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Commercial Fuel From Algae Still Years Away

Soulskill posted about 5 years ago | from the it's-not-easy-being-green dept.

Technology 134

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."

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Nobel Winner! (5, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 years ago | (#29711437)

Give them a Nobel prize, it will encourage them.

Re:Nobel Winner! (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 years ago | (#29711711)

we'll fix that, ladies.

thanks for nothing, slashdot. THIS IS TROLLBAIT BUAHAHAHAHAHAHHAHAHAHAHHAHAHAHA

cool story and mucho luvo

Re:Nobel Winner! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 years ago | (#29711901)

Encourage who, the scientists or the algae?

Re:Nobel Winner! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 years ago | (#29711933)

>Encourage who, the scientists or the algae? Yes.

Re:Nobel Winner! (1)

Latinhypercube (935707) | about 5 years ago | (#29712439)

Are you sore about something ? Do you need to get something off your chest ? Boo hoo.
Get used to it. The US president is black and he's actually rather good.

Re:Nobel Winner! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 years ago | (#29713511)

Rather good? At what?
Troops out of Iraq?
out of afganastan?
Economy?
Guitanimo?
Warantless wiretapping?
Health care?

yeah... real good

Re:Nobel Winner! (2, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 years ago | (#29712485)

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.

This is actually true (1)

zogger (617870) | about 5 years ago | (#29713439)

If they come up with an algae fuel that makes the black oily stuff in the ground not so attractive or valuable, it will do more than all the diplomats in the past have done to make some of the more "contentious" areas of the planet...less so. I think it *would* deserve the peace prize on that basis.

I mean, let's get real here, do people REALLY think the mid east and central african wars, etc have *nothing* to do with vast oil reserves in those same areas, that it is just a "coincidence"? What, maybe two drools and one moron on the whole planet still believe that government horse hockey, tops?

  Algae fuel that can be grown just about anywhere, in any quantities you feel like having, would just do wonders to help end high stakes geopolitical "resource envy".

And now you know why this isn't pushed faster, with emergency funding that would dwarf those casino bankers bailouts..it's too much of a planetary wealth shifter and game changer. Oil is valuable because it is scarce, and does a job nothing else can, and a lot of really big fat roly poly cats make billions on it and make political careers out of it, both civvie and military, making sure that oil keeps flowing in the "correct" way and at the "correct" prices.

    Algae fuel would make most of that obsolete, it is what they call "disruptive technology", at least equal to like the transistor in importance, maybe even more.

And we *need* it. We are something like one or two decades away from rising population meets declining crop yields and what crops there being hugely more expensive to produce. Food today, once you boil it all down to basics, is made from still cheap-enough diesel fuel, and water supplies primarily and that's it, take away either one of those things (and throw in cheap phosphates and natural gas derived fertilizer in the "must haves") and planetary mass starvation happens real quick like, which means quite a bit of "social unrest".

so this is like fusion but only 10 years away inst (5, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 years ago | (#29711457)

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

Plants make their bodies from cellulose. (0)

Futurepower(R) (558542) | about 5 years ago | (#29711625)

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.

Re:Plants make their bodies from cellulose. (3, Informative)

mrmeval (662166) | about 5 years ago | (#29711739)

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:Plants make their bodies from cellulose. (2, Informative)

BrokenHalo (565198) | about 5 years ago | (#29711981)

...and they've removed cyanobacteria from consideration as algae.

...though they are still colloquially (and erroneously) known as blue-green algae, they are not bacteria either, although they are prokaryotes.

Scientific breakthroughs cannot be predicted. (1)

Futurepower(R) (558542) | about 5 years ago | (#29712287)

The main point is that this quote from the article referenced by Slashdot, "Commercial biofuel from algae still 7 to 10 years off", is a lie. It cannot be predicted when a scientific breakthrough will occur, if ever.

From the University of Texas: Algae as tools in studying the biosynthesis of cellulose, nature's most abundant macromolecule [utexas.edu] .

