduction on algal extraction — two new methods promise two orders of magnitude
• Cost reduction on energy for mixing — one order of magnitude in the last two years
These cost reductions will be reflected in various producers’ cost models. American scientists and engineers are exceptionally talented at taking costs out of production.
The real question is not the cost of algal oil per gallon but the value of the total culture. The best production models I’ve reviewed have only about 30% of the algal biomass value going to fuel. That means 70% of the biomass produces other coproducts from the protein and carbohydrates. Those many coproducts are examined in analyzed in Chapters 7 and 10 in Green Algae Strategy.
Green solar energy captured in algae creates a portable energy source and grows biomass with solar energy stored in forms that may be used for a variety of purposes:
• People – organic protein in food
• Animals – organic protein in fodder
• Fowl – natural protein for birds
• Fish – natural protein in fish feed
• Land plants – organic nitrogen fertilizer
• Fire – high energy algal oil for cooking and heating
• Cars – carbohydrates refined to gasoline for transportation
• Trucks and tractors – high energy clean, green diesel
• Trains, boats, barges and ships – high energy clean diesel
• Planes – high energy, clean aviation gas and jet fuel
Algae also offer low energy and low cost pollution solutions to clean waste, brine or salt water, sequester CO2 from coal fired power plant plumes and recover abandoned soils. This presentation will highlight the status of the algal industry with a focus on food and energy.
RR quoting a study that I cited in the review: What about the value of sequestered carbon in algae-based biofuels? In short, there isn’t any. Atmospheric carbon is only sequestered for a short time until it’s burned in an engine. Under existing biofuels mandates in most industrialized countries, there will be no opportunity to sell carbon offsets unless fuel production is additional, or beyond such mandates.
This criticism ignores the fact that algae-based biofuels recycle atmospheric carbon and every gallon displaces a gallon of fossil fuel. When algal production occurs with no fossil energy, the production is carbon neutral because the carbon dioxide is simply being recycled. In contrast, cropland-based biofuels such as ethanol emits more carbon than burning natural gas directly due to the huge amounts of fossil fuels needed to produce corn.
I recently presented a paper demonstrating our work with Desert Sweet Biofuels where we produced carbon negative algal biomass by using a gasifier and creating bio-char. The gasifier burned biomass in a oxygen starved container creating hydrogen and carbon monoxide. The hydrogen was burned for energy to create electricity while the carbon dioxide was flued into algal ponds to produce algal biomass. Our calculations showed that we sequestered only about 10% of the total carbon — the bio char that was scratched into fields. The University of Arizona is currently conducting research to see what percentage of that bio char stays in the soil and for how long. Other research suggests that much of the bio char stay sequestered for decades.
Several countries are financing gasifiers in the U.S. for algal oil production for carbon trade off-sets.
RR quote: Edwards falls prey to the Vinod Khosla fallacy on cellulosic ethanol: This is simply too important and there are too many companies working on this to fail.
Vinod Khosla gave an excellent keynote at the 2009 Algal Summit in Seattle where he outlined his reasoning for not investing in algal production. His primary points were that he needed to see actual production before making investments and that the industry needed to do a better job at conveying the value proposition for algae.
RR quote: He is sufficiently skeptical about the near term prospects for cellulosic ethanol, and is harsh in his assessment of corn ethanol (even more so than I have been).
My prior book, Biowar I: Why Battles over Food and Fuel Lead to World Hunger examines the entire ethanol fiasco including energy and cost models. BioWar I is available for free PDF download with color speaker notes at http://greenindependence.org/. Every claim made for ethanol has turned out to be false. Consider that 2009 production of ethanol produce about 9 billion gallons of ethanol (the DOE Target) and will consume:
• 40 million acres of prime American cropland
• 2 trillion gallons of fresh water for irrigation
• 5 billion gallons of diesel fuel for corn production
The 2009 ethanol production will create severe pollution of air, water and soils while reducing imported oil by about 3%. Algal production, when commercially viable, could produce far more ethanol or other higher energy fuels using no or minimal cropland, fresh water or fossil fuels.
