Forgot your password?
typodupeerror
Technology Earth Transportation

Commercial Fuel From Algae Still Years Away 134

Posted by Soulskill
from the it's-not-easy-being-green dept.
chrnb sends along this quote from a report at Reuters: "Filling your vehicle's tank with fuel made from algae is still as much as a decade away, as the emerging industry faces a series of hurdles to find an economical way to make the biofuel commercially. Estimates on a timeline for a commercial product, and profits, vary from two to 10 years or more. Executives and industry players who gathered at the Algae Biomass Summit this week in San Diego said they need to push for breakthroughs along the entire chain — from identifying the best organisms to developing efficient harvesting methods. ... So far on the list: finding the right strain of algae among thousands of species that will produce high yields; designing systems where the desired algae can multiply and other species don't invade and disrupt the process; and extracting its oils without degrading other parts of the algae that can be made into side products and sold as well."
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

Commercial Fuel From Algae Still Years Away

Comments Filter:
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday October 11, 2009 @12:03PM (#29711437)

    Give them a Nobel prize, it will encourage them.

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      I know that was a snipe at the Obama win and a troll post, but I hope they do.

      Algae is the perfect solution. It turns carbon dioxide into oxygen, uses salt water, and I even saw an idea to put it inside buildings to clean city air.

      It seems too perfect a solution, but this time it may just be.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday October 11, 2009 @12:06PM (#29711457)

    so this is like fusion but only 10 years away instead of 20 !

    • Exactly. Plants make their bodies from cellulose, a chemical that is extremely stable. Giving a time of 7 to 10 years, as the story did, is entirely fiction.
      • I don't see how much would be cellulose. The fatty acids can be up to 40 percent which is very good. http://www.oilgae.com/algae/comp/comp.html [oilgae.com]

        Also algae is not a plant and they've removed cyanobacteria from consideration as algae.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by BrokenHalo (565198)
        You are correct in that plants do make their bodies from cellulose, but algae can be a bit different in that they often use other compounds or elements in their construction. A common case in point is the large number of species of diatoms, which construct their cell walls out of silica - which when the creatures die is deposited over time as clay.

        Incidentally, you might be interested to know that it is quite difficult to remove silica as an impurity from water. Experiments in culture of diatoms in the abs
      • As others have pointed out, algae are interesting because they produce oil, not because they produce cellulose. Regardless, the process of turning cellulose into fuel is well understood now and several companies are starting to implement it on an industrial scale. See e.g. http://www.gevo.com./ [www.gevo.com]

        • This seems to be incorrect: "... the process of turning cellulose into fuel is well understood now and several companies are starting to implement it on an industrial scale. See e.g. http://www.gevo.com./ [www.gevo.com]".

          Quote from the Gevo web site, 2009-10-11, 11:37 PDT: "Our team of biofuel experts is developing the next generation of biofuels. Gevo's GIFT® process will provide a sustainable path to the replacement of petrochemicals like gasoline, diesel and jet fuel." [My emphasis]

          Gevo is apparently lookin
        • by ebuck (585470)

          I'm pretty sure that my fireplace can provide some prior art on how to turn cellulose into fuel. Perhaps some of the researchers who are a bit confused can come over and investigate it in detail. If the kids don't mind, we can also introduce them to marshmallows and camp fire songs, time permitting.

          As for converting cellulose into gasoline, perhaps they can bury a few billion tons of cellulose in the earth's crust. I seem to recall that that worked once, but anecdotal data probably won't hold up to scien

    • by oddaddresstrap (702574) on Sunday October 11, 2009 @01:30PM (#29711965)

      The real question is for how many decades is it going to be ten years away?

    • by claus.wilke (51904) on Sunday October 11, 2009 @02:11PM (#29712179)

      That comparison is not valid. The problem with fuel from algae is to make it *commercially* viable. The problem with energy from fusion is to make it *viable*, period.

      At this moment in time, there is not a single fusion reactor anywhere in the world that produces net energy. By contrast, there are many facilities that obtain fuel from algae. But the fuel that is being produced is not cheap enough to compete with fossil fuels at market prices.

      • by evilbessie (873633) on Sunday October 11, 2009 @03:39PM (#29712669)
        JET did, right at the end, which is why they are building ITER to actually get positive _useful_ energy out.
      • by shentino (1139071)

        Unfortunately, being "commercially viable" means surviving the political assault that the oil industry is going to launch against any competition.

      • by vertinox (846076)

        At this moment in time, there is not a single fusion reactor anywhere in the world that produces net energy.

        As others have set JET [wikipedia.org] did get fusion to have a net gain in energy output.

        That said, they could only get it to go for a few seconds (or fractions of a second I can't remember) at a time so wasn't exactly a solution to the world's energy needs.

      • by Tuoqui (1091447)

        Well if they're close... Why don't they use multiple different versions of algae that have high yields... Use local ones if possible so escape/contamination is a non-issue.

    • so this is like fusion but only 10 years away instead of 20 !

