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Algal Biofuels Not Ready For Scale-Up

Soulskill posted about a year and a half ago | from the it's-not-easy-being-green dept.

Power 179

Tator Tot writes with this quote from Chemical & Engineering News: "Using today's technologies and knowledge, a scale-up of fledgling algal biofuel production sufficient to meet even 5% of U.S. transportation fuel demand is unsustainable, says a report released last week by the National Research Council. The report examines the efficiency of producing biofuels from microalgae and cyanobacteria with respect to energy, water, and nutrient requirements and finds that the process falls short. The energy from algal biofuel, the report finds, is less than the energy needed to make it. In terms of water, at least 32.5 billion gal would be needed to produce 10 billion gal of algae-based biofuels, the report states. The study also finds that making enough algal biofuels to replace just 5% of U.S. annual transportation fuel needs would require 44–107% of the total nitrogen and 20–51% of the total phosphorus consumed annually in the U.S."

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179 comments

English (1, Informative)

sunderland56 (621843) | about a year and a half ago | (#41779409)

Yes, I know that 'algal' is perfectly good english. But wouldn't 'algae-based' be much more clear to the 99% of the population that are not chemists?

Re:English (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#41779521)

Yes, I know that 'algal' is perfectly good english. But wouldn't 'algae-based' be much more clear to the 99% of the population that are not chemists?

You really couldn't just take a guess at what Algal might mean?

Re:English (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#41779807)

Didn't RTFS, but is it related to ALGOL? Or maybe since this kind seems like a green issue AL GORE?

Re:English (1)

OzPeter (195038) | about a year and a half ago | (#41779527)

Yes, I know that 'algal' is perfectly good english. But wouldn't 'algae-based' be much more clear to the 99% of the population that are not chemists?

TFA uses both forms .. so which 99% are we confusing again?

Re:English (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#41779591)

1."Algal" isn't a chemistry word; it's biology.
2."Algae-based" is also used in TFS.
3. This is Slashdot, not some website written for 99% of the population.

Re:English (5, Interesting)

gstoddart (321705) | about a year and a half ago | (#41779735)

Why? It's a perfectly cromulent word.

We use "fungal" to describe "fungus-based", what is wrong with algal? One sees "algal bloom" fairly often.

Are we trying to dumb down science for the lowest common idiot now?

Re:English (1)

gmanterry (1141623) | about a year and a half ago | (#41779809)

Why? It's a perfectly cromulent word.

We use "fungal" to describe "fungus-based", what is wrong with algal? One sees "algal bloom" fairly often.

Are we trying to dumb down science for the lowest common idiot now?

If I had points you, sir, would be 'awarded" one. I love your Simpsonian English.

Re:English (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#41780763)

Yes, it totally embiggened my vocabulary.

Re:English (1)

idealego (32141) | about a year and a half ago | (#41779995)

Algae is plural, while alga is singular. If you wanted to say something like "algae-based" you would have to say alga-based. If "algae-based" doesn't sound wrong to you just substitute another plural in there such as "horses-based" to see how it sounds.

Re:English (4, Funny)

Khashishi (775369) | about a year and a half ago | (#41780581)

I have rewritten the summary using simpler English for the benefit of the weak-minded. A few sacrifices in content were made.

"Using the tech that we have today, we cannot use algae (little green sea creatures) to make our fuel (for cars) because it would be bad for the Earth. Eggheads at National Research Council wrote a report that says so, using all sorts of sciencey terms. It takes more fuel to raise the little green sea creatures than it gives back in the fuel. It also needs lots of water and nitrogen (that's a chemical in bombs) and phosphorus (that's another chemical in bombs). We need to give the little green sea creatures 3 or more times as much water as we can get fuel from them. If we use all the nitrogen and phosphorus we make in the USA, it's only enough to make fuel for one tenth the cars we have."

Re:English (1)

denvergeek (1184943) | about a year and a half ago | (#41781021)

Why does this remind me of Idiocracy?

Female Reporter: It started off boring and slow with Not Sure trying to bullshit everyone with a bunch of smart talk: 'Blah blah blah. You gotta believe me!' That part of the trial sucked! But then the Chief J. just went off. He said, 'Man, whatever! The guy's guilty as shit! We all know that.' And he sentenced his ass to one night of rehabilitation.

In other words... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#41779411)

The energy from algal biofuel, the report finds, is less than the energy needed to make it. In terms of water, at least 32.5 billion gal would be needed to produce 10 billion gal of algae-based biofuels, the report states. The study also finds that making enough algal biofuels to replace just 5% of U.S. annual transportation fuel needs would require 44–107% of the total nitrogen and 20–51% of the total phosphorus consumed annually in the U.S.