Re:Scientific breakthroughs cannot be predicted. (1)

countertrolling (1585477) | about 5 years ago | (#29712869)

It cannot be predicted when a scientific breakthrough will occur, if ever.

The science has to beakthrough the political barriers. They represent the biggest obstacle.

Re:Scientific breakthroughs cannot be predicted. (1)

joocemann (1273720) | about 5 years ago | (#29714751)

The main point is that this quote from the article referenced by Slashdot, "Commercial biofuel from algae still 7 to 10 years off", is a lie. It cannot be predicted when a scientific breakthrough will occur, if ever.

From the University of Texas: Algae as tools in studying the biosynthesis of cellulose, nature's most abundant macromolecule [utexas.edu] .

Lol... its not in the future, the breakthroughs are already here. it is the delivery and funding of the infrastructure that only need to be rolled out.

If you don't know this already, you're not looking. JC Venter's SGI is rolling out plants that will be producing for us NEXT YEAR at the cost of $50/barrel.

Welcome to the truth.

Re:Plants make their bodies from cellulose. (3, Interesting)

BrokenHalo (565198) | about 5 years ago | (#29711959)

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 absence of silica sometimes use germanium as an analogue...

Oops, sorry. Algal cell culture is cool, but I can't expect it to rock everybody's boat. :-)

Re:Plants make their bodies from cellulose. (1)

claus.wilke (51904) | about 5 years ago | (#29712145)

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]

Gevo is looking for money, not producing fuel. (2, Insightful)

Futurepower(R) (558542) | about 5 years ago | (#29712339)

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 looking for money, not producing fuel. Those who run Gevo will apparently make money, even if the investors lose money.

Re:so this is like fusion but only 10 years away i (4, Funny)

oddaddresstrap (702574) | about 5 years ago | (#29711965)

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

Re:so this is like fusion but only 10 years away i (4, Insightful)

claus.wilke (51904) | about 5 years ago | (#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.

Re:so this is like fusion but only 10 years away i (3, Informative)

evilbessie (873633) | about 5 years ago | (#29712669)

JET did, right at the end, which is why they are building ITER to actually get positive _useful_ energy out.

Re:so this is like fusion but only 10 years away i (1)

joocemann (1273720) | about 5 years ago | (#29714725)

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 2011.

The limits are really whether we will be realistic enough to make these things a SOON reality by making a large social effort to roll out the major infrastructure; or if we will keep subsidizing dino-oil and coal companies because our puppets don't know what a spine is.

Hell, we could have robots that sort and process all of what we call 'trash' given the state of technology today. We don't... apparently we need more bombs and we need to pay international banks interest to print our money...

My trifecta (4, Funny)

thomasdz (178114) | about 5 years ago | (#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

Re:My trifecta (1)

PenguinBob (1208204) | about 5 years ago | (#29711827)

I just use a really long extension cord.

Re:My trifecta (2, Insightful)

LordAndrewSama (1216602) | about 5 years ago | (#29712031)

my Mod points be damned, you deserve a Nobel Prize!

DAPRA still trying. (5, Informative)

auric_dude (610172) | about 5 years ago | (#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.

When will it come? (1)

telomerewhythere (1493937) | about 5 years ago | (#29711551)

This will arrive when it makes a profit, or a loss subsidized by Uncle S. Do you have enough chips to buy a place at the table, Big Algae?

Which brings up a question in my mind... How do nonfat algae chips taste? ... Off to Whole Foods (TM)

Well Duh! (2, Insightful)

ArchieBunker (132337) | about 5 years ago | (#29711553)

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:Well Duh! (1)

BrokenHalo (565198) | about 5 years ago | (#29712045)

An aspect of algal cell culture that I consider more interesting than biofuels is its potential as a means of sequestering CO2 from the atmosphere. It would need a lot of cells, but given just how much of the Earth's surface is taken up by water, it should be doable.

Incidentally (and a little OT), when is Slashcode going to implement the ability to use subscript or superscript tags? It should be simple.