      This article strives to exaggerate the 'time to completion' of the general concept. I say this because the 2-10 years estimate is only a matter of business, not of known working methods to deliver fuel at $50/barrel. Only a couple months ago JC Venter's SGI along with Exxon discussed their engineered algae that secretes the biofuels (thus making harvesting very simple and efficient), and that they would be rolling out their first plant in the bay area to start pumping fuel in 2010 with plans to expand by

  • My trifecta (Score:5, Funny)

    by thomasdz (178114) on Sunday October 11, 2009 @12:11PM (#29711503)

    I'm working on getting fusion power working by slamming algae together using power from cheap solar cells.
    I'm still in the planning stages, so I estimate it will be another ten years before commercial applications, such as flying cars, are ready

  • DAPRA still trying. (Score:5, Informative)

    by auric_dude (610172) on Sunday October 11, 2009 @12:14PM (#29711523)
    Pentagon way-out research arm Darpa and Predator drone maker General Atomics are teaming up to try to turn algae into jet fuel. http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2008/12/darpa-general-a/ [wired.com] well they were still at it towards the end of 2008.
  • Well Duh! (Score:3, Insightful)

    by ArchieBunker (132337) on Sunday October 11, 2009 @12:19PM (#29711553) Homepage

    Several years away...

    We've been hearing that for everything, cold fusion, energy storage for electric cars, holographic memory, duke nukem forever... Wake me when we can tell the middle east we won't be needing their product anymore.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Locutus (9039)
      what is funny is that you never heard this regarding fuel cell powered cars and you didn't list that. So why is this group setting the bar so far out there if they really think they're going to continue getting investments? Sounds like something you'd be saying if you did not want people, industry, governments investing. So who was it that said it's so far out there?

      What also surprised me about this '10 years out thing' was that one of the often talked about features of algae is that it grows so fast and
      • by drinkypoo (153816)

        what is funny is that you never heard this regarding fuel cell powered cars

        That's false. In who killed the electric car a tech lead at Honda on the FCP program tells us that fuel cell powered cars are at minimum 15 years away (IIRC) and it hasn't been that long since.

        What also surprised me about this '10 years out thing' was that one of the often talked about features of algae is that it grows so fast and in so little space. Those things should make it faster and cheaper to find a suitable strain yet it sounds like they are making excuses for how hard it is and how long it's going to take.

        The focus now is on actually engineering the algae, because the USDOE already proved that breeding algae is fruitless.

        When you look at what the auto industry is doing, they are designing completely new systems and taking 10 years to do it( Chevy Volt ) and with a price so high very few will be sold.

        You mean like the $85,000 hybrid Durango which was cancelled shortly after introduction for "lack of interest"? Yeah, no kidding, I can buy a crapload of gas for $35,000.

        Maybe it's going to be some guys/gals in their backyard and garage who'll figure out the algae process because those in the industry really don't want it to be successful just like the current EV market?

        The process is already pretty w

        • by Locutus (9039)
          <quote>
          <quote><p>what is funny is that you never heard this regarding fuel cell powered cars</p></quote>

          <p>That's false. In <em>who killed the electric car</em> a tech lead at Honda on the FCP program tells us that fuel cell powered cars are at minimum 15 years away (IIRC) and it hasn't been that long since.</p>
          </quote>

          As much as I appreciate what Chris did with that, it is not mainstream press. I think recently there were some hydrogen fuel cell p
    • by hairyfeet (841228)
      Wanna hear something funny? The Saudis say they'll be wanting aid money [chron.com] if any of us do manage to cut our dependence on foreign oil. Hey having a Rolls for every day of the week and funneling money to terrorists [niagarafallsreporter.com] ain't cheap you know!
    • Wake me when we can tell the middle east we won't be needing their product anymore.

      Imports from the middle-east only represent a small proportion [ngoilgas.com] of the total oil imported to the US.

      Most of our imports come from Canada, Mexico, and Venezuela. 40% of our oil consumption comes from domestic sources.

      Part of the problem is that our consumption is so high that we're dependent upon all of these sources. If we reduce our consumption by a third (possibly achievable with current technology), we might even be able to cut off imports from Venezuela and the Middle East entirely (or at least, we'd h

    • by couchslug (175151)

      "Several years away..."

      That's why it isn't worth following the technologies unless you, personally, are actually working with them.
      Hearing they might work in some distant and ever-receding future isn't useful information.

    • by fermion (181285)
      The difference is that some firms are using algae to create oils. Dow is going to open a algae biofuel plant in Freeport that will create ethanol. This should partially stem the hemorrhaging of jobs. Solazyme is producing75,000 litree of F-76 renewable fuel for the Navy.

      The point is that this technology is being used, and the only big issue are some engineering problems, not physics problem as in fusion. Most of the negative reaction comes from the energy companies that want to keep the profits from f

  • by physburn (1095481) on Sunday October 11, 2009 @12:19PM (#29711555) Homepage Journal
    Encoraging though. ""It's going to take the right engineering solution with the right species to make it commercially viable," Well maybe. Both the bioreactor and species designs will get better all the time. Meanwhile oil prices will go up. 7 years seems slow. In fact i'll bet there'll be many semiproduction pilot plants by then. It all depends, like must alternative energy solutions, on the predictions of future oil prices.