In other words... we're SOL.

Re:In other words... (4, Interesting)

Joce640k (829181) | about a year and a half ago | (#41779437)

Wouldn't most of that nitrogen/phosphorus be recycled into the next generation of algae after extraction of the fuel?

ie. Once the cycle is started it doesn't take anywhere near that amount to keep it going.

Re:In other words... (1)

pixelpusher220 (529617) | about a year and a half ago | (#41779637)

Assuming algae is grown in tubes, how does the nitrogen/phosphorus go from the burning of the fuel into the air back into the tubes?

(not a chemist so I'm curious)

Re:In other words... (2)

Maximum Prophet (716608) | about a year and a half ago | (#41779955)

Assuming that their process produces pure hydrocarbons, the fuel output would only have Hydrogen, Carbon, and Oxygen, which come from C02 and H2O. When the algae is converted into fuel, there should be a "waste" stream that would be perfect fertilizer for the next generation of algae.

Re:In other words... (1)

Joce640k (829181) | about a year and a half ago | (#41781009)

Assuming algae is grown in tubes, how does the nitrogen/phosphorus go from the burning of the fuel into the air back into the tubes?

Even a non-chemist should know that no nitrogen/phosphorus comes out of car exhaust pipes .... it's all CO2 and H2O.

Probably not (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#41779731)

Part of it will be in the fuel itself, or lost in the process in run off or even bound in compound which makes too expansive in term of energy to gain the Nitrogen or Phosphorus back.

Re:Probably not (1)

cream wobbly (1102689) | about a year and a half ago | (#41780513)

You make the assumption that part of it will be in the fuel itself. The fuel is hydrocarbons and not algae. The algae base is "waste" which can be fed back into the system.

Re:In other words... (5, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#41779881)

Yes, and and the assumption they make is that algae requires the same levels of both nutrients as regular crops do, which it doesn't. They are also basing their conclusion on a study that DOE did with open ponds, not considering the advancements the closed PBR's have made in recycling the water and with growth rates. Algae offers many advantages that almost all other "green" energy sources lack: primarily it absorbs a lot of CO2, it grows best in waste water (think sewers), can be used for both bio-diesel and bio-butanol, and the pressings can also be used as fuel for pellet type heaters, used as fertilizer as well as feed supplement. Another thing about algae is that you don't have to use land to produce it, we have vast tracks of ocean that floating PBRs could be deployed in and use filtered sea water which has all the nutrients needed. Algae fuel is the best of all the green energy scenarios, its is liquid stored solar power, so you don't need batteries, don't need new storage and delivery infrastructure and in one stroke solves global warming. We just need to put forth the effort and do it.

Re:In other words... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#41780137)

What you're trying to extract from the algae ultimately is a hydrocarbon, or something very much like it. Perhaps an acohol-based fuel would be good enough.

So what you remove from the farm is hydrogen, carbon, and perhaps oxygen. That means the process will use up some water. After all, the hydrogen in your hydrocarbons have to come from somewhere.

I don't understand why water usage has to be a problem though. There are plenty of types of algae and cyanobacteria that live quite happily in saltwater. You'd never have to worry about desalination as long as you site your farm near a sea shore. Just keep pumping in fresh water whenever the salinity rises too high.

If you're using that trick, then managing the phosphor for reuse becomes slightly more difficult, since you don't want to pump it out into the sea with your waste water, and so you'd want to recover as much as possible from whatever solid matter you can grab from the algae. Perhaps you'd have to split your tanks into "productive" ones with unlimited phosphor and fresh water, and "recycling" ones, where you're just letting algae grab as much phosphor as they can before the water is dumped.

It shouldn't be an insoluble problem.

We'll probably still do it (2, Insightful)

bigtrike (904535) | about a year and a half ago | (#41779499)

Ethanol from corn requires more energy than it produces, but due to subsidies it makes money for some politically connected businesses.

Re:We'll probably still do it (4, Informative)

geekoid (135745) | about a year and a half ago | (#41779795)

Re:We'll probably still do it (1)

rpresser (610529) | about a year and a half ago | (#41780007)

The report ignores the energy input of the sunlight. It may be economically sensible to ignore that, but on a thermodynamic level it's stupid.

Re:We'll probably still do it (4, Funny)

MyLongNickName (822545) | about a year and a half ago | (#41780215)

The report ignores the energy input of the sunlight. It may be economically sensible to ignore that, but on a thermodynamic level it's stupid.

So, let me get this straight. You are looking for a process that produces more energy than it requires in inputs. And you are citing thermodynamics?

