28 April 2008

100,000 Gallons of Oil per Acre: Closed Loop Algae


This company claims that the entire fuel supply for the US could be supplied by 1/10th the surface area of New Mexico, using the closed-loop algae process. Palm oil can only provide 800 gallons of oil per acre of land. Instead of cutting down tropical forests in SE Asia, Africa, and South America, perhaps these third world nations should consider algal oil instead?

Algae is not food. This is not a food to fuel process. Watch the video and decide whether you believe the process can be scaled up in the way Vertigro thinks it can.

H/T Gas2.org

More at Al Fin Energy Blog

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14 Comments:

Blogger IConrad said...

It's interesting to see Vertigro's info again. The last I heard out of them was from a couple of years back when they were claiming potential 100,000gal/acre-year. They were only operating their prototype plant at 30,000gal/acre-year, IIRC -- but even so, at that rate, we're talking overwhelmingly economically advantageous rates of production when compared to current petro-oil resources.

Can't wait to see this catch on in the big-time.

Monday, 28 April, 2008  
Blogger al fin said...

Yeah. It's really a matter of intelligent industrial scaling. The closed-loop algae growing process seems a lot smarter to me than surface ponds.

They still likely need to do a lot of experimenting with algae species and composition of growth medium.

Once they come up with modules for different fuels (diesel, jet fuel, gasoline, etc) that are infinitely scalable (given the sunlight and CO2), then watch out.

I see it taking off in about 5 years + - 2 years.

Oil prices are still lower than they were in Jimmy Carter's time--in adjusted real terms related to income.

But prices above $100 have to be speaking very loudly to venture capitalists and lipid biologists and algae scientists.

Monday, 28 April, 2008  
Blogger The Irrefutable Fool said...

If you factored in some of the externalities that come along with oil ( eg. military expenditure, the whole Iraq occupation), I think you'd see that 1/100th the production they claim would be cost efficient.

"You can't fund both sides of a war and win"

I wonder if this will be the start of the switch to over extraction of CO2 from the atmosphere? This is after all single celled nanotech in essence.

Monday, 28 April, 2008  
Blogger IConrad said...

"TIF" wrote:
I wonder if this will be the start of the switch to over extraction of CO2 from the atmosphere? This is after all single celled nanotech in essence.
----------

I've heard it said that in many ways, biotech and nanotech are highly indistinguishable from one another; so I truly understand what you mean there.

Regarding the over-extraction of CO2 from the atmosphere: have you ever read the science-fiction book, "Fallen Angels"? It's available for free online somewhere -- I forget where. It's all too applicable.

I worry sometimes that in the craze for puritanically demonizing industry's atmospheric contributions we aren't putting ourselves at risk long-term. The global climate is by far, in the geological record, more sensitive to cold temperatures than it is to hotter ones. (It is conjectured that the earth has literally //frozen over// on at least two occasions, for example -- and that's taken as mainstream science, by the way.)

IF CO2 is so powerful a forcing agent, we ought to be //extremely// careful we don't sequester *too much* of it from the atmosphere, lest we expose ourselves to the hazard of turning the earth once again into a snowball the next time the solar cycles go on a large downturn.

Of course, there are other geological-time-scale hazards humanity faces; such as the fact that once every two hundred million years or so, the solar system 'oscillates' above the galactic elliptic, exposing the planet to higher concentrations of cosmic & other background radiation, which itself causes a massive die-off.

But hey -- at least that's //natural//, right?

Monday, 28 April, 2008  
Blogger Snake Oil Baron said...

"This company claims that the entire fuel supply for the US could be supplied by 1/10th the surface area of New Mexico, using the closed-loop algae process."

And I would draw attention to the fact that the guy in the video said "energy" not just transportation fuel. Even with a massive over estimate it still implies a lot of potential.

While much of the production would be done over desert regions, this rate of production would mean that if every state and province had a small area of land devoted to this industry the distributed nature might well make up for the days of reduced productivity due to lower light levels and it would not result in a significant pressure on land use. I suppose that a root-like branching pattern of distribution would allow small providers to pool into larger collecting facilities and help reduce the transportation costs. Surround the desert algae plants with solar farms and you could combine electricity generation with a secure and stable source of power for the algae facility and the transportation links could serve both industries.

Monday, 28 April, 2008  
Blogger SwampWoman said...

Yep. I'm waaaay less concerned about "global warming" than I would be about the prospect of plunging into another ice age.

Monday, 28 April, 2008  
Blogger SwampWoman said...

I certainly hope it works; however, I have been waiting for the promise of a hydrogen-fueled economy for the past 30 years.....

Monday, 28 April, 2008  
Blogger al fin said...

Assume that 1/10th of New Mexico's land area is at least 6.5 million acres. (121,600 square miles total, with 640 acres per square mile, so it is actually more than 6.5)

But taking 6.5 million acres at 100,000 gallons of oil per acre, gives you 650 billion gallons of oil per growing season (year?). Divide by 42 gallons per barrel of oil to get 15.5 billion barrels a year of oil.

The US consumes 7 billion barrels a year of oil, roughly. So 1/10th of New Mexico could supply twice the US oil consumption if this method delivers as promised.

Monday, 28 April, 2008  
Blogger IConrad said...

Considering that global energy consumption is expected to grow by roughly 50% in the next twenty years, I think we're covered //IF// this bad boy pans out.

Now, there is one deeply significant little drawback to this stuff.