    ---

    Bioethanol [feeddistiller.com] Feed @ Feed Distiller [feeddistiller.com]

    • If the problem with development of alternative sources of energy is a competitive price, I'm surprised that some hardcore environmentalists haven't blown up an oil refinery or two. That would have forced the price of oil up and suddenly the alternatives would have started looking pretty good.

  • What a shock! (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Kohath (38547)

    You mean one of these pie-in-the-sky alternative energy ideas was actually over-hyped and too good to be true!!???? Unbelievable! Next you'll be telling us that there weren't as many "green jobs" as we were promised and that they don't help the economy [bloomberg.com].

    What about the power of HOPE? Can I use that to fuel my car?

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Not every solution that involves something other than fossil fuels and nuclear is pie in the sky. Wind and solar have long histories, not all solar is for electricity solar heating and hot water are far more practical. Hydroelectric has done a lot of damage but it's an alternative source it's just been fairly thoroughly exploited. I'm annoyed because the major power companies botched that one so bad that they have virtually outlawed small scale hydroelectric power. Most areas don't allow you to modify the f

      • Not every solution that involves something other than fossil fuels and nuclear is pie in the sky

        Why is nuclear lumped in with fossil? Nuclear material doesn't fall out of the sky so we know it won't last forever like solar, but it will certainty do the trick for a good long while without pumping out the pollution of fossil fuels. Nuclear, for all intents and purposes, is one of the green alternative energies.

        • by gnud (934243)
          OK, can we store the waste in your basement? And you promise it won't leak for 100.000 years? And you have room for 12.000 more tonnes each year? Cool.

          Nuclear energy is not renewable. Investing heavily in reactors seems a bit stupid when there is only enough fuel until 2090 ("Uranium 2005: Resources, production and demand" p.78: NEA/IAEA 2006). Better to invest in truly renewable alternatives.
        • by drinkypoo (153816)

          Neither nuclear nor solar will last forever with our present methods. We're running out of the elements we currently make solar panels with, and without using breeder reactors the storage of nuclear waste is a huge problem. Therefore it is entirely logical to lump them both together in some ways. In other ways, not so much; once your initial energy investment in solar panels is paid up, and you have enough of them to make more panels, then the whole thing becomes free from an energy consumption standpoint,

      • Re:What a shock! (Score:4, Interesting)

        by jsveiga (465473) on Sunday October 11, 2009 @05:02PM (#29713179)

        You're right. We have a very real non-fossil, non-nuclear fuel solution, environmentally friendlier than fossil.

        We have been running cars on sugar cane ethanol in Brazil since the 70'. The technology is very mature already, and most (if not all) cars made in Brazil now are "flex-fuel" (can run on any mixture from pure ethanol to our gasoline, which actually already has 24% of ethanol).

        It always annoys me how few people have heard about this outside Brazil, and how the (american) media tries to create every possible bad news/stats/study about it.

        I had to send some furious emails to Road&Track because everytime they mentioned "ethanol" as fuel they'd list disadvantages associated only with corn ethanol, as if it was general to any ethanol source, never mentioning the existence of our established system here. Only recentlyI could I finally see "corn ethanol" correctly identified in the magazine when identifying a disadvantage.

        It looks to me the media likes to bash ethanol fuel and ignore the Brazilian success with sugar cane ethanol because: 1 - They are against the corn subsides, 2 - They don't want it to look as a good idea until the US can produce its own ethanol (I don't think we could handle the US demand for ethanol anyway), and 3 - "not made here"

        (so please, before posting gossip about "sugar cane ethanol harming food production", "sugar cane ethanol causing rain forest damage", "ethanol fuel bad for environment", do check your sources for hidden agendas)

        I won't debate about this, so some points in advance:

        - CO2 emissions at the exhaust pipe are no better than fossil (maybe worse, since you burn about 30% more fuel in volume per km), but most of that "C" was arrested from CO2 in the air when the sugar cane was growing.

        - unlike corn ethanol, the complete cycle (from production to engine) returns 4 to 5 times more energy than it was "invested" in production, so only a small amount of CO2 is produced by other energy sources (specially considering that most electricity in Brazil comes from hydroelectric). The rest is "solar power" - the only real renewable source, as it is the only significant energy being "added" to the Earth all the time.

        - along the years while ethanol production grew in Brazil, food production also grew. We're not stopping producing food to produce ethanol. Food production is (as everywhere capitalist else) regulated by market price. Nobody will produce food if it costs more to do it than what you can sell it for.

        - Road&Track (Dennis Simanaitis) once mentioned a paper where it said the rain forest was being cut due to ethanol production. First, the rain forest region is not good for sugar cane. Second, when I found&read the paper, it actually suggested that corn ethanol subsides made many US farmers drop soy production for corn, that made the soy international value rise, some Brazilian farmers could have expanded soy plantations in the rain forest region (I have not verified this fact, but one can see how far the prejudice can go).