Re:Well Duh! (2, Interesting)

Locutus (9039) | about 5 years ago | (#29712223)

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 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.

Sounds alot like how the big auto companies constantly said how hard it is to make electric cars, how nobody wants the, and how they'd have to pay people and give them the cars before they'd use EVs. If you look at any EV club across the country(US) you'll see people and even highschool kids are converting standard cars into usable EVs for from $3,000 to $18,000. 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. It's as if they don't want people using EVs or else they'd be selling optional conversions of existing body designs and tooling.

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?

LoB

Re:Well Duh! (1)

drinkypoo (153816) | about 5 years ago | (#29713383)

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 well figured out. The problem now is getting some competition. They could likely break even on it today; with some subsidies like corn it would be profitable. Without subsidies, corn into fuel would not be profitable. Stop the corn subsidies, and you'll see algae fuels.

Re:Well Duh! (1)

Locutus (9039) | about 5 years ago | (#29713727)

<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 prototypes going across America and the press didn't mention how fuitless it is without a number of technical break-throughs. _This_ is what I'm talking about.

<quote>
<quote><p>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.</p></quote>

<p>The focus now is on actually engineering the algae, because the USDOE already proved that breeding algae is fruitless.</p>
</quote>
intersting and I'll keep my eyes open for data on that since it's the first I heard of that.

<quote>
<quote><p>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.</p></quote>

<p>You mean like the <strong>$85,000</strong> 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.</p>
</quote>
A hybrid truck is this early in the game is stupid. Look at the CD on those things, they are air plows as designed today with those huge flat grills/front ends. Ground clearance in trucks also hurt any kind of effort in fuel efficiencies. So how much efficiency are you really going to get? Really? Like I said, hybrids in trucks are dumb, stupid, and wrong if you really want to put out a high mileage vehicle using hybrid tech.

<quote>
<quote><p>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?</p></quote>

<p>The process is already pretty well figured out. The problem now is getting some competition. They could likely break even on it today; with some subsidies like corn it would be profitable. Without subsidies, corn into fuel would not be profitable. Stop the corn subsidies, and you'll see algae fuels.</p></quote>
</quote>

Another great plan by Bush and clowns and they are talking now about increasing ethanol percentages again. If algae oil is break-even that forget subsidies other than facility financing so we get more competition as you mention.

LoB

Re:Well Duh! (1)

hairyfeet (841228) | about 5 years ago | (#29712319)

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!

Re:Well Duh! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 years ago | (#29712351)

I figure they are still friends of the USA because they still insist on selling their oil in USD only and not other currencies.

Go figure what will happen if they start allowing people to buy their oil in euros or other currencies.

Re:Well Duh! (1)

moosesocks (264553) | about 5 years ago | (#29712925)

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 have one hell of a bargaining chip on the table)

Re:Well Duh! (1)

couchslug (175151) | about 5 years ago | (#29714125)

"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.

Re:Well Duh! (1)

fermion (181285) | about 5 years ago | (#29714233)

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 fossil fuels. I read about this in Nature, which talks about the oversell of the technology. That is a valid criticism. It another recent issue, though, another article talked about the fall of a central american village. In this case, the authors surmised that this village went through all their easily available best wood, then all their second best wood, then all their reserve best wood. Then they did not have a back up plan.

I hope we have a backup plan, and I hope we have a range of options when it comes to energy and plastics production.

Depending on oil prices. (3, Interesting)

physburn (1095481) | about 5 years ago | (#29711555)

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]

Re:Depending on oil prices. (1)

Fear the Clam (230933) | about 5 years ago | (#29712169)

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.

Re:Depending on oil prices. (1)

didroe84 (1324187) | about 5 years ago | (#29714177)

It's not just the current price, it's where all the research money is going. Once the oil companies really see the writing on the wall, they'll pour a lot more cash into alternatives.