BioWar I covers the research on cellulosic ethanol which, for litany of reasons including that it takes too much fresh water and energy, makes no sense for biofuel production. Cellulosic products may turn out to be an excellent source of carbon for the production of algal oil. BioWar I concludes that our best policy is to end subsidies for ecologically destructive production such as ethanol and big oil and to shift subsidies to ecologically friendly production such as algal biomass. Subsidies played a key role in the review.
RR quote: He blames the lack of progress for algae on lack of funding, which is blamed on corn ethanol. This, he argues, was the politically favorable biofuel that sucked up all the R&D funding (and subsidies). He later writes “If corn ethanol makes sense, the market will reward it without taxpayer monies or protectionist tariffs.” Can’t we say the same about algal fuel?
Making corn whiskey, ethanol, is a 200-year-old technology. Subsidies are useful for changing consumer behavior and supporting new technologies. Subsidizing corn and the many inputs for growing corn for ethanol make no sense and are ecologically destructive. Algal production does not need protectionist tariffs but does need public monies to develop the knowledge base to grow massive amounts of biomass. The two top threats I see to the algal industry are subsidy-based. Lack of government subsidies, which began in the 1990’s at the end of the Aquatic Species Program led to: (Subsidies were shifted to corn ethanol.)
a. No support for academic, institute or government algal research. As a consequence, the US has few algae labs, nearly no American algal professors and very few students trained in algal production. Lack of trained scientists and graduate students put the U.S. at severe disadvantage in algal production.
b. An algal industry constrained by vertical markets. Each algal company jealously protect its intellectual property and does not share bubble research or breakthroughs. Even the scientific meetings are full of statements that the scientist cannot share real numbers because they have signed on disclosure agreements with their employers or grantors.
The R&D necessary for successful algal production will take more money than is available from private investors. Who wants to invest $500 million on R&D. Investors want a fast return and are not willing to fund sufficient R&D. Failing government subsidies, the industry will sputter for decades. Then, when humanity desperately needs sustainable food and energy solutions, we will discover that the intellectual property for production is locked up by a very few producers who monopolize production to the detriment of all humanity.
RR paraphrase: To commercially grow them in the Midwest –pipedream.
Watch. Within 10 years, most the farms in the Midwest will use algal production to:
a. Recover and recycle energy in agricultural waste streams, especially manure
b. Recover and recycle nutrients in agricultural waste streams
c. Reduce the ecological damage and carbon footprint for agricultural production
Yes, many producers may use greenhouses and geothermal energy for algal production. However, cold tolerant algal species may flourish in the Midwest especially during the normal growing season.
RR paraphrase: Energy return not covered.
Correct. No one can credibly address energy return until production specifications and costs are determined. However, the production of algal biomass using solar, wind and geothermal energy avoid the issue of fossil fuel use. Two new extraction technologies promise significant reduction in energy requirements. One method uses simple air flocculation and another uses ultrasonic waves to break up the algal cells and separate the oil from the other biomass. The ultrasonic solution allows the oil to flow to the top where it can be skimmed off at very low cost.
RR paraphrase: Casually dismiss technical challenges
The technical challenges are treated with seriousness and focus. True, most are not solved in the book. An entire chapter examines each technical challenge and what needs to be done to successfully produce algal oil. In addition, the table in the last chapter provides a summary of the technical challenges and the R&D needed.
RR quote: Page 13: As a criticism of using food crops for fuel, he states that massive planting of corn leads to high humidity because the leaves transpire water. This leads to thunderstorms and potentially tornadoes. That large areas planted in corn can increase the risk of tornadoes is something I have never heard before.
Neither had I before doing the research for BioWar I and Green Algae Strategy.