        - ethanol production got to a point where we have big sugar cane plantations close to the ethanol production (thus reducing the need for fossil diesel for trucks to carry the cane to the plant), the vegetal matter not converted in alcohol is burned to provide heat for the conversion process, and in at least one case excess heat is used by a power plant which supplies electricity for the site and nearby community (again, the CO2 produced by this burning is "renewable")

        It is not cold-fusion perfect, but it is a way better, not pie-in-the-sky, alternative for fossil fuels, real, tested, mature, and in use for some 30 years.

        (even cold fusion worries me a bit. what are we going to do with all the He produced when/if all energy we use comes from cold fusion? will we all talk funny? or will it take the ozone layer's place in high atmosphere?)

        • by Kohath (38547)

          Ethanol production in the US is mostly a way to funnel money to farmers and ethanol processing businesses in exchange for votes and political payoffs. The fuel produced is inferior and much more expensive than the equivalent fossil fuels.

          We has tarrifs on sugar in the US, specifically to funnel money to the same people.

          I wish farming was a business in the US instead of a front for theft from consumers and taxpayers. But I never get what I wish for.

  • First, I am not a biochemist, so don't flog me too harshly if I grossly overlook important elements of this biofuel process...

    That said, need the process be commercialized? From what I can gather, having followed this a bit, is that they are looking for ways to mass-produce fuel from algae. Is 'microbrewing' not possible, or is it just not profitable for energy companies?

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by maxume (22995)

      Let's abuse the analogy: Budweiser is cheaper and more consistent than most microbrews.

      • At the very least, you could have used a real beer in you analogy. ;-)
        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          by maxume (22995)

          Actually, I chose Bud because when I am choosing a fuel, I want a cheap product that delivers consistent quality (I'm not saying Budweiser delivers high quality, just that each can of Budweiser is pretty much the same as every other can of Budweiser, which is desirable in a fuel).

      • Cheap? Yes. Consistent? Yes.

        But it still tastes like piss when compared to real beer.

        Is there any reason why DIY fuel manufacture isn't practical?

        • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

          by maxume (22995)

          The biggest one is that you need a (large!) stinky pond. Or a huge enclosed system. Insolation is only about 1 kilowatt per square meter, so depending on the length of day and the efficiency of the algae, you will only capture a kilowatt hour or two of energy each day. A gallon of gasoline contains about 38 kilowatt hours of energy. So meeting a meaningful liquid fuel budget in a location with a relatively short summer is going to require an enormous pond.

        • Is there any reason why DIY fuel manufacture isn't practical?

          No. But there are good social reasons why we dont want it to tase better than Bud.

      • by drinkypoo (153816)

        The problem with this particular abuse is that a lot of effort goes into making Budweiser consistent, where diesel fuel does not need to be very consistent. In fact, most commercial biodiesel is inferior to the stuff you can make in a blender at home. Of course, a blender jar full of biodiesel will not get you very far; but you can trivially come up with a system for making a tank of fuel at a time. You can buy a system which will process a tank and then some at a time for anywhere from $1500 to $9000 depen

      • Let's abuse the analogy: Budweiser is cheaper and more consistent than most microbrews.

        Entirely off topic, but Budweiser actually has a lot of talented people working for them. It actually takes more skill to brew a beer without flavor than it does to brew a beer with flavor. The flavor will hide flaws that are much easier to notice in beers like Budweiser.

        For instance, the brewmaster at award-winning micro New Glarus Brewing used to to work for Anhueser-Busch [newglarusbrewing.com]. The New Glarus beers aren't as consistent as Budweiser, of course. Then again, they have flavor.

    • Re: (Score:1, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      For starters, you can make bio-diesel from algae, this is a truth. There are other fuels you can potentially make too.

      There is a giant difference between doing that in a lab and doing it for commercial use. There are companies trying to produce algae that have higher amounts of oil in each cell, the oil is what is converted in to bio-diesel. There are other companies that are trying to create efficient ways to grow it and then refine it, every step along the way that wastes energy hurts the bottom

      • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

        by BrokenHalo (565198)
        There is a giant difference between doing that in a lab and doing it for commercial use.

        True. I got in a bit of trouble in my 3rd year when my little bioreactor full of methanogenetic bacteria got a blocked valve and blew up, spewing stinky sulphurous muck all over the lab ceiling. Just imagine someone letting me loose on a full-grown industrial project.

        Exprosions. Very nice. >:-D
    • I am not a biochemist, so don't flog me too harshly

      The only way that flogging cannot be harsh is if a feather boa is used.

      We will have to leave it to the Biochemist Mac Users to punish you.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by vlm (69642)

      That said, need the process be commercialized? From what I can gather, having followed this a bit, is that they are looking for ways to mass-produce fuel from algae. Is 'microbrewing' not possible, or is it just not profitable for energy companies?

      About 90% of questions from non-engineers on slashdot seem to revolve around scalability.