What a shock! (2, Insightful)

Kohath (38547) | about 5 years ago | (#29711559)

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:What a shock! (2, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 years ago | (#29711753)

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 flow of water in any way. That includes setting out small water wheels that just take power from the current. It's upsetting that it's so bad that I can't take power from a spring on a hillside feeding a pond on my property. Big power companies have lobbyist so they are free to pollute and damn up major rivers but the individual can't build anything within 50 to 100 feet of water in many areas let alone set out a water wheel. I know of some one that got busted for putting a paddle wheel boat in the Mississippi River and was generating power off the wheel free wheeling. It was legal so long as he "didn't" generate power off it. I really doubt a few water wheels are going to damage a river that is a mile plus wide. The point is there are lots of alternative sources and some work quite well we just have to unshackle people so they can take advantage of them with reasonable regulations.

Re:What a shock! (1)

ChromeAeonium (1026952) | about 5 years ago | (#29711909)

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.

Re:What a shock! (1)

gnud (934243) | about 5 years ago | (#29712635)

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.

Re:What a shock! (1)

ChromeAeonium (1026952) | about 5 years ago | (#29712805)

OK, can we store the waste in your basement?

As long as there's a new breeder reactor down there, please do.

Re:What a shock! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 years ago | (#29712709)

Nuclear, for all intents and purposes, is one of the green alternative energies.

Nuclear, if you ignore the very toxic and non biodegradable waste, is green! Oh, also you have to ignore the fact that it's non-renewable. And that nations trying to devellop it are threatenened with sanctions. But aside from all that reality, it's, like, green!

Re:What a shock! (1)

drinkypoo (153816) | about 5 years ago | (#29714057)

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, and it's all "downhill" (in a good way) from there.

Re:What a shock! (3, Interesting)

jsveiga (465473) | about 5 years ago | (#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?)

Re:What a shock! (1)

BoogeyOfTheMan (1256002) | about 5 years ago | (#29713843)

Besides corn farmers, most Americans are against the corn subsidy for the very reasons you mention. We cant even get real sugar in our soft drinks because its too expensive to import the amounts of sugar we'd need to supply our demands.

I personaly would love to be able to choose between corn syrup and cane sugar for my stomach AND my car.

Re:What a shock! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 years ago | (#29714065)

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?)

Any He released into the atmosphere escapes the Earth's gravity and leaves our atmosphere.

Need it be commercialized? (1, Interesting)

pjt48108 (321212) | about 5 years ago | (#29711655)

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:Need it be commercialized? (2, Insightful)

maxume (22995) | about 5 years ago | (#29711715)

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

Re:Need it be commercialized? (1)

K. S. Kyosuke (729550) | about 5 years ago | (#29711877)

At the very least, you could have used a real beer in you analogy. ;-)

Re:Need it be commercialized? (2, Insightful)

maxume (22995) | about 5 years ago | (#29711999)

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).

Re:Need it be commercialized? (1)

newcastlejon (1483695) | about 5 years ago | (#29711883)

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:Need it be commercialized? (2, Interesting)

maxume (22995) | about 5 years ago | (#29711913)

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.

Re:Need it be commercialized? (1)

Anne Thwacks (531696) | about 5 years ago | (#29712305)

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.

Re:Need it be commercialized? (1)

BrokenHalo (565198) | about 5 years ago | (#29712053)

Budweiser is cheaper and more consistent than most microbrews.

That's right. And it has the advantage that nobody will ever be tempted to drink it. :-D

Re:Need it be commercialized? (1)

maxume (22995) | about 5 years ago | (#29712165)

If you've never been tempted to drink it, how do you know you don't like it?

Re:Need it be commercialized? (1)

drinkypoo (153816) | about 5 years ago | (#29713499)

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 depending on how automated you expect the process to be; you can build a closed reactor for perhaps $500 with fairly little manual intervention required in the processing stage.

The real question then becomes the difficulty of separating the oil from the rest of the algae, because growing it is easy. On a commercial scale it is believed that the pits must be unlined to be cost-effective, although I suspect that some sort of plastic liner would be feasible and in most soils would reduce water loss sufficiently to be worth paying for in the first place. They most certainly must be uncovered, given the cost of pumping air into them, but you could build a lined pit even on a residential lot given a sufficiently flat piece of ground.