Algal biodiesel has only the energy density of gasoline, which makes it about 90% as "energy dense" by volume as diesel. Diesel fuel usage accounts for the supermajority of fuel consumption within the US, so we can easily see a 5-10% increase in volume used just on that account alone. Now, //perhaps// this would be offset by the widescale adoption of passenger diesel engines (which would make sense given the higher fuel economy per vehicle and the nigh-unto absolute absence of emissions, and political clamor). But that's truly no guarantee.

Given that the 50% tag would happen in addition to this, and that if energy prices stay far lower than standard estimates energy //useage// would increase, I'm not so sure that a "double the amount of barrels" is a good faith translation.

It seems like he's underestimating the amount by a hazarded guess of 50-75%, but then again -- that's assuming peak production of 100,000 gallons per acre-year, with only 30,000 verified.

Still, at the 30,000 mark and the high end 'ballparking', we're guaranteed to be energy independent for centuries using algal biodiesel alone, assuming a continuous exponential curve.

Huzzah.

Monday, 28 April, 2008  
Blogger CarlBrannen said...

algae oil makes biodiesel which works in trucks just fine.

As to when it is mainstream, I think 5 years would be optimistic. However, I do see something like this eventually.

This technology isn't going to drop the carbon dioxide appreciably because the fuel it makes will mostly be burnt, the remainder will be used to make plastics that will eventually end up in landfills and will either be burnt or rot to make carbon dioxide again.

To use algae to sequester carbon, the easiest way is to fertilize the barren oceans with iron and let the natural algae grow there, or so I've heard rumors.

Over the long run, efficiencies should release a lot more US farmland back to forests, but over the short run, it's really not "food for fuel" that's driving the ecologists nuts. (They think that there are too many people on the planet, so starving a few to death is an improvement.) It's the cutting down of rain forests for land to grow food or fuel, or the reduction in US land where farmers are paid to not plant.

Monday, 28 April, 2008  
Blogger IConrad said...

" algae oil makes biodiesel which works in trucks just fine. "
If this comment was directed at myself, it is horribly misguided. Please note that the data I listed above deal with fuel energy density and thus estimating actual requirements.

Furthermore, this belief is wholly inaccurate; while it //can// run in a diesel engine, unless the algal lipids are "cut" with a methanol/ethanol mixture (I forget the exact ratio), you will always have to use a 'starting' agent in order to fire the engine initially and run on the algal oil "biodiesel". Now, thankfully, the pressed algae leave behind sufficient biomass to be converted into ethanol and thus make the system a "closed loop". (There are also thermal problems with admixture stability, but that's another story.)

" They think that there are too many people on the planet, so starving a few to death is an improvement. "

In all fairness, this is doing the green movement as a whole a deep disservice. While there are the Dr. Piankas of the world (a gentleman who received major applaud from an audience when he suggested that someone ought to engineer a strain of ebola capable of eliminating 99% of the human species) -- there are also those whom remain sensitive to the suffering of the poor in a //non// anti-capitalist bent.

And it is these people whom hail "biochar" as the salvation for the agrarian rainforest indigenes.

Monday, 28 April, 2008  
Blogger al fin said...

Conrad, I think Carl's comment was meant as a summary response to the article and comments as a whole, not to any particular comment.

Carl is closely involved in the biofuels industry himself.

As for whether environmentalists want to see a human die-off on the planet, I suspect that such a desire is far more common among the true believers in CAGW greenhouse global warming and peak oil devastation than a more well-balanced person might expect.

Tuesday, 29 April, 2008  
Blogger CarlBrannen said...

I should add that making one gallon of biodiesel out of the usual plant oils (and I read somewhere that the algae oils being contemplated here are no exception) requires 1/10 gallon of an alcohol, typically methanol, but ethanol works fine too.

So if they did begin producing these vast volumes of algae oil, (and converted the US gasoline fleet to diesel) the required production of ethanol would be about 10% of current production of gasoline, plus whatever is needed for oil based diesel.

So my point is that even if algae turns out to be a great idea and is far more efficient than ethanol, getting an ethanol industry running now may still be a good idea. In fact, with these numbers, the ethanol component of biodiesel would take more land than the oil part (but I think the oil production would be more expensive, that algae footage didn't look to be cheap acres).

I'm aware that it is possible to run vehicles on straight oil, but I really don't know enough about the process to say whether or not it's a reasonable thing to do. I'd learn more about it, but right now there is no market for straight oils; they need to be first converted to biodiesel; and I need to figure out how to make fuels now rather than someday.

Tuesday, 29 April, 2008  
Blogger IConrad said...

So my point is that even if algae turns out to be a great idea and is far more efficient than ethanol, getting an ethanol industry running now may still be a good idea.

Carl, there's a piece you're missing here. Algae do not produce solely oil and that's all that's left over.

The optimized strains are between 60% & 80% oil by volume; the remaining is overwhelmingly (99%+) lignocellulosic mass.

Any process that converts lignocellulose into ethanol or methanol can be used to reap the necessary ethanol out of the same process by which the vegetable oil is derived, when discussing algal biodiesel.

As to the necessary modifications for running one's engine on solely vegetable oil; all that's needed is a 'starter' intake for the ethanolized vegetable oil -- once the engine is running, vegetable oil operates exactly as standard biodiesel. It simply can't start a cold engine. All you need is filtered vegetable oil when you're talking about an already-running engine. This does add a layer of complexity to the end-user, which is why it isn't really being viewed as an option.

But, either way, the thing about algal biodiesel is that the yield is true biodiesel, not just vegetable oil -- if you're smart about it.

It also has the added benefit of extending the lifespan of the engine by providing trace amounts of lubrication over the lifespan of the fuel... but standard methanolized biodiesel does that too.

Tuesday, 29 April, 2008  

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