      The problem with doing this small scale, is that everything "chemical plant-like" is less efficient when its small, or for stuff like catalysts there is a workaround to make big stuff more efficient. "Stuff" is going to get pumped, and big pumps are more efficient than small pumps. Real estate scales as "square" and process tanks scale as "cube" so you always get more "stuff per square foot" from a big tank. The grow

  • Whatever they are doing with algae to get biofuel from it, its gotta be better than cutting down rainforrests to make environmentally friendly biofuel. Bring it on.
    • by NoYob (1630681)

      Whatever they are doing with algae to get biofuel from it, its gotta be better than cutting down rainforrests to make environmentally friendly biofuel. Bring it on.

      Cutting down rainforests?!? That's the first I've heard of that in relation to bio-fuel!

      Personally, for a renewable green resource, I think we should use whale oil. It's natural. It's renewable. And the meat can go to feed hungry people in poor countries. It's the perfect fuel! We just need a program to start breeding whales. That will solve our green energy problems.

      The other way to solve our energy/heating problem is to use natural renewable insulation. That's right, the fur of baby seals. We need to star

  • by resistant (221968) on Sunday October 11, 2009 @12:40PM (#29711687) Homepage Journal

    The more there are pie-in-the-sky technologies out there that have been researched over many years, the more promising and immediately useful (if currently marginally feasible) technologies there will be on hand to frantically improve at the last minute when ever-growing demand for energy peaks and readily available oil has become unaffordable for less important applications. Algae is particularly promising because it relies on a billion years of evolution focussed on minimal-energy solutions to extracting power from sunlight, and because it has relatively little background pollution associated with it (as compared to the array of toxic chemicals used to manufacture solar cells [lowtechmagazine.com], for example). Plus, understanding of genetic engineering can only improve greatly.

    I still strongly prefer nuclear energy (safe fission designs for now, fusion later if that ever gets off the ground), but the political controversy surrounding nuclear power plants appears set to make nuclear energy a minor part of future energy provisions. Algae looks to be uncontroversial and usable everywhere there is decent sunlight, with almost no toxic chemicals or proliferation concerns.

    • by Nyeerrmm (940927)

      I think algae-based biofuels are a good supplement to nuclear/hydro/wind/solar, not a replacement, just as gasoline is really a supplement to coal presently. That is, big power-generation stations are a majority of our energy use, but cars and trucks make up a significant portion as well, and pure EV's are going to have range issues for a long time.

      In my mind biofuels make a lot more sense than a hydrogen-based vehicle system, since they don't require a complete reworking of infrastructure, and it quite fr

      • by blindseer (891256)

        Bio fuels are a dead end. There is not enough arable land in the world to allow us to fill our gas tanks and our stomachs.

        A hydrogen economy can work if the hydrogen is bound to carbon atoms. Synthesized hydrocarbons from nuclear power is where I think things will inevitably lead. Synthesized hydrocarbons do not require a significant change in the infrastructure. Nuclear power is the only energy source we have that is dense enough, cheap enough, and reliable enough to replace coal and petroleum fuels.

        In

        • by Nyeerrmm (940927)

          I haven't seen much on synthesized hydrocarbons, but if it can be done at a reasonable efficiency cost, it seems reasonable.

          However, I'd say any analysis of biofuels based primarily on corn ethanol is questionable, even though I realize that its the most well developed one. The absurdity and of it, and the harm its done, is well document, and I don't deny it -- I'd say its largely attributable to the fact that no senator wants to rule out running for president, and the Iowa caucuses are pivotal for that.

          Ho

        • by Dan Ost (415913)

          Bio fuels are a dead end. There is not enough arable land in the world to allow us to fill our gas tanks and our stomachs.

          Which is why there is so much interest in bio fuels that can be derived from sea water and non-arable land.

          There is no dead end, although bio fuels by themselves won't likely scale up sufficiently to meet all our demand.

    • by Locutus (9039)
      IIRC, Pickens wanted to leverage NG for an immediate move from foreign oil to locally produced fuel and in parallel with that, bring in more EVs powered by wind power with nuclear mixed in. It is/was a 10 year plan IIRC. Unfortunately, the problem with nuclear energy in the US is that our government and legal system caters to industry. Industry wanted and got to design and build their own designs over and over and every one of them was different. Most of them were huge and extremely costly to build, repair,
    • by cervo (626632)
      The problem with fission is what happens when you run out of Uranium? It's almost like trading dependence on fossil fuel for dependence on uranium. Exactly how much uranium is there?
      • by blindseer (891256)

        Using once through (not recycled) light water reactors we have enough uranium to last decades. Using recycled uranium we have enough fuel to last hundreds of years. Using breeder reactors the supply of uranium will last thousands of years. Using known technologies in converting fertile elements, like thorium, into usable fissionable fuels there is enough known fuel on this planet to last millions of years.

        We are not going to run out of fission fuels for a very long time.

        • by cervo (626632)
          Unfortunately due to political conditions since the 1970's recycling spent nuclear fuel is a no no. So basically this is a short term patch at best.