Who knows how to separate the lipids out of the algaes? Can you just cook them (perhaps with solar heat) and have them separate? Perhaps with a centrifuging step? I've got a magic chef washing machine that has a super fast spin cycle :)

Re:Need it be commercialized? (1)

maxume (22995) | about 5 years ago | (#29714643)

That's not really a problem though, loosening up the output requirements is only going to make the Budweiser cheaper, so the fact that it (might/probably/hmmm/something) starts out cheaper is a killer. If you start with the amount of sunlight available, the pond size to get a decent amount of energy per year quickly becomes unattractive (Algae probably aren't going to be more than 10% efficient, so even in a pretty good location, you are only going to get about 1 kilowatt-hour of fuel per day for each square meter of pond, so you would need something like 30-50 square meters to provide about a gallon a day in a location that was productive year round (northern latitudes quickly triple or quadruple the area required, as they won't work year round)).

Re:Need it be commercialized? (1, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 years ago | (#29711759)

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 line. It's 100% possible to do this today, but it's not possible to do it such that's it's cheaper or can scale like normal oil does. The efforts to scale and cost reduce the process are hard, it's not an easy thing to do.

Then there is another set of hurdles, still a relatively small percentage of American vehicles can burn diesel or alcohol based fuels. On top of that, the American companies all pretty much lost their shirts in the 70's when they last made a giant push for diesel. It's coming back but the cars will come from European and Japanese manufacturers long before the American companies get back in to it all the way, even with the reorganizations that have happened. So even if you create the fuel, you still have to get vehicles on the road that can use it.

Re:Need it be commercialized? (2, Funny)

BrokenHalo (565198) | about 5 years ago | (#29712099)

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

Re:Need it be commercialized? (1)

Dystopian Rebel (714995) | about 5 years ago | (#29711767)

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:Need it be commercialized? (2, Informative)

vlm (69642) | about 5 years ago | (#29711927)

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 growth tank probably will be a different temperature than the environment, again big tanks win.

Then there are the non-scalable costs. The light bulbs in the plant ceiling draw the same power no matter the working volume. A set of tests to measure the quality of the product might cost $20 per batch, no big deal if you brew a million gallons at a time, not so good if you only brew one gallon at a time.

The only way to win on the small scale is to ignore pollution and regulation. I can, and have, simply dumped yeast from wine brewing on my compost pile. That doesn't scale so well for a billion gallon process plant. Of course, if a plant is big enough, it could be worthwhile to purify and sell "brewers yeast" to farmers and supplement companies, the big guys win yet again... And a really profitable plant can simply purchase the government and government regulation that it wants.

Re:Need it be commercialized? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 years ago | (#29712073)

Is 'microbrewing' not possible, or is it just not profitable for energy companies?

Therein lies the real issue, current energy corporations want to bring as many of the potential processes under patents so they can control the market directly or via proxy. The last thing such corporations want is for their consumer base to become once again self-sufficient for their energy and transportation.

Major farming corporations don't want it to happen either, especially not Monsanto or ADM. In the late 60s and early 70s there were some people trying to bring back the use of vegetable oil in diesel engines, after all it was originally designed to run off of peanut oil. At that time vegetable oil was cheaper then diesel and diesel was priced less then gasoline and the current taxes on either. At least during one point in the 70s Mobil Oil was the single largest owner of farmland in the US. Many would say and perhaps some would call them conspiracy theorists that certain corporations and their bought and paid for politicians deliberately contributed to the production of market pressures that forced untold numbers of family farms out of business and influenced many to stop keeping family gardens. One could go on endlessly on the damage they have done when you add in other tricks they have used including the patenting of seeds etc.

We need more self-sufficiency again in this world but you don't hear about a lot of research for providing local energy production/conversion directly with the exception of adding solar and lightweight geo to homes. Most local electrical production was shut down years ago via economic and political pressures. With the ability to produce their own energy, family farms might find a way to be economically viable again and that could improve the quality of our local food supplies and save significant shipping energy too.

