Skip to comments.Pond-Scum Fuel and Earth’s Oil Problem
Posted on 07/29/2008 5:48:39 AM PDT by Red Badger
Oil prices recently hit $140 per barrel. The cost to grow and transport food is rising in tandem, and the global economy is being squeezed. Meanwhile pollution from burning fossil fuels continues to pollute the planet. The world needs an abundant source of clean, transportable, inexpensive fuel. Could microscopic algae hold a key to that future?
There has been a lot of hype surrounding oil production from algae lately. Visionaries claim algae holds the key to energy independence, but as exciting as oil produced from algae is, the reality is that a fossil-fuel-free economy is probably farther off than many think. That said, read on to find out why algae oil could also have a far brighter role in the future economy than most people might imagine.
Algae is the ultimate in renewable energy, says Glen Kertz, president and ceo of Valcent Products. Kertz is a plant biologist currently marketing his patented design for producing fuel from algae.
As it turns out, under the right conditions, many of these microscopic organisms can be very efficient at harnessing the power of the sun to create vegetable oil. They are much more efficient than corn, soybeans or palm treessources currently used to produce fuel for vehicles. According to Department of Energy research prepared by the Department of Energy National Renewable Energy Laboratory (nrel), 15,000 gallons of algae oil could theoretically be produced from one acre of land every year. Kertz claims his company is working on a technique that has the potential to produce 100,000 gallons of algae oil a year per acre of land use.
Compare that to soybeans, which yield only about 50 gallons of bio-diesel per acre; corn, which produces 300 gallons of ethanol; sugar cane, which produces 662 gallons of ethanol; or oil palm, which produces 508 gallons.
Plus, algae can be grown on land that is unsuitable for agriculturecompletely removing the fuel-food competition that is developing within the corn industry. In fact, some of the ideal locations for growing algae could be in the deserts. Some types of the oil-producing microbes even grow best in salt or brackish water, and others perform most efficiently when fed agricultural waste or sewage.
The promise is huge, [but] the technical challenges are major, says Philip Pienkos, a supervisor at nrel. Yet, just like fusion, the potential for making a cheap source of energy with minimum inherent problems is too great to ignore.
There are currently two different methods being used to grow and harvest the oil-producing algae, but both of them have hurdles to overcome.
The first technique was studied back in 1978 just after the fuel shocks due to the Arab oil embargo. Using this method, algae are grown in large open-air ponds. Carbon dioxide or other nutrient sources are added to the water (which does not have to be potable), and as the algae grows, it is harvested. From a technical perspective, the disadvantage of this method is that the open-air structure is susceptible to contamination. For example, bacteria from bird droppings could potentially enter the ponds and grow to compete with the oil algaeresulting in a harvest that produces little oil. Open-air structures can also lead to high water evaporation rates. The U.S. Department of Energy studied the open pond method for about 18 years, but in 1996 the feds decided that algae oil could never be economically competitive with fossil fuels, so the research was canned. The price of oil in 1996 was about $20 a barrel. Now with $140 per barrel oil, interest in research has returned.
The Wall Street Journal reports on green algae fuel.The second technique involves growing algae in enclosed hanging plastic sheets in giant greenhouses designed to maximize sunlight exposure and keep contaminants out. The algae oil yield can theoretically be much higher using this method (100,000 gallons per acre per year), but so are the costs involved with building the infrastructure. And currently, scientists havent figured out a way to keep the plastic from eventually becoming clogged with algae (click here for video).
Both methods have other advantages. For example, besides producing oil (some algae contain far more than 50 percent oil), other useful products could be captured. The harvested starches could be transformed into ethanol, the proteins could potentially be used as feed stock for fish aquacultures, and the leftover waste could be burned in furnaces to generate another stream of energy.
Algae oil doesnt produce as much pollution either. Burning algae oil is cleaner than other petroleum products because it doesnt add to atmospheric CO2 levels. When oil is pumped from the ground and burned, CO2 is released, adding to the total concentration in the atmosphere. But, since algae takes in CO2 from the surface environment (not from deep within the earth where it is locked away) and converts it to oil and other products, no new CO2 enters the system when it is burned.
The niceties involved in oil-from-algae production are readily clear. But despite the fact that algae oil is cleaner than fossil fuels, and is more productive than other alternative fuels, the challenges associated with implementing a national algae-to-oil program would be significant.
With current technology, a lot of land would be required to produce enough algae oil to cover fuel demand.
America, for example, consumes approximately 3.4 billion barrels of gasoline and about 1.5 billion barrels of diesel per year. Since diesel engines are approximately 35 percent more efficient than gasoline engines, America would need roughly 2.21 billion barrels of algae oil to replace gasoline. All told, to replace both gasoline and diesel consumption with algae oil, 3.71 billion barrels of biodiesel (155 billion gallons) would be needed each year.
Therefore, if an acre of land produces 15,000 gallons of oil per year (as was estimated by the nrel, but was never actually reached), the nation would need to dedicate 10.4 million acres (16,250 square miles) to algae oil production. The Southwests Mojave Desert is approximately 22,000 square miles.