          The advantage of algae or plants is that you can just grow more.
          • by Dan Ost (415913)

            The disadvantage is that algae and plants don't have the energy density that oil and nuclear have.

            The surface area of ponds that would be required to replace a single reactor or oil pump is sobering.

          • by blindseer (891256)

            Recycling policies can be changed, physics cannot. Once people are faced with the choices of freezing to death or recycling that fuel I'm quit certain that people will allow the recycling of the fuel. Also, while the recycling of spent uranium fuel is disallowed in the USA it is common practice in other countries. Seeing countries successfully recycle and breed their own fuel, without the expense of uranium refinement, will change minds.... or we all freeze to death.

            Algae plants take all kinds of resourc

  • by Theodore (13524) on Sunday October 11, 2009 @12:48PM (#29711725)

    The last few bits at the end of the article seem to be the most important...

    "It's going to take the right engineering solution with the right species to make it commercially viable,"
    In other words, it it's not "perfect" (for varying degrees of perfection), we're just not going to do it.
    I find it interesting that they want to find the perfect organism first, rather than get close first, and then refine the process.
    And seriously, "extracting its oils without degrading other parts of the algae that can be made into side products and sold as well"?
    What is their core operation? Getting the oil, or merchandising the left-overs?
    Do the first, well, first; THEN work out the second.

    "It's never going to get off the ground without a helping hand,"
    translation: we're shell companies set up by multi-billion corps. Give us tax money.

    Yeesh... It's no wonder people home-brew this stuff.

    • by maxume (22995)

      Are you really shocked that people are reluctant to build and operate the systems at a loss?

      Commercially viable doesn't mean perfect, it means that you can pay for the cost of the operation using the out of the operation. That doesn't preclude operating pilot plants to test out promising technologies, but those plants are not going to be built to maximize production volume.

    • It's no wonder people home-brew this stuff.

      Ahhhh. Wait till they talk local governments to pass laws banning home brewing because of "public safety". Think it won't happen?

      It's hasn't been reported in the media, but a couple of years ago - maybe even now - the local (California) cooking oil/grease collectors were trying to stop the bio-diesel folks from collecting the old frying oil. Why? The bio-diesel guys would haul it away for free; whereas, these companies charged to take away the old oil. The bio-diesel guys offered a win/win for the restauran

      • by cdrguru (88047)

        Bio-Diesel from waste oil works only as long as the holders of the waste oil are stupid. You go to your neighborhood McDonalds and make a deal with them for their waste oil and it might work, for a while. Yes, they were paying to dispose of a dangerous, contaiminated waste product that is illegal to dispose of in any other way.

        The problem is, the second person comes to the same McDonalds wanting their waste oil. Anyone with a brain (which admittedly does leave out most McDonalds managers) begins to reali

        • by drinkypoo (153816)

          So what you have left is waste oil collectors are preying on the stupidity and ignorance of restaurant managers. Feels good, doesn't it?

          They resell that tallow (once filtered) to be made into cosmetics &c. So yes, it's pretty foul. It's also kind of shocking that nobody has at least switched to doing it for free on a commercial basis. There are numerous obstacles placed in the way of biodiesel startups though, which is why most of the stuff not produced by a major manufacturer is made by co-ops.

          These days you can get a power and hot water generator which runs on your waste oil, so you have to be extra stupid to give it away, let alone t

  • Exxon likes algae (Score:5, Interesting)

    by No Lucifer (1620685) on Sunday October 11, 2009 @01:11PM (#29711855)

    I attended a presentation hosted by an Exxon exec last week (for business school). He compared Exxon to BP. BP has been pursuing all sorts of energy alternatives (wind, solar, etc). Exxon's position, in short, is that they are an oil company so that's what they worry about. They don't pursue other energy sources because they are only viable now with subsidies, and they don't want to base their business on that (seems reasonable). BUT, the one alt fuel they are pursuing (ignoring natural gas) is algae. They seem to think it has a real future, and I believe they know what they're talking about.

    (And an interesting aside... we often think of BP, Exxon, Shell etc as being these scary, large influential corporations. And maybe they are, but this exec described how truly small they are compared to the Saudi, Iranian and Qatari national oil companies. Exxon and BP combined produce less oil than the Nigerian national corporation)

  • Part of a system (Score:5, Interesting)

    by drinkypoo (153816) <martin.espinoza@gmail.com> on Sunday October 11, 2009 @01:29PM (#29711957) Homepage Journal

    Biodiesel from algae is most desirable when it is part of a system. For instance, algae can be produced in wastewater pond systems [sdsu.edu] and processed for biodiesel, then it can be processed again for butanol [wikipedia.org], thus serving as part of the sewage treatment process, and providing fuelstocks for two direct-replacement fuels, one for diesel and one for gasoline. David Ramey of ButylFuel, LLC [butanol.com] told me in an email conversation that they would like to use this type of processed algae cake feedstock, but that so far they have been unable to secure a reliable source of the stuff which is not salt-contaminated, which is a problem for their process. (You could also process the waste algae for alcohol, but it is unlikely to be as efficient as Butanol and it is not a 1:1 replacement for gasoline. Butanol can also be mixed into diesel fuel, but that's not its claim to fame.)