RR quote: Page 150: When writing that algal fuel mimics fossil fuels without fossilization, he writes “Skipping the fossilization step not only saves 200 million years of pressure and heat, but lowers production costs significantly.” I can’t really comprehend this one.
Consider the true cost of production for fossil fuels. Failing government subsidies, fossil fuels would cost around $15 a gallon and that’s ignoring their ecological cost. Oil fields must be found and developed at huge cost. Extraction and transportation add significant additional costs.
Imagine growing algae locally for fuel production when the inputs are only sunshine, carbon dioxide and wastewater.
RR quote: Page 179: He cites a claim by Aurora Biofuels that their process creates biodiesel with yields 125 times higher and 50% cheaper than current methods. I am going to presume that this was supposed to read 125% higher and not 125 times higher.
You are correct.
RR quoting from the book: Page 204: “When someone invents a carbon capture filter for vehicle exhaust pipes, there will be a nearly limitless supply of low-cost CO2 for growing algae.”
I think this is a great idea. A Brit has developed the vehicle exhaust filter. This is only one of many new and some recycled ideas presented to spur algal production.
I love to read. I particularly enjoy books about energy, sustainability, and the environment. One of the benefits of reviewing books is that I end up getting a lot of free books on these topics. One thing about getting free books, though, is that I have to be careful that it doesn’t impact my objectivity. After all, the publisher or author was nice enough to send me this free book. How do I then approach the matter if I sharply disagree with some aspects of the book?
I am on record as being very skeptical about the ability of algal biodiesel to scale up and contribute significantly toward liquid energy supplies. Mark Edwards, a Professor of Strategic Marketing and Sustainability at Arizona State University recently saw one of my essays, and said that while he agreed with my points that many algal producers have been overly optimistic, he also felt like I had glossed over algae’s potential. He offered to send me a copy of his book Green Algae Strategy: End Oil Imports And Engineer Sustainable Food And Fuel.
The first thing I thought when I saw that title is “Either Mark Edwards is dead wrong, or I am dead wrong.” But I believe it is important to read and understand a wide range of viewpoints, because I just might change my mind. Maybe I am dead wrong. This book won the 2009 IPPY award for the best science book, so there are definitely those who think Mark makes a good case.
Mark Edwards writes that he has three goals:
1. Create Green Independence for America and the world
2. Halt and reverse climate change
3. End American and world hunger
While I can certainly get behind those goals, the devil is always in the details. And I think in the details we are going to run into some very challenging problems. Of course this is something I wouldn’t mind being dead wrong about. In fact, a few years ago I was very optimistic about the possibility of algae to produce large amounts of fuel without utilizing large amounts of good crop land. The prospects for algal fuel certainly sounded too good to be true. But a series of articles and discussions since then has swung me increasingly to the belief that the stories were too good to be true.
My Slide Toward Skepticism
First I read an essay at The Oil Drum called Has the Algae Cavalry Arrived? The essay was mostly based on work done by Krassen Dimitrov, who had gone back to first principles of incoming solar insolation to argue that GreenFuel Technologies was exaggerating their claims. While Dimitrov’s work has been criticized, he does raise a number of important issues. Primarily for me was the issue of just how much renewable diesel could be made from a square meter of area, contrasted with what the overall costs might be. Dimitrov concluded that you could make at best about a gallon of algal oil per square meter per year. However, costs were estimated to be over $100 per square meter. That sounded like a pretty serious, but potentially surmountable problem. (Important to note that in Green Algae Strategy, Mark Edwards also argues that GreenFuel made “some serious mistakes in executing strategy”, and led the industry in “hope and hype”).