Whatever they are doing with algae... (1)

wjh31 (1372867) | about 5 years ago | (#29711665)

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.

Re:Whatever they are doing with algae... (1)

NoYob (1630681) | about 5 years ago | (#29711801)

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 start breeding them. And their meat can be used to feed hungry people too!

Then there's all those soon to be fat poor people in third...developing countries. They'll need exercise so let's put them all on exercise bikes with generators! Let's get their lazy asses in gear! Then they can export their electricity and then they can get rich.

Mammalian life on this planet is our hope for our energy problems and food problems!

An algae nightmare? (1)

kshkval (591396) | about 5 years ago | (#29714363)

As a botanist, I worry about some of the new genetically engineered or the kind of super plant getting out of control. In the same manner, I guess I should worry about an enhanced high yield algae escaping some sort of super algae farm. Would it have the same effect on the environment as other specialized "plants"? Would it be some kind of fairly fragile monoculture type algae that would not do well in the wild? Algae is already a major problem in the Mediterranean and along the west coast of the US recently. I wonder if anyone has examined of this critter might be a problem? A high yield algae would certainly find it's way back into the oceans and lakes.

Re:An algae nightmare? (1)

shermo (1284310) | about 5 years ago | (#29714635)

Economics to the rescue? If it's profitable to harvest algae then maybe those places you mentioned will be cleaned up.

Inherently Promising (5, Insightful)

resistant (221968) | about 5 years ago | (#29711687)

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.

Re:Inherently Promising (1)

Nyeerrmm (940927) | about 5 years ago | (#29712237)

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 frankly seems a lot less pie-in-the-sky. These sound more like practical engineering problems, not fundamental issues (like how do you safely store hydrogen without $10K pressure tanks). Combine it with plug-in hybrids to minimize the need for the biofuels, and avoid localized pollution/smog, I think the combination of nuclear/renewables + biofuels seems like an ideal, sustainable energy strategy that doesn't require lifestyle sacrifices (the real political killer).

Re:Inherently Promising (1)

Locutus (9039) | about 5 years ago | (#29712333)

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, and/or modify since each was a different design. IIRC, the French used the same medium size design and I doubt that could be done in the US even if attempted a 2nd time.

LoB

Most telling at the end (5, Insightful)

Theodore (13524) | about 5 years ago | (#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.

Re:Most telling at the end (1)

maxume (22995) | about 5 years ago | (#29711837)

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.

Re:Most telling at the end (1)

Theodore (13524) | about 5 years ago | (#29712133)

Didn't say they should operate at a loss.
They can already operate at a profit, just not as big a profit as they'd like.

Re:Most telling at the end (1)

maxume (22995) | about 5 years ago | (#29712153)

Where does it say that?

The other question is why aren't you doing it?

Bogus Government Regulations (2, Interesting)

NoYob (1630681) | about 5 years ago | (#29711849)

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 restaurants: they took it away for free and as a result got free base material.

The local businesses that collected the oil where trying to talk the local politicians that for "public safety" only they should be allowed to collect the grease and if the bio-diesel guys wanted it, they'd have to pay for the old oil.

Many times, government regulations help businesses by keeping competitors from starting up.

Re:Bogus Government Regulations (1)

cdrguru (88047) | about 5 years ago | (#29712591)

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 realize that their waste oil is no longer a dangerous contaiminated waste product to be disposed of as cheaply as possible but is now a valuable commodity which can be sold to the highest bidder.

The time between these two points of view can be days or years depending on the interest level in waste oil, but there is absolutely no way out of the conversion from one to the other. Today, bio-diesel from waste oil is completely impractical if you have to buy the waste oil for anything close to what it would be worth.

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

Re:Bogus Government Regulations (1)

drinkypoo (153816) | about 5 years ago | (#29713363)

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 to pay for it to be removed.