Re:We'll probably still do it (1)

Savage-Rabbit (308260) | about a year and a half ago | (#41780883)

The report ignores the energy input of the sunlight. It may be economically sensible to ignore that, but on a thermodynamic level it's stupid.

So, let me get this straight. You are looking for a process that produces more energy than it requires in inputs. And you are citing thermodynamics?

I think the idea behind the crops->ethanol->cars->co2->crops cycle is that the input of human generated energy should be less than the energy you get out of the fuel. The plants serve as a storage device for the solar energy and the nutrients they absorb during their growth phase. The energy input needed is largely absorbed by spreading fertiliser, spreading pesticides, harvesting, transport, and processing into ethanol and that last bit is the hard one. What you want is a 'weed' that grows anywhere, needs next to no maintenance, hardly any nutrients is insect resistant and can easily be converted into ethanol (again that 'easily converted' is the biggest stumbling block). The reason Ethanol works so well for the Brazilians is that they have such a crop and it gives them 87-96% greenhouse gas savings compared to petrol [wikipedia.org]. Additional monetary savings come from the fact that sugar cane does not have to be transported half way across the world to Brazil, it does not require trillions of dollars worth of investment in military hardware, regular large scale military campaigns in the Middle East, nor do they need to prop up Israel and a dozen or more other countries to keep the flow uninterrupted, the stuff grows in their back yard.

Re:We'll probably still do it (1)

Marc Madness (2205586) | about a year and a half ago | (#41780403)

As far as I know, the energy input of sunlight in fossil fuel is ignored because that energy was input millions of years ago when the fossil fuel was organic matter. So it's probably fair to omit this factor when doing an analysis of the energy yield of ethanol (assuming of course that its total contribution is equal in all cases).

Re:We'll probably still do it (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#41780175)

Read the study you provided. According to the study, it only shows a net return when you fail to account for all the energy inputs. When you do account for all the energy inputs, such as the energy required to plant, fertilize, harvest, and transport for production, even after adjustments for modern crop yields, you're at a net loss.

Basically it boils down to, who's numbers do you want to believe? Even adjusted numbers to reflect more accurate science says its a net loss. Its appears to only be a net gain when you ignore various inputs and use the best numbers available. Basically, either every study done in the past is completely wrong, even after adjusting for modern data, or somehow, one study got it right, while seemingly ignoring part of the energy input equation.

Hardly convincing overall.

Re:We'll probably still do it (2)

Old97 (1341297) | about a year and a half ago | (#41780795)

Wait a minute. This article was posted by a department of the government. Why would they lie or distort? Is it just because they report to politicians who are beholden to agri-business that benefits from this conclusion and the fact that this particular department exists to server agri-business? Have you no faith in the inherent decency of man?

Re:We'll probably still do it (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#41780719)

Holy freakin balls!! Who wrote that thing for the USDA? Monsanto?

I know, I know; I'm being obtuse...of course Monsanto wrote it for them.

Corn is so energy positive that we only have to create new (typically coal burning) power plants 'occasionally' to power the corn ethanol facilities.

And the immigration "problem" (3, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#41779827)

Here's something: (in a simplified nutshell)

Those corn subsidies make US corn really cheap, which is then exported to Mexico. The Mexican farmers couldn't compete and went out of business. So to make ends meet, those million+ farmers came to the US to make some money and then are treated like criminals - all because of farm subsidies.

Talk about unintended consequences.

Next up: farm subsides destroying Gulf fisheries requiring more subsides to fishermen.

Re:We'll probably still do it (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#41780125)

Wow. I am so sorry to break this to you, but clean burning renewable fuels will cost more than gasoline. But don't lose heart, as a trade off you get to continue to BREATH AND LIVE IN A NON-DESERT ENVIRONMENT.

Ass hat

Re:We'll probably still do it (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#41780229)

As I keep saying over and over again, ETHANOL IS NOT USED AS A FUEL. Stop bullshitting.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Methyl_tert-butyl_ether [wikipedia.org]

It is used to replace MTBE. That's why it is an additive. Yes, I'd rather have ethanol than some poison in my ground water, thank you very much. There is no possibility of ethanol or methanol to be a viable fuel as there is no capacity (read: land).

And to rub it in, ethanol subsidies are long gone. Heck, farmers use cheaper ethanol plant "waste" as protein feed for the animals than corn directly. Imagine that!

Re:We'll probably still do it (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#41780647)

http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/july05/ethanol.toocostly.ssl.html
You are right, of course. The Government's self serving report makes clear where it decided to cook the books on what energy is/isn't included in it's calculations.
So would you put more faith in Exxon's internal reports on Oil, or Cornell's Research?
Come on... think... read... Slowly release your iron grasp of things that challenge your ideology - grow... learn..
See. It doesn't hurt.