Then came a post from John Benemann: Algal Biodiesel: Fact or Fiction? John has been heavily involved in algae studies for many years. In fact, he was the Principal Investigator and main author of the U.S. DOE Aquatic Species Program Close-Out Report. He certainly has some credentials on the topic of algae, and he weighed in to say that the essay described in the previous paragraph was generally correct. John’s position is that the present status of algal biodiesel is nowhere near commercialization, but in 10-15 years commercialization may not be out of the question. But it is far from a sure thing, and it certainly won’t happen soon. (See also John’s recent position paper on the subject: Opportunites and Challenges in Algae Biofuels Production).
Meanwhile, more question marks emerged. De Beers Fuel, having made some pretty far-fetched claims about their ability to deliver algal biodiesel, as well as having sold 27 franchises for algal biodiesel production, turned out to be a scam and collapsed. GreenFuel Technologies finally decided their future was bleak, and they closed down.
Information about the true costs started to become publicly available. While it has long been known that algal biodiesel is currently very expensive to produce, the actual price was only vaguely quantified. Krassen Dimitrov had suggested costs of around $20/gal. The government in British Columbia commissioned a study to look at the prospects, as well as the estimated costs of production. They estimated that the net cost of production per liter for photobioreactors (PBRs) was $24.60 ($93.23 US dollars/gallon), for open raceways it was $14.44 per liter, and for fermentors was $2.58 per liter. (There are some other issues with using fermentation that I won’t get into here). The report also stated that the much-touted carbon sequestration benefits of algae were illusory:
What about the value of sequestered carbon in algae-based biofuels? In short, there isn’t any. Atmospheric carbon is only sequestered for a short time until it’s burned in an engine. Under existing biofuels mandates in most industrialized countries, there will be no opportunity to sell carbon offsets unless fuel production is additional, or beyond such mandates.
Finally, Bryan Wilson, a co-founder of Solix Biofuels, went on record and stated that they could indeed make biofuel from algae, but the cost to do this was $33/gallon.
That preamble is meant to establish that there was quite a lot behind my slide from algae optimist to algae skeptic. But I was looking forward to seeing whether Mark Edwards could push me back toward the optimist camp with his book.
The Book’s Strengths
Let me talk first about what I feel are the book’s strengths. Edwards clearly lays out the challenges we face over our dependence on fossil fuels. He takes on current U.S. biofuel policy in a credible way. He is sufficiently skeptical about the near term prospects for cellulosic ethanol, and is harsh in his assessment of corn ethanol (even more so than I have been). He cites familiar names such as Lester Brown, delves deeply into the challenges of water and soil depletion, and discusses the issue of NPK (nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium) availability in the future.
On the overall topic of algae, the book is incredibly informative. I had no idea that algae played such an important role in food, medicines, and consumer products (e.g., Aquafresh toothpaste). Edwards discusses many different varieties of algae, and characterizes them according to lipid, protein, or carbohydrate production.
Edwards makes a good case for why it would be a great idea to have algae-based fuels. He emphasizes that the co-products in many cases can improve the overall economics of the process. He lays out all the possible benefits of procuring our fuel from specific waterways as opposed to trading topsoil and fossil aquifers for fuel.
I can say with certainty that this book will come in handy for me in the future as a reference book. (More details at a later date, but I am likely to do some work on algae myself in the not-too-distant future). But what I won’t use this book for is as a “How To” guide. And that’s a good segue into the problems I had with the book.
The Book’s Weaknesses
At times it felt as if this book was written by two people. There was Mark Edwards, the cellulosic ethanol skeptic, accurately reporting on some of the potential problems with commercialization of cellulosic ethanol. Then there was Mark Edwards, the algal biofuel optimist, uncritically presenting seemingly far-fetched claims from any number of would be algae producers.
There was even Mark Edwards the algal fuel skeptic, but I just couldn’t reconcile that person’s views with those of Mark Edwards the optimist. On one hand, Professor Edwards notes that the current estimated costs for algal biodiesel are over $20/gallon. He said that over 75% of the companies who had algal aspirations in the 80’s and 90’s no longer exist. He wrote that the algal fuel industry as a whole has produced less than 100 barrels of product. Then he turns around and writes that within three years the industry will be producing hundreds of millions of gallons. (Based on the 2008 publication date, I guess we can expect a gusher of production next year).