  • What I don't get (Score:5, Insightful)

    by HangingChad (677530) on Sunday October 11, 2009 @01:52PM (#29712089) Homepage

    This research is decades old, started by the Dept. of Energy in the mid-70's in the wake of the '74 Arab oil embargo. Then there's this group [unh.edu] who told me they had most of the hard problems solved and already had successful pilot tests. That was two years ago. So how can scale commercial still be 10 years off?

    I'm wondering if it isn't like the EV-1, GM's electric car. GM didn't want it, oil companies definitely didn't want it, parts manufacturers, mechanics, and state governments faced with losing fuel tax revenues didn't want it (at least right away). On the opposition side of algae oil would be the Saudis, who fund several prominent think tanks in D.C. that tend to be the home of retired politicians and a near endless supply of campaign cash. The oil companies making a lot of money off the status quo and just about anyone in the transportation pipeline.

    It will be interesting to see how many players with an interest in the status quo will be inserting themselves into the development of algae oil.

    • This research is decades old, started by the Dept. of Energy in the mid-70's in the wake of the '74 Arab oil embargo. Then there's this group [unh.edu] who told me they had most of the hard problems solved and already had successful pilot tests. That was two years ago. So how can scale commercial still be 10 years off?

      Because things always look easy and solved when all you have to is produce a lab bench version and then sit back and make claims you'll never be called on to prove. Those with real world experience kno

  • by ScrewMaster (602015) * on Sunday October 11, 2009 @02:27PM (#29712281)

    So far on the list: finding the right strain of algae among thousands of species that will produce high yields; designing systems where the desired algae can multiply and other species don't invade and disrupt the process; and extracting its oils without degrading other parts of the algae that can be made into side products and sold as well.

    Sounds like someone ought to be talking to Big Pharma. They've been doing this sort of thing for decades. Not with algae, necessarily, but with many species of bacteria that are used to synthesize drugs. I'd think that some of that technology could be transferable (probably have to pay license fees, though.) Hell, for that matter the average brewery is able to reliably grow the desired species of yeast to produce beer.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Yergle143 (848772)
      I'm an interested attendee of some of these bio-fuel meetings in San Diego. You are correct in that the tools used by the biofuel researchers to date have been primitive when compared to Pharma and that Pharma is now involved (check out Synthetic Genomics created by J. Craig Venter). However the problem is far more daunting than that -- this is in a sense a new kind of agriculture where the only economical means to grow algae must be in the open air. This means that every biofuel producing pond is going to
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        Your thesis is not correct.

        Clostridium acetobutylicum was grown in tank cultures for decades in order to produce acetone and butyl alcohol. The industry was eventually put out of business by the oil industry and it was because the world was awash in petroleum As petroleum becomes scarce the industry will eventually come back unless some other process is even cheaper.

        When you hear of ethanol for motor fuel then remember this: The industry needs to brew a keg of beer at a retail price $2.50. This is easy

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by drinkypoo (153816)

          Clostridium acetobutylicum was grown in tank cultures for decades in order to produce acetone and butyl alcohol.

          yeah, and that process was only about 35% efficient. ButylFuels LLC claims to have it up to much better levels, but so far their only available suitable feedstock is corn, so we're back to the same problem as ethanol.

          So when we hear how ethanol is going to save our bacon then we need to realize that 100% of the USA corn crop will supply liquid fuel for about 2 weeks.

          Don't forget that virtually all corn for ethanol is grown continuously, meaning year after year without rotation, so it does severe damage to the soil; after a few years of this the soil is an inert medium and you're basically growing hydroponically in a soil medium. It's only something like 15

      • Big Pharma has zero experience in how to contend with this -- cell culture vats are made sterile before every growth.

        The same is true of breweries, sourdough bakeries, cheese production, and pretty much any other industrial scale fermentation process - great efforts are made to ensure the fermentation takes place in closed sterile environments inoculated with (and only with) known cultures.

        Then there is the process of extraction. Big Pharma's methods may or may not be viable - there is (exaggeratin

  • by drwho (4190) on Sunday October 11, 2009 @03:22PM (#29712567) Homepage Journal

    The problem is that these researchers all want to come up with some invention that they can patent and make a fortune. But the process is really to simple for such an approach. Gradual refinement is what is needed. Here's how to do it: Botryococcus braunii (Bb) is a microalgae which produces a gooey oil outside the cell, comprising up to 83% of its total weight. Because it is outside the cell, the organism does not have to be killed in order for the product to be extracted. This makes up for its growth rate being slower than that of other microalgae, something which is lost on some of these alt-fuel schemesters. The oil it produces can be directly refined into alkanes such as octane (gasoline) and various jet fuels.

