13 March 2010

Returning to the Source


Scientists can detect traces of the green algae Botyrococcus Braunii in oil and coal deposits. This green algae has been producing hydrocarbons for hundreds of millions of years, and continues to do so. So if green algae B. Braunii is still on the job, why is everyone so worried about "peak oil doom?" The time scale involved. Although oil from B. Braunii is of the highest quality, it takes the algae too long to reproduce. It takes too much time to produce oil in the quantities which humans currently consume. So what is the answer?
B. braunii is a prime candidate for biofuel production because some races of the green algae typically "accumulate hydrocarbons from to 30 percent to 40 percent of their dry weight, and are capable of obtaining hydrocarbon contents up to 86 percent of their dry weight.

...Like most green algae, B. braunii is capable of producing great amounts of hydrocarbon oils in a very small land area.

B. braunii algae show particular promise not just because of their high production of oil but also because of the type of oil they produce, Devarenne said. While many high-oil-producing algae create vegetable-type oils, the oil from B. braunii, known as botryococcenes, are similar to petroleum.

"The fuels derived from B. braunii hydrocarbons are chemically identical to gasoline, diesel and kerosene," Devarenne said. "Thus, we do not call them biodiesel or bio-gasoline; they are simply diesel and gasoline. To produce these fuels from B. braunii, the hydrocarbons are processed exactly the same as petroleum is processed and thus generates the exact same fuels. Remember, these B. braunii hydrocarbons are a main constituent of petroleum. So there is no difference other than the millions of years petroleum spent underground."

But, a shortcoming of B. braunii is its relatively slow growth rate. While the algae that produce 'vegetable-type' oils may double their growth every six to 12 hours, B. braunii's doubling rate is about four days, he said.

"Thus, getting large amounts of oil from B. braunii is more time consuming and thus more costly," Devarenne said. "So, by knowing the genome sequence we can possibly identify genes involved in cell division and manipulate them to reduce the doubling rate." _SD

Humans can intentionally grow large volumes of B. Braunii across dry and desert lands -- even over the surface of oceans and seas. But unless a good genetic tweak can be found to speed up the algae's reproductive and oil production cycle, it would be very expensive to do so.

Billions of dollars are going to research to develop such tweaks. Microbial fuels should arrive on the scene within ten years -- just enough to nudge fuel markets a tiny bit. Within twenty years, microbial fuels will comprise close to 30% of the liquid and gaseous fuels markets.

Peak oil is only true in the most trivial sense -- sooner or later, humans will stop using oil because better energies and fuels will be abundantly available.

Between now and then, energy markets will see some turbulent ups and downs. But the end game is in sight, which means that a price ceiling on liquid fuels is visibly descending. Slowly, distantly, but visibly. Adjust your plans accordingly.

Cross-posted to Al Fin Energy

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was tired writing the following. These points were intended as questions, but then I wandered in writing them.

1. As a financial bridge to the future could algae be grown and processed as a source of cooking oil? Considering that algae can be grown on cheap, marginal land and does not require fertilizer, then algae cooking oil could be produced for a little less than canola oil. This minor price difference could be used to conquer the cooking oil market in Mexico. Once a profitable business is established making cooking oil it can be expanded to grow other forms of algae for fuel needs.

Also, if algae can supply our cooking oil needs, then we can free up more of our country's grain supply for export allowing millions overseas to eat.

2. Can we capture the CO2 emissions of fossil fuel power plants and pipe the CO2 to algae farms as a fertilizer?

3. Can we engineer a form of algae that excretes glucose? Would it be practical to use this form of algae to convert our carbon emission wastes into glucose for use in other commercial processes?

4. If we can develop a cheap source of glucose can we then replace dairy cows in the production of raw milk and its components? Could this glucose be fed into bioreactors containing engineered forms of E. Coli that turn out a single compenent of milk? One bioreactor could produce milkprotein, another could produce milksugar and another could produce milkfat. These components could then be mixed to produce the desired grades of milk for retail sale, or these components could be fed to other processes to make secondary dairy products such as butter, condensed milk, ice cream, yogurt, cottage cheese and sour cream.

5. Thinking of my points I have come to the realization that the long term trend in the West is for more of our food to come from small, annual plants as opposed to from trees and bushes that take years to grow to maturity. Eventually all of our food will come from bacteria, annual plants with extremely short growing seasons and grain crops.

6. If we do begin capturing waste carbon for use in algae farms, do you think a national market for this substance will develop, complete with pipelines?

Wednesday, 17 March, 2010  
Blogger al fin said...

Algae at the bottom of the food chain, but it supports a whole lot of nature on its back.

Ron, much of the backing for algal fuels is based upon the idea of using a non-food for fuel.

At the same time, some species of algae have been used as foods for thousands of years.

Some microscopic species are used in foods, cosmetics, nutritional supplements, and as animal feed.

Your questions:
1. Some kinds of algal oil would probably do fine as cooking oil. Economics would sort out whether such oils go to food or fuel.

2. Yes, that has been the long term plan.

3. Probably not practical. Much better ways of using algae are in the works.

4. Synthetic "milk" is an interesting idea, and certainly soymilk, ricemilk, almond milk, and all the other pseudo-milks on the market share a lot in common with what you describe.

5. Algae are not annual plants, since a single crop can be grown in weeks rather than years. Many crops of algae can be grown and harvested in a single year.

6. There is actually a shortage of CO2 rather than an excess, for industrial purposes. CO2 is only 0.04 % of the atmosphere. A tiny, tiny fraction.

Thursday, 18 March, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My responses:

2,3 & 4:
If we travel to space we will need a source of protein for our travelers and settlers, and synthetic milk seems like a likely source. Carbon can be fed to engineered algae, which can excrete glucose, which can be used by bacteria to make the milk components. Organic waste products from the astronauts, along with dead astronauts, can be broken down into carbon to be fed back into the cycle. My plan wouldn't be to simply replace dairy cows on earth, but to create a source of food for space travel.

5. My point was that the general trend is for our food to come from smaller and smaller plants with shorter and shorter growing cycles. Eating algae is merely the last stage of this long term process.

6. I thought of this point becuse during the Enron collapse I read that one of Enron's predecessor companies would thread communication cables through retired pipelines as a source of revenue. I thought of those abandoned pipelines and thought that they could instead be used in carbon trading.

Thursday, 18 March, 2010  

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