Re:In other words... (1)

pixelpusher220 (529617) | about a year and a half ago | (#41779611)

My question is whether these requirements are for growing 'new' fuel; the biggest boon in biofuels is using 'scrap' and 'waste' material, in which case your costs are relatively near zero for those fuel sources.

Even growing sagebrush doesn't require much in the way of input water. It's a weed and grows on it's own on land that isn't farmable. Still uses the nitrogen/phosphorus but water would be the biggest expense.

Gotta keep moving (1)

dittbub (2425592) | about a year and a half ago | (#41779473)

Well hey it was a good effort. One peg down. Lets try to find something else renewable that will work.

Re:Gotta keep moving (1)

pixelpusher220 (529617) | about a year and a half ago | (#41779567)

What it won't do is solve 'all' of our fuel needs.

Here's a hint, nothing else will either. It's the perfect solution for scenarios where long distance, remote and quick fueling requirements need to be met. The military is tops on this list. Just because it won't replace oil entirely doesn't mean it isn't working.

Re:Gotta keep moving (1)

DriveDog (822962) | about a year and a half ago | (#41779657)

Moving, but not abandoning. Part of the problem is that many people can't seem to imagine a world where fuel and energy comes from a multitude of sources. Not 5% yet? OK, shoot for 1% with biodiesel from algae while going for 1% with ethanol from switchgrass. The nice thing about algal fuels is that they're compatible with existing engines. No chicken-and-egg problem. We've been spoiled by having fuel for almost any ICE vehicle available at every freeway exit, no planning ahead necessary.

Re:Gotta keep moving (4, Informative)

bluefoxlucid (723572) | about a year and a half ago | (#41779669)

How about industrial hemp? Grows on shit land; produces fiber that can be blended with cotton for a soft, strong product; leaves behind much cellulose to process into ethanol (or compost) as well as seeds that you can press for oil and process into biodiesel (and feed). You can smoke it, but by the time it gets you high you'll be dead for want of lungs that aren't beef jerky.

Re:Gotta keep moving (2, Funny)

dmbasso (1052166) | about a year and a half ago | (#41779969)

Drugs are bad, mmmmkay? We are in War on Drugs (tm), so that's really really bad, mmmkay?

Re:Gotta keep moving (1)

bluefoxlucid (723572) | about a year and a half ago | (#41780133)

So? What's your point?

Re:Gotta keep moving (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#41780535)

I think he's being sarcastic. The whole "zomg mowie-wowie bad bad bad" bullshit that keeps hemp from being grown is incredibly stupid, but in the modern-day USA, do you really think any politician could advocate for hemp without getting painted as a closet toke-head?

Re:Gotta keep moving (2)

dmbasso (1052166) | about a year and a half ago | (#41780541)

I see you and whoever modded my comment as flamebait have never watched South Park.

So to be as explicit as it can get: those against hemp are idiots; those who believe the "war on drugs" is about drugs are really idiots (or haven't really given much thought to the subject); those who defend it as police are the fucking worst evil scumbags there are, but hey! that's your only option on every election!

Is my point clear now? Now to make my previous reference clear: http://www.southparkstudios.com/full-episodes/s02e04-ikes-wee-wee [southparkstudios.com]

Re:Gotta keep moving (1)

dmbasso (1052166) | about a year and a half ago | (#41780937)

Oops, I meant to say 'as policy'. It is arguable that police takes advantage through corruption, but the real motherfuckers are those who make the laws.

Re:Gotta keep moving (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#41780553)

You also have to remember the good ol' American cash crop tobacco...slander campaigns against the use of hemp happened already in the US's past. Much of it was fueled by the oil and tobacco industries trying to save their own market holds...what is to say they won't do it again? Most people seem eager to agree with politician and commercials with little understanding of what isn't being said. Not to mention that religion also plays a roll in politics, and living in Texas for more than 13 years has shown me that most religious people absolutely despise the use of Marijuana and would rather see it condemned.

Re:Gotta keep moving (4, Insightful)

HangingChad (677530) | about a year and a half ago | (#41779769)

Lets try to find something else renewable that will work.

It frightens me that this is the level of intellectual clarity the majority of America brings to big problems.

The report said it would not work for more than 5 percent of transportation fuels at the current state of the technology, not that it wasn't a viable alternative if some of the technological challenges can be addressed.

That's what this bit means: However, the potential to shift this dynamic through improvements in biological and engineering variables exists.