Turning an area the size of the Mojave into a lake obviously isnt feasible. The hope is that oil yields will increase as technology advances. If Glen Kertzs 100,000-gallons-per-acre claim is true and is ever reached, algae oil could become a very useful future energy source.
The cost involved to finance the construction of all the algae-to-oil facilities would also run into the hundreds of billionseven trillions. Then there is all the opposition that would be generated by the oil companies, Russia and the Middle East oil producers (who collectively hold trillions of dollars of U.S. debt) and other self-interest groups.
The fact is, as promising as algae oil might be, it isnt about to provide any near-term solutions to the worlds energy problems. But that doesnt mean we shouldnt look to the future.
Eventually, a clean, easily transportable and abundant fuel source will be found.
The Bible indicates that there is a future time coming when the world will be free from the problems plaguing society today. That utopian time is called the Millennium. It will be a time of peace, abundance, environmental cleanliness and prosperity. It is exciting to think about what technologies await us in that future world. Who knows what undiscovered and unharnessed aspects of nature wait to be unlocked in that future time?
Will algae oil be one of them? Maybe. After all, it seems reasonable that the God of the universe who created the algae that are 50 percent oil, created them that way for a reason (Isaiah 45:18).
For a glimpse into the scriptures describing this future time of energy abundance, read The Wonderful World TomorrowWhat It Will Be Like, by Herbert W. Armstrong. Robert Morleys column appears every Tuesday.
Rest In Peace, old friend, your work is finished.....
If you want ON or OFF the DIESEL KnOcK LIST just FReepmail me.....
This is a fairly HIGH VOLUME ping list on some days.....
And if we use it for food, as they do on Battlestar Galactica, we can eat it too.
The algae leftovers can be used as cattle/hog/chicken feeds............
That pondscum, according to evo-atheists, is your great(*100000000) grandfather.
For a verrry brief moment there I thought the article was about converting the remains of far left 60s radicals ('pond scum') into fuel! Actually, it's not a bad idea! :)
Well the most aboundant source of food on this planet KRILL.. produce a kind of WAX.. that animals consume and convert into “oils”.. could be a source.. THEN... Grow the krill or a genetic version of them and learn how to convert the wax into oil.. VOILA!.. Oil.. which could be “cracked” and re-isomerized..
“Pond scum”,...oh, for a second there I thought you were talking about Al Gore or the Clinton’s.
Their reasoning is that the algae is genetically engineered.
I suppose they think that it will become sentient and attack the populace like the blob or something.
Actions like this reveal their true intent, though. They don’t want us to find an alternative form of energy, because that would allow us to continue our present lifestyle.
Biodiesel from Kojoba oil-wax : Transesterification with methanol and properties as a fuel:
And opposes nuclear energy, and solar energy and wind energy and.........well.......ANY energy production at all..........kinda shows a pattern, doesn't it?................
seriously, wtf? =)
Why do these articles always assume some need to match all of our oil usage with some new source?
If pond scum oil finds a profitable niche that is 5 to 10% of our usage then that is good. If that niche is but regional then fine. Ditto for kudzu ethanol and fill-in-the-blank.
In reality, we need only match our imported oil portion, which right now is approximately 70%. But, eventually, ALL oil will be depleted, for everybody on earth, not just Americans. At which time WE should have our _____(fill in the blank)____ up and running just fine...................
Yeah like that.. growing krill should not be hard..
Either Sowell or Williams analyzed this premise. It is only true for a given price of oil and a given level of technology to extract it at that price.
There will be some oil that isn't used, as it is more costly to retrieve it than to use an alternative energy source.
It's like buying tangerines instead of oranges when the scarcity and cost of oranges gets too high.
Excellent tagline you have, btw!
Saw the headline and thought that it was about Harry Reid.
Agreed. But we needn't come near running out of oil to move on to whatever is the next stage. As said by some Saudi minister, the stone age didn't end because they ran out of rocks.
But for now we need the current fuels and whatever works wherever is fine by me.
LOL! I had to run a search to find out who he was! Guess that shows how old I am. :) Now, Led Zeppelin, I know well, but “Shia Labeouf”???
hahaha...the Zep i know well, despite the fact that Bonham died 5 years before i was born.
Guess that shows how old I am! =)
Easily solved. Use the "continental railroad" precedent, and donate land currently "owned" by the Federal Government.
"the nation would need to dedicate 10.4 million acres (16,250 square miles) to algae oil production. The Southwests Mojave Desert is approximately 22,000 square miles."
Since the land areas of the US is 3.5 MILLION square miles, this area is a postage stamp.
"Turning an area the size of the Mojave into a lake obviously isnt feasible."
Well, first off, we don't WANT a lake due to evaporation and culture contamination. But covering that amount of area with the equivalent of solar hot water heaters seems pretty feasible to me, if taken in "small" steps.