I had a number of specific criticisms as I read the book. First, it was presented throughout the book that algae can be used to produce food and fuel, all while sequestering carbon. I don’t agree with that. Certainly algae take up carbon dioxide and convert it into biomass as they grow. However, unless that biomass is stored away without being consumed, there is no real carbon sequestration. Imagine two different scenarios. In the first scenario, the carbon dioxide from a coal-fired power plant is bubbled through tubes filled with algae. The algae will consume that CO2, preventing the immediate escape into the atmosphere. But what happens if fuel is produced from the algae? The carbon dioxide ends up getting released into the atmosphere. What you can say is that the release was delayed, and (depending on the energy inputs into producing the fuel) potentially more fuel was produced for a given emission of CO2. However, that isn’t carbon sequestration.
Second case, algae are grown utilizing atmospheric CO2. During the growth phase carbon dioxide is indeed removed from the atmosphere. Take that algae and bury it deep in the earth, and carbon is sequestered. Turn it into fuel, and the CO2 taken up during the growth-phase is released back into the atmosphere. This is potentially a greenhouse gas (GHG) neutral process, but there is little potential for sequestration if the goal is to use the algae for fuel. However, this carbon sequestration meme is mentioned many times in the book (and many themes in the book were unnecessarily repetitive).
He blames the lack of progress for algae on lack of funding, which is blamed on corn ethanol. This, he argues, was the politically favorable biofuel that sucked up all the R&D funding (and subsidies). He later writes “If corn ethanol makes sense, the market will reward it without taxpayer monies or protectionist tariffs.” Can’t we say the same about algal fuel? If the potential is so great, money should flood in from investors looking to get in early on a huge growth opportunity.
I don’t recall that the issue of energy return was ever covered in the book. If the energy inputs into the process are too high – as Bryan Wilson of Solix Biofuels recently suggested – then you have a potentially serious issue. How can algae be harvested and processed with minimal energy inputs? One of John Benemann’s comments from his position paper was “At present there are no low-cost harvesting technologies available.” Why? It takes a lot of energy to extract the algae from the water, relative to the BTU content of the algae you are extracting.
I felt that there was some confusion around the usage of specific terminology. For instance, on Page 6 Professor Edwards wrote that oil pressed directly from algae can be used directly in a diesel engine, and this is called green diesel. While plant oils can be used straight in a diesel engine, this product is called straight vegetable oil, or SVO. (Note: Do not attempt to use SVO in a vehicle unless you understand the caveats!) Further, there is a difference between green diesel and biodiesel, but this terminology is used interchangeably in the book. (See my Renewable Diesel Primer for an explanation of the differences between green diesel and biodiesel.) Another misuse of terminology comes on Page 15, where ethanol is called a hydrocarbon.
But those aren’t the biggies for me. The title of the book indicates that it is a strategy book, but I see it more as a series of facts, connected to goals. What is missing is the “how to”, which would be the strategy part. Yet difficult technology challenges were addressed casually. There are numerous instances where there is a presumption that technology will solve a particular problem. The word “might” is used an awful lot in the book. But when you casually dismiss technical challenges, you can effectively argue that the most implausible scenarios are inevitable. Let me give you an example.
Bananas are a very healthy food, and in the U.S. we depend on imports from tropical countries for our banana supplies. Just imagine if we could grow bananas in the Midwest. The soil is fertile. There would be additional options for farmers to make money. New jobs could be created in the domestic banana supply chain. So let’s say I write a book about my Midwest Banana Strategy. I talk at length about the benefits of bananas, and the benefits of growing them in the Midwest. These are facts. I then tie them to my goals: To commercially grow them in the Midwest. The only problem is that unless I am willing to invest in heated greenhouses – at very great expense – my banana goal is going to come to naught. So presently Midwestern bananas are a pipe dream. But if I invoke the wonders of biotech – “there will be a solution that will enable cold-tolerant bananas” – then problem “solved.” And that’s how I felt many problems were dealt with in the book.