Maybe you should stick to problems that can be solved by banging rocks together.

Re:Gotta keep moving (1)

NewWorldDan (899800) | about a year and a half ago | (#41780917)

The most likely solution to my mind would be a soybean geneticly spliced to hell and back to drip with oil. Only it would probably be developed by Monsanto and all the Greens would try and get it banned. But I don't think you're going to get a viable fuel crop without some serious GMO work.

From TFA (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#41779479)

Based on a review of literature published until the authoring of this report, the committee concluded that the scale-up of algal biofuel production sufficient to meet at least 5 percent of U.S. demand for transportation fuels would place unsustainable demands on energy, water, and nutrients with current technologies and knowledge. However, the potential to shift this dynamic through improvements in biological and engineering variables exists.

So... you're saying there's a chance...

Re:From TFA (1)

azadrozny (576352) | about a year and a half ago | (#41779717)

I think this should have been included in the summary. The study does not rule out this technology. I concludes stating that more R&D is necessary if it has a chance to become a viable technology. However TFA also notes that the DOE invested in this for 20 years, concluding that "... algal biofuels were unlikely to be cost-competitive with petroleum...". I am not sure I would be excited about putting more public money behind this.

Re:From TFA (1)

geekoid (135745) | about a year and a half ago | (#41779839)

Becasue petroleum will run out, so getting replace technologies before then is a good idea.

Also, its carbon neutral
also, reduce dependence on outside forces.

There is more to think about then just money. Think in terms of overall value.

Re:From TFA (1)

azadrozny (576352) | about a year and a half ago | (#41780779)

When do you decide that you are throwing good money after bad? I believe the DoE's role should be to help fund and develop new ideas. They should stick with the research until they can show the potential (or lack there of). 20 years is a long time, and the conclusions seem to show that there is no value. If some private organization wants to pick it up, so be it, but the public money could be put to better use developing other alternative energy sources.

Communism is the solution (1)

For a Free Internet (1594621) | about a year and a half ago | (#41779497)

Eat the bourgeoisie!

Re:Communism is the solution (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#41780161)

What's your address so I can send you a one way ticket to Vietnam or Cuba? Also say which one you'd prefer.

Sewage (3, Interesting)

LunaticTippy (872397) | about a year and a half ago | (#41779523)

We flush whole shit-tons of water, nitrogen, and phosphorus down our toilets. Why not turn that into biofuels? Cities will pay good money for you to process their waste, and you can charge for the fuel, too.

Re:Sewage (1, Interesting)

Kreigaffe (765218) | about a year and a half ago | (#41779729)

Good question. Seeing as how this stuff wouldn't ever come into contact with food, seems like an ideal use to me.
If it at least would produce enough energy to keep itself running, functioning as a waste disposal plant would still be useful.

Or hell, use the Mississippi. There's tons of fertilizer that gets flushed into the Gulf and isn't doing its ecosystem any favors. Run it through some shit that'll eat up the excess first, why not.

Re:Sewage (1)

LunaticTippy (872397) | about a year and a half ago | (#41780461)

Brilliant! We're creating massive dead zones all around the world at river outlets, we could use the algae for something beneficial.

Re:Sewage (1)

Maximum Prophet (716608) | about a year and a half ago | (#41779925)

Exactly. Poo and runoff have substantial amounts of both nitrogen and phosphorous, and using them prevents them from poluting the rivers.

The Fine Article doesn't mention this. Like fuel cells, it's possible that their process gets poisoned by non-pure sources of nutrients.

Re:Sewage (1)

mark99 (459508) | about a year and a half ago | (#41779943)

Its being done at a lot of places including here:
http://www.opb.org/news/article/osu-researchers-make-electricity-sewage/ [opb.org]

Will probably take decades to make it to common usage though. How often do they rebuild Sewage Treatment Plants?

Re:Sewage (2, Informative)

LunaticTippy (872397) | about a year and a half ago | (#41780555)

That sounds promising. It doesn't have to be a municipal sewer plant, though. New Belgium [newbelgium.com] brewery treats their own wastewater, which saves them money on their sewer bill, generates electricity from the methane produced, and gives them environmental bragging rights. From what I've heard the system already paid for itself and now reduces their operating costs every year.

Re:Sewage (1)

yesterdaystomorrow (1766850) | about a year and a half ago | (#41780929)

The NAS report addresses this. It's a serious possibility.

The thing to understand here is that *in principle* the net required water input is tiny (it provides the hydrogen in the hydrocarbon output stream, but that's not much compared to the water needed as a solvent), and the net required nitrogen and phosphorus inputs are zero (they aren't in the output stream). One issue is therefore the recycling of the waste stream after hydrocarbon extraction. Another is losses (especially water) from open ponds, if that's the technology of choice. The report tells us that projects to date have not adequately addressed these issues.