Exxon likes algae (5, Interesting)

No Lucifer (1620685) | about 5 years ago | (#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)

Re:Exxon likes algae (1)

BrokenHalo (565198) | about 5 years ago | (#29712183)

BUT, the one alt fuel they are pursuing (ignoring natural gas) is algae. They seem to think it has a real future...

No, as far as Big Oil is concerned it's just a way of keeping the money-go-round happening while not actually doing very much.

Algal cell culture is a comparatively cheap area of biotechnology, since it doesn't need too many really expensive toys, and much of the methodology has been established for decades. But it isn't hard to promote that kind of research in an appropriately favourable light for investors when there is no real demand for results.

All of the oil companies are making a show of conducting research, but "short-termism" dictates that they carry on pumping oil as they always have.

Awes0me [fp (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 years ago | (#29711929)

which aalows use the 5ling.

Part of a system (4, Interesting)

drinkypoo (153816) | about 5 years ago | (#29711957)

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 (4, Insightful)

HangingChad (677530) | about 5 years ago | (#29712089)

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.

Re:What I don't get (1)

DerekLyons (302214) | about 5 years ago | (#29713271)

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 know full well that making the numbers, as well as the production system, work on an industrial scale is a difficult problem... regardless of what you're producing.

Problem 4 (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 years ago | (#29712207)

Bootstrapping so you don't spend more in fossil fuels to run the process than you get out of the process. So many biotech people forget this one.

Give it to Intel (1)

symbolset (646467) | about 5 years ago | (#29712265)

They got involved in corporate finance, this isn't any farther out of their historical scope. If anybody can master a new technology process and deliver ever-increasing gains, it's them. Besides, more biodiesel means more fuel for the generators that power their chips in the third world. Maybe they can consider it a CO2 offset.

Time to get some good advice ... (2, Interesting)

ScrewMaster (602015) | about 5 years ago | (#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:Time to get some good advice ... (3, Informative)

Yergle143 (848772) | about 5 years ago | (#29712533)

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 be contaminated by competitors and predators all the time. Big Pharma has zero experience in how to contend with this -- cell culture vats are made sterile before every growth. That's one reason why the products of cell culture are so expensive.

Re:Time to get some good advice ... (2, Insightful)

cdn-programmer (468978) | about 5 years ago | (#29713185)

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 to see! Beer is 5% ethanol. Its says so right on the can. A keg is 57 liters. 5% of 60 = 3 liters. 3 liters of ethanol is about the same energy as 2.5 liters of gasoline. If gas costs $1.00 per liter then that keg needs to be brewed and the ethanol concentrated to at least 95% and marketed at a price of $2.50 and that $2.50 must return a profit.

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. If we have the the technology to produce the ethanol at a price competitive with what we currently pay for gasoline then we should expect the price of beer to drop to about 1% of what it costs now!

Re:Time to get some good advice ... (2, Insightful)

drinkypoo (153816) | about 5 years ago | (#29713993)

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% energy-positive after all the fossil fuels you blow on fertilizing, harvesting, and processing it, so it wouldn't even end up being profitable if not for subsidies on both ends. And, of course, ethanol is an inferior motor fuel to gasoline in many ways. It requires higher compression, and it features lesser lubricity.

Re:Time to get some good advice ... (1)

DerekLyons (302214) | about 5 years ago | (#29713317)

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 (exaggerating only a bit) literally no ceiling to the prices they can charge, and they aren't handling millions of gallons a day. Big Algae on the other hand, must sell at a price reasonably close to petroleum based fuel and will handle millions of gallons (and the resulting waste products) a day. Scale matters, scale matters a great deal.

incomplete combustion, environmentalism aims (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 years ago | (#29712373)

Combustion of air and oil, whether it's a fossil fuel or algae-based, through incomplete [wikipedia.org] combustion [wikipedia.org] produces nitrogen oxides [wikipedia.org] , which are greenhouse gases [wikipedia.org] . Also produced are carbon monoxide [wikipedia.org] and soot [wikipedia.org] .