There are a series of independent facts, and then we have a black box, and then we have commercial algal biofuel. Solutions are presented as inevitable (“when this happens”) instead of possible (“if this happens”). Sometimes I had flashbacks to The Singularity Is Near, in which author Ray Kurzweil employed this tactic throughout to argue that the near future is so fantastic we can’t even imagine it. It is certainly true that a lot of companies are working on algae. But I would argue that Professor Edwards falls prey to the Vinod Khosla fallacy on cellulosic ethanol: This is simply too important and there are too many companies working on this to fail.
If I hand wave away the challenging problems and presume technology will solve them, then who needs algae for fuel? Hydrogen is waiting to solve all of our problems. Recall all that hydrogen economy business that was all the rage a few years ago? Despite numerous potential benefits, there are multiple very challenging technical issues that keep a hydrogen economy at bay – and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. But I could still write a book called Hydrogen Economy Strategy if I am willing to brush away those technical issues as temporary.
While there were a number of claims that I thought were presented uncritically, there were also some claims that I found to be very odd. Some examples:
Page 13: As a criticism of using food crops for fuel, he states that massive planting of corn leads to high humidity because the leaves transpire water. This leads to thunderstorms and potentially tornadoes.
That large areas planted in corn can increase the risk of tornadoes is something I have never heard before.
Page 105: Algal biodiesel is carbon neutral because the power needed for producing and processing the algae can come from the methane produced by anaerobic digestion…
That sentence is inaccurate. It is only carbon neutral if the power does come from digestion, not that it can. Based on the above, we could also say that corn ethanol is carbon neutral, because the power for processing can come from methane produced from digestion.
Page 150: When writing that algal fuel mimics fossil fuels without fossilization, he writes “Skipping the fossilization step not only saves 200 million years of pressure and heat, but lowers production costs significantly.”
I can’t really comprehend this one. The reason biofuels have trouble competing with fossil fuels is because nature already did the heavy lifting for the fossil fuels. Nature provided all that heat and pressure for free. Humans have to provide the heat and pressure to process biofuels – at a price. So I would come to the opposite conclusion: Skipping 200 million years of pressure and heat increases production costs significantly.
Page 179: He cites a claim by Aurora Biofuels that their process creates biodiesel with yields 125 times higher and 50% cheaper than current methods.
I am going to presume that this was supposed to read 125% higher and not 125 times higher.
Page 204: “When someone invents a carbon capture filter for vehicle exhaust pipes, there will be a nearly limitless supply of low-cost CO2 for growing algae.”
I don’t even know what to say about that one. It gets back to the issue of energy return. Anything you do here (e.g., compressing the spent CO2 from the vehicle) is going to take energy (and add weight to the vehicle) which is a penalty against the overall energy return of the process.
Let me say that I agree with the goals of Professor Mark Edwards, and that I think his heart is in the right place. I agree that we should spend research dollars on an algal biofuel program. I agree with him that economical algal biofuel could provide substantial benefits. (A good portion of the book was devoted to algae as food, and I didn’t really address that at all in this review). Where I disagree sharply is that solving the technical challenges is inevitable. This is primarily where I found fault with the book.
On the other hand, the book was very informative on the topic of algae. I learned a lot I didn’t know. But at the end of the book, my skepticism had not been swayed because I did not see a real pathway to get from where we are today to vast quantities of commercial algal biofuel. The book failed to make the case that the technical challenges will be solved.
No doubt Professor Edwards will disagree with some of this review. But I am a strong proponent of allowing people to answer criticisms. I therefore extend an open invitation to Professor Edwards. If he wishes to dispute or address any of the points I have raised, I will happily publish his comments.
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