    Here's how to do it: take as rich of a carbon dioxide source as you can get (but at some point it can be too rich), such as a coal burning power plant, a brewery, or Chicago politician. Hook this up to a tubular photobioreactor of some significant length, so that process can be continuous. When the algal cells have reached some level of oil generation, strip the oil off with a solvent, preferably hexane. Use of the appropriate solvent will not kill the majority of the algae (sheep to be shorn). Cycle the naked algae back to the input of the carbon dioxide source.

    A photobioreactor can be made on the cheap. Use tubular plastic sections of good transparency, such as the protectors made for long flourescent tubes, and hook them together with elbows of common plastic plumbing. Suspend these a few inches above a reflective surface. I think it may be possible to take surplus aluminum siding and polish the underside of it. I think you could even use wire coathangers as supports if you didn't have anything better.

    The point is, that it's not important to be particularly efficient if you can do it on a large scale, cheaply. Over time, more productive strains of algae can be bred or engineered.

    For more information, see the Botryococcus braunii entry on wikipedia.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by DerekLyons (302214)

      It's easy to be cheap and simple and to breezily handwave when all you have to do is type on your keyboard. It's not easy out in the real world with real money.
       
      Otherwise, why aren't you out there doing it? Why isn't anyone?

      • It's easy to be cheap and simple and to breezily handwave when all you have to do is type on your keyboard. It's not easy out in the real world with real money.

        Otherwise, why aren't you out there doing it? Why isn't anyone?

        I've done part of it. I can grow money on trees, Why am I not doing it? I need a farm. I'll use my own real money too!

        I can grow food on trees too. And this is not by composting them. I haven't tackled the algae issues. But one day I might take it on.

        • All handwaving bullshit amounting to - 'even though I haven't tried it, it must be easy, just believe me, it must be easy'.

          • by drwho (4190)

            I HAVE tried it, as much as I have claimed to. I have used said plastic tubing with the actual Botryococcus braunii I described. Why hasn't my plan taken over the world? Well, I just did a pilot project on my back porch, because I live in the city. I am not a 'professional microbiologist', and there's no money to be made in supporting my research, so I haven't had anyone fund me to expand this beyond the pilot project stage. The amount of oil I extracted was fairly small, but I was using air as a carbon dio

            • Drwho - contact me. I might know how to organize funding. My email addy is published!

            • In other words, because you built a toy rocket from a kit - you can't see why going to the moon is such a big deal. But you're willing to share your ideas anyhow.
               
              Just maybe your idea hasn't taken over the world because it isn't that simple. But you're too stupid to realize that.

    • by drinkypoo (153816)

      If you make the tubes out of plastic you have to replace them every couple of years. If your beloved algae doesn't require much UV (AFAIK photosynthesis uses mostly blue and red light) then you're dramatically better off with glass. If the energy comes from a friendly source, glass is much more environmentally friendly than plastic (depending on what you dope it with, of course.) We're nowhere near peak sand.

  • The algae fuel industry has to develop itself from nothing, to a point where it can compete with perhaps the biggest, richest and most developed industry in the world. And it has to do that with no income beyond research grants and investors. I say, "They need only ten years?"
  • PetroSun Incorporated is years ahead of those pricks and Reuters need to talk about everyone but them makes it clear those pricks don't research before they report.
  • A little reality... (Score:3, Informative)

    by Baldrson (78598) * on Sunday October 11, 2009 @11:38PM (#29715431) Homepage Journal

    For a number of years, I've been putting together an extensive spreadsheet including everything ... and I mean everything... that goes into the bottom line profitability of converting the US's total CO2 effluent of fossil fuel power plants into marketable products from algae. It took me a few months back in 2005 to convince myself that it wasn't worth looking at algal biodiesel [youtube.com].

    For starters, here is a direct quote from a researcher in algae metabolism made to me in a private communique:

    8-10% that [of total sunlight -- jab] can be converted to biomass... theoretical maxima, with actual efficiencies being substantially lower.

    This guy has devoted his life to maximizing the photosynthetic efficiency of algae. In reality your are doing amazingly well to get 5% conversion. And, no, it doesn't matter what you do to the algae or which algae you choose. You aren't going to get better numbers.

    Do the net present value calculation on this and try to figure out how you are going to pay for the photobioreactor OR raceway pond's amortization as well as the operating costs. The number just aren't there.

      I don't know who is investing all this money but they should fire their advisers.

    The only way I've found to convert that much CO2 to algae profitably is to sell the algal protein at the price equivalent of alfalfa protein.

    Only problem is, this produces such an abundance of protein, at the price equivalent of alfalfa, that there would be little point in doing agriculture anywhere. The US's fossil fuel CO2 alone would create so much broad-spectrum amino acid protein that if it were directly consumed by humans, everyone in the world could have a diet richer than the US in protein. Oh, sure, you can run it through a couple of trophic layers to get some high grade predator fish farmed out in the ocean desert or something, but then the "environmentalists" who seem to prefer turning the rainforests into soybeans and can't tell the difference between ocean desert mariculture and near-coast mariculture would have a fit, and we can't have _that_ can we?

"Mach was the greatest intellectual fraud in the last ten years." "What about X?" "I said `intellectual'." ;login, 9/1990

Working...