How completely do gasoline and biofuels burn? How much nitrous oxide [wikipedia.org] (the nitrogen oxide that is most a greenhouse gas) is acceptable? If we used carbon-neutral [wikipedia.org] fuels but didn't reduce emission of nitrous oxide, what is the believed effect on the climate over the next few hundred years? Is it okay to overlook the possible effects of carbon monoxide and soot, also produced by incomplete combustion?

The US EPA indicates [epa.gov] agricultural soil management emits 4-5 times more nitrous oxides than mobile and stationary combustion sources combined for a given year. This ratio appears to be growing over time, so perhaps all this hand-wringing over the woes of combustion's nitrous oxide is unmerited as agricultural sources increasingly dominate nitrous oxide emission over time. That said, it might be lower-cost to not have to change from algae-based fuels to something else in the foreseeable future.

What of the role of soot [wikipedia.org] , which may account for 18% of global warming [wikipedia.org] , and what of glacial melting when it settles near the poles? Are soot and global dimming useful or not in keeping Earth a livable place? The trend in global dimming has apparently reversed recently. [wikipedia.org] Do we want more or less of this? Is a more "dim" and cooler Earth for "counteracting" "global warming" desirable? Breathing soot is probably unhealthy [wikipedia.org] .

It's great to consider a new algae-based fuel, but perhaps it would be less costly for us to transition to a new fuel that mitigates as much risk as possible (climate change, health hazards), rather than doing a few transitions, e.g. fossil fuels to green fossil fuel substitutes to a fuel that gives us the most chance to return to pre-Industrial era conditions, assuming that maintaining said pre-Industrial era conditions are "safe". Granted, such a return is probably infeasible, so how close should our approximation be?

The underlying problem could be that we keep adding "stuff" to the atmosphere without taking it back out. Combustion adds water vapor, carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, soot, and other materials to the atmosphere. Algae-based fuels give us carbon-neutrality, but to what effect? Can we cost-effectively transition to a fuel that doesn't use combustion, then being nitrogen-, soot-, and carbon-neutral? We might use "metal slurries" to contain hydrogen, such as aluminum [wikipedia.org] or magnesium [wikipedia.org] hydrides, and work the hydrogen economy [wikipedia.org] angle.

Ignoring how cost-effective a hydrogen economy might be, if we start using hydrogen fuels, how much more water vapor will we release into the atmosphere? Water vapor is a greenhouse gas. Will it rain more? Will this amount to climate change, and on what scale? Do we use solar, wind, and nuclear, then use batteries instead of these metal slurries and hydrogen? What of the associated waste in nuclear fission, manufacturing semiconductors, and manufacturing batteries?

Is there some literature that weighs the options for us and perhaps suggests a good mixture of technologies to use or areas needing more research? Should we aim to best maintain the planet until we have a backup copy, or assume we'll be here for the next few thousand years or so (and under what conditions)?

Deeper, what should our population and industrialization levels be, given current technology, that would allow us as a species to persist for the next few thousand years in "livably stable" conditions? When is it better to maintain a planet to support life, and when is it worthwhile distributing risk by distributing the population elsewhere? Could we distribute ourselves even if we wanted to, and if so, at what cost? For example, assume the world will be inhospitable in 100 years; how do we cope? How different is this if it's 1000, rather than 100 years? How about 10?

Not quite so far away; here's how to do it (4, Interesting)

drwho (4190) | about 5 years ago | (#29712567)

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:Not quite so far away; here's how to do it (2, Insightful)

DerekLyons (302214) | about 5 years ago | (#29713337)

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?

Re:Not quite so far away; here's how to do it (1)

drinkypoo (153816) | about 5 years ago | (#29713445)

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.

Only 10 years? (1)

Attila the Bun (952109) | about 5 years ago | (#29713131)

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?"

What about food? (1)

formfeed (703859) | about 5 years ago | (#29714135)

We could use algae for food. A growing population could be fed with green tablets that are actually made from algae.

Just needs some catchy name: "something green" , "Solving green", ..

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