The two things I take away from this are:

1. The technology isn't ready yet, but it has future potential.

2. Open freshwater ponds are probably not the winning approach.

This report will undoubtedly help steer future research in this area.

Who really wrote this report an oil lobbyist? (2, Interesting)

Grayhand (2610049) | about a year and a half ago | (#41779541)

Okay how's this for some numbers. It takes 2,500 gallons of water to produce one bushel of corn. That doesn't include processing to ethanol. Oil also takes huge quantities of water to produce refined gasoline or diesel. They are talking 3 to1 for biodiesel from algae. That's actually impressive! Also they assume we'd use chemical fertilizers. Why? Most proposals I've seen used farm waste especially pig waste which goes to waste and pollutes rivers. There's a frightening amount of farm waste, both pig and chicken, that could be used for algae production. FYI, some types of algae live in brackish water and there is effectively an unlimited supply of that. Most of the extraction techniques involve squeezing out the oil with maybe a small amount of alcohol used to soften the cell walls so there's limited energy needed in processing. If you cherry pick data you make the numbers sound scary.

Re:Who really wrote this report an oil lobbyist? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#41779679)

That's the problem when you underfund scientists and bailout corpses. The first won't make any studies because they don't have the money for them, and the second will make plenty of studies, all to show you they need more money.

Re:Who really wrote this report an oil lobbyist? (2, Informative)

Baloroth (2370816) | about a year and a half ago | (#41779871)

No offense, but I'm sure you jut figured out in 20 seconds what the DoE couldn't in 20 years. Somehow, I don't really believe that.

For one thing, wastewater, while rich enough in nutrients, isn't suitable for growing algae, or at least not the kind of algae you want (it'll kill it). That means processing. Mind you, algal biofuel has a lot of potential, which is why no less than a dozen US universities are researching it, but it's a bit more complex than dumping pig waste into a pond of water. It has a lot of potential, but as the summary and article say, it isn't ready.... yet.

Re:Who really wrote this report an oil lobbyist? (1)

Maximum Prophet (716608) | about a year and a half ago | (#41780139)

The commenter was just pointing out inconsistencies between the (short) article, and reality. Since the longer article is behind a paywall, it's up to a knowledgeable Slashdot reader to fill in the gaps.

Ask any pool/pond owner. Algae will grow in any body of water that you don't take active measures to suppress it. i.e. Kill it with chlorine, UV, heat, or keep it way from light.
Just a conjecture here, but I imagine that the same traits that make algae produce copious quantities of oil, also make it less competitive vs. the other nasty microorganisms in waste water. The oil itself might be food for something else. One more sentence in the C&EN article could clear this up.

Better-ish link (3, Informative)

OzPeter (195038) | about a year and a half ago | (#41779579)

TFA doesn't even link to where the actual report can be found (shame on you Chemical & Engineering News)

The actual report is behind a paywall, but has some summary points Sustainable Development of Algal Biofuels (2012) [nas.edu]

Re:Better-ish link (1)

K. S. Kyosuke (729550) | about a year and a half ago | (#41780071)

What paywall? I've just downloaded it for free - or at least the pre-pub version. That's good enough for me anyway.

Re:Better-ish link (1)

Tator Tot (1324235) | about a year and a half ago | (#41780263)

TFA doesn't even link to where the actual report can be found (shame on you Chemical & Engineering News)

The actual report is behind a paywall, but has some summary points Sustainable Development of Algal Biofuels (2012) [nas.edu]

If you look at the link that I included in the article, you'll notice that it links to that very article you describe. I even took the extra minute to search for the link in order to include it in the article :)

Re:Better-ish link (1)

OzPeter (195038) | about a year and a half ago | (#41780299)

TFA doesn't even link to where the actual report can be found (shame on you Chemical & Engineering News)

The actual report is behind a paywall, but has some summary points Sustainable Development of Algal Biofuels (2012) [nas.edu]

If you look at the link that I included in the article, you'll notice that it links to that very article you describe. I even took the extra minute to search for the link in order to include it in the article :)

Too many links in a summary confuse me!

Why all or nothing? (2)

VikingBerserker (546589) | about a year and a half ago | (#41779653)

Why doesn't anyone suggest using algae fuel for a smaller part of the transportation workload instead? I'd suggest either buses or trucks, for example. They already don't use gas stations along with cars, and usually run on diesel already. Converting their stations and vehicles should be much easier than doing so for all the gas stations across the country. Even small steps add up.