What bugs me about these algae stories is they never mention the obvious, using the open ocean to grow the algae. We use open land to grow crops and deal with the weeds just fine. We can completely replace petroleum using about 3 percent of the surface of the open ocean.
Using algae may require a plant that does several processes at once, grow algae on waste water, squeeze the oil out, ferment the left overs into alcohol, and then burn what is left for fuel. So while no one process would be cost effective alone, all, if done at once, might be.
After all a crude refinery extracts every product it can from a barrel of oil it can, it doesn’t just rely on the value of gasoline to pay for its self.
Sounds like another Liberal's (hash)pipe-dream!
..that’s the right track, our own water treatment plants are the place to start, thay are widespread and can make product close to end use.
Nonsense. Even if the earth were a giant drop of oil, it would be a finite supply.
That said, the economic factors referenced above have the effect of increasing the effective supply at any given price point.
The left overs after the wax is extracted may even be a viable food for aqua-culture(shrimp) or even a fertilizer..
And I don’t think we’ll ever run short of sewage!
OK, so you say what I posted was nonsense, then agreed with it.
For some reason, the “peak oil” folks just can’t read the
“at the given price and technology level” part of the statement.
(Is it in invisible ink?)
Why aren't the greens all over this?
Closed loop energy production close to home everywhere.
The natural gas produced can go right into the pipeline grid & the fuel to local pumps.
Again I ax, what's the problem?!?!
10 million acres? The state of Nevada alone has over SIXTY million acres (86%) of federal land (including Yucca Mountain, which is lovely this time of year) much of which is uninhabited.
The problem with monoculture is pests, which are attracted to high concentrations of suitable hosts. If we grow an algae (or mixture of algae strains) that are selected for their oil production, the facility will become an attractive target for something that feeds on them.
That is why we probably should focus on closed systems, such as the ones mentioned in the article, rather than open ponds or the open ocean. However, I am for what works instead of what the government thinks would work, so I am very pleased to see the SunOil open-pond algae biodiesel facility that started up in April near Brownsville TX. I haven’t seen anything about how it came through the recent hurricane, or how production is proceeding.
Today transportation accounts for about 40% of our total energy consumption in the US, and more than 95% of the mixtures of light liquid hydrocarbons that constitute gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel are made from petroleum.
I feel certain that the transportation fuel of the future - decades or centuries from now - will STILL be a mixture of light liquid hydrocarbons (LLH). The reason is simple - in an oxygen atmosphere, nothing else matches LLH for the combination of volume energy density, safety, convenience, and ease of handling and storage.
Both hydrogen and ethanol are boondoggles - a waste of money and effort, and a distraction from any real solution. A gallon of gasoline that you can carry with you anywhere on earth that you could survive contains 56% MORE HYDROGEN than a gallon of pure liquid hydrogen, that would be boiling off a highly explosive gas at minus 400 degrees F and nearly 200 PSI. And worse, the hydrogen has barely over ONE FOURTH of the energy!
Ethanol does resemble gasoline superficially, but it contains only about 2/3 of the energy content. It cannot be used as jet fuel, and is problematic in diesel engines - as a gasoline octane (anti-knock) booster, it doesn’t work by itself in a diesel engine. It reduces mileage when mixed with gasoline in a spark engine, although engines can be purpose-built (with much higher compression) to extract more of the available energy from ethanol. But the lower energy content STILL takes its toll.
Hydrogen constitutes so much of the total matter in the universe that everything else together amounts to just trace impurities. But hydrogen aside, methane (CH4, as in natural gas) is found throughout the universe. It did not appear there as a result of biologic processes. Almost certainly, a significant fraction of the carbon on our planet came to the Earth as methane, along with CO and CO2. We do know that the crude oil we have found so far is at least partly of biologic origin. We know how and where to find it, and how to process it for our use. And what we do know about it indicates (not “proves”) that it began its transformation to crude oil as algae, not dinosaurs.
Will we discover where and how to find other hydrocarbons to use for fuel? Perhaps. But meanwhile, it seems to me that if algae was the original source, it is the most likely place to look for our future supply.
"Both hydrogen and ethanol are boondoggles - a waste of money and effort, and a distraction from any real solution."
Here I DISAGREE completely. Hydrogen "is" a boondoggle AS A TRANSPORT FUEL, but as a compressed gas it is a VERY good mass storage and transmission agent that can unite disparate energy SOURCES that may be distant from population centers (better than the electrical grid). Ethanol is a legitimate SHORT-TERM solution to the immediate problem of imported oil, which keeps our dollars here in the US, instead of sending them overseas. Indeed it "does" have the shortcomings you mention, but it has the significant advantage of something that can be ramped up quickly, for minimal cost, and using (mostly) existing infrastructure.
Do I view ethanol as the best LONG-TERM solution---emphatically no--but for the current moment it is the right thing at the right time.
I tend to also agree with you about the desirability of some hydrocarbon as the best probably LONG-TERM answer--but given enough energy SOURCES tapped, we can synthesize whatever we need, even going so far as to capture CO2 from the atmosphere and using that plus hydrogen to make hydrocarbons (not