TFA studied 5% (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#41779751)

RTFA

Someone Break this down? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#41779739)

So whats the cost of Nitrogen and Phosphorus in comparison to oil? Also can nitrogen and Phosphorus make us less dependent on foreign countries? Is it easier to produce? ETC none of these are menthttp://hardware.slashdot.org/story/12/10/26/153259/algal-biofuels-not-ready-for-scale-up?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+Slashdot%2Fslashdot+%28Slashdot%29#ioned in the article or the post. Did we expect Algae to be free? or just better then the alternative?

we're using 100M years of fuel (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#41779743)

people really, really don't get that.

We're using 100M+ years of accumulated carbon AND EVEN THAT'S NOT SUSTAINABLE.

Thinking that we can somehow achieve breakeven on an ongoing basis, when we're already deep in debt to the past is probably not going to work well.

We need an energy source that far exceeds our requirements. Fusion works. Solar works (storage problem).
Fission might work but not if it's based on Uranium.

Re:we're using 100M years of fuel (1)

K. S. Kyosuke (729550) | about a year and a half ago | (#41780127)

We're using 100M+ years of accumulated carbon...

Hah, you've just failed to convince 40% of all the US citizens and your argument hasn't even properly started yet!

from the summary (4, Insightful)

GoodNewsJimDotCom (2244874) | about a year and a half ago | (#41779747)

>The energy from algal biofuel, the report finds, is less than the energy needed to make it.

Yet another failed attempt at perpetual energy! Why oh why does the laws of physics mock us so?

All joking aside, for most applications, we don't mind energy loss. The key is getting the energy into a compact and transportable form usable in cars.

Re:from the summary (1)

TheDarkMaster (1292526) | about a year and a half ago | (#41780699)

All joking aside, for most applications, we don't mind energy loss. The key is getting the energy into a compact and transportable form usable in cars.

Exact. The trick is to convert energy from form A to the form B as efficiently as possible. But, this conversion will never be 100% efficient, that is impossible.

Not ready for prime time? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#41779887)

Two things.

1) The lovely thing about bio-fuels is not primarily its efficiency or viability, but the energy density, utility and ease of handling of the product....

2) Fundamentally solar energy production will ultimately boil down to minimization of real-estate usage (efficiency) _and_ maximization of desired products...

FWIW

p.s. - Still waiting for my jet-powered electric hybrid flying car

Why not get our energy from congress-based fuels? (1)

eyegor (148503) | about a year and a half ago | (#41779897)

Both side of the aisle are sufficiently full of poo that we'd be in bio-fuel heaven for the foreseeable future.

Similar to corn ethanol (1)

AlienSexist (686923) | about a year and a half ago | (#41779971)

Corn is also a nitrogen hog. The amount of chemical fertilizer needed to grow corn for ethanol is similarly a net waste.

Scaling up inefficiency is not good (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#41780015)

To paraphrase Dickens:

If it takes 0.99 barrels of oil equivalent to extract 1 barrel of oil equivalent, all is well.
If it takes 1.01 barrels of oil equivalent to extract 1 barrel of oil equivalent, all is not well.

That's a *lot* of water... (1)

Gordonjcp (186804) | about a year and a half ago | (#41780087)

... and if we use it at that rate, soon all of the Earth's water will be gone forever!

There's no phosphorus or nitrogen in bio fuel (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#41780173)

" transportation fuel needs would require 44–107% of the total nitrogen and 20–51% of the total phosphorus"

There's no phosphorus or nitrogen in bio fuel. I don't see how it's removed/lost from their system.
The left over organics after the fuel extraction should be returned to the system as fertilizer.

Imagine a world without a petroleum industry. (4, Interesting)

hey! (33014) | about a year and a half ago | (#41780211)

Now imagine the people in that world imagining what it would take to create a petroleum-based economy like ours from scratch. The amazing drilling technology; the massive investment in super-ships and pipelines; the scale and sophistication of refineries; the ubiquitous distribution networks; the engine technology to burn petroleum cleanly and efficiently.

Imagining all those things happening in the space of, say, ten or even twenty years would be impossible. And in fact it didn't happen that way. It took us more like a century.

People seem to be daunted by any new energy technology because they can't imagine it replacing petroleum overnight. But it doesn't have to happen that way, and in fact it won't. The dominance of petroleum we've known all our lives will be gone someday, probably within the lifetime of some people alive today but that might be fifty years or more into the future. And as with any technology, success with the replacement technologies will depend on timing. You wan to be ahead of the curve, but not investing so far ahead of the curve you're dealing with impracticability. Back in '94 I worked for a new boss who was betting the company on the emergence of something like Netflix streaming in the next year or two. I explained all the difficulties and why it would not happen any time in the next decade, but she was so certain it was going to happen she could not be dissuaded (so I quit). I envisioned the same future as her, but I thought her timing was premature -- as it turned out to be by some 14 years.

Apple's success is, apart from design, largely a matter of timing. They weren't the first to develop a tablet, but the iPad came when it was possible to make something thin enough, light enough, long-lasting enough and powerful enough to be useful. People who tried when you needed to make the things ten pounds and an inch thick to accommodate the battery failed, no matter how impressive their design was for the time, because he time was wrong.

As I said, petroleum will fade away in the lifetime of many of us, and what replaces it would seem astonishing to us today, but it won't happen overnight. And we'll never run out of oil. We'll use less and less of it as the prices rises against the falling price of the alternatives. At the outset, those alternatives won't look competitive at all. And most of them will never be competitive. The few that will work out will be very difficult to pick out from the rest of the pack of doomed technologies.

Re:Imagine a world without a petroleum industry. (1)

0123456 (636235) | about a year and a half ago | (#41780577)

Now imagine the people in that world imagining what it would take to create a petroleum-based economy like ours from scratch.

As straw men go, that's a pretty poor one. This article is talking about producing algal fuel, not distributing it; when oil first began to be used as a fuel, it just squirted out of the ground ready to burn... who cared whether someone a thousand miles away can't burn it because there's no pipeline to get it there?

BTW, when I was a kid, we only had twenty years of oil left. Oddly, we seem to have about twenty years of oil left, thirty years later.

Re:Imagine a world without a petroleum industry. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#41780855)

And if you knew anything about oil production when you were a kid, you'd know how much it's changed today.

The easy oil is gone. People could once get oil squirting out of the ground...but not any more. There's a reason why Pennsylvania isn't oil country.

You may not have noticed, but the GP talked about more than just distribution, but also production.

It does matter.

Dafuq is wrong ... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#41780223)

... With natural gas?

Missing the point (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#41780439)

Biofuels should be used in conjunction with clean energy, then it doesn't really matter how much energy that they take to produce because it will produce zero emissions. I wonder if this article is from the same kind of people who would drive an electric car in a country that has brown coal for electricity.

They're Missing Some Fundamental Considerations (1)

Baldrson (78598) | about a year and a half ago | (#41780701)

First of all, there is no study that plots photosynthetic efficiency against percent biomass output as lipids for ANY species of algae.

Second, what is known of lipid production is that it is a response to nutrient stress -- which means the photosynthetic efficiency is highest with optimal nutrients but the biomass is going to be dominated by non-lipids. Why isn't this work being funded?

Third, the optimal nutrient biomass is largely amino acids and although amino acids have lower market value than lipids (in the large scale markets like agricultural feedstocks and fuels) the gain in photosynthetic efficiency means you have to pay attention to amino acid market value or you are missing basic economics.

Fourth, if you start producing amino acids on a macroengineering scale, you are going to be reducing overall demand for fertilizers because the efficiency of utilization is so higher in algal photosynthesis than it is in, say, soybeans.

Fifth, O&M cost of nutrients (including water and agricultural grade CO2 as well as NPK) are high but the debt service cost of the photobioreactors (or ponds) per unit output is even higher -- so you had better pay _very_ close attention to photosynthetic efficiency as that drives your total area, hence capital cost.

Nitrogen and Phosphorus are FREE... (2)

RealGene (1025017) | about a year and a half ago | (#41780723)

..if you use agricultural (or even residential) runoff. Here in the NE USA we build treatment plants to remove the phosphorus (from lawn chemicals and detergents) from wastewater and stormwater so as to prevent algal blooms in our lakes and streams.

The big ass ocean (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#41780747)

I'm surprise no one has figure how to grow algae in the ocean - There is Atlantic, Pacific ocean on both side of US - with trillions gallon of water -
Imagine hundred of ships use to harvest the algae in ocean water.

Why not use algae for food? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#41780767)

We are doing all this research to turn algae into fuel for machines.

Why not turn it first into fuel for humans. A contained system that runs on low power consumption could be made for everyone's home.

We could virtually eradicate or drastically reduce commercial food production and distribution requirements.

Once we fix the issue of feeding ourselves freely and without being forced into a slave system. We will be free to solve our other energy, waste management, utility needs, enlighten ourselves, and find a real solution to governing, ourselves.

Then we might just have a chance at freedom from this rock or the choice to take care of it until the earth can no longer sustain life.

Just some thoughts and an opinion from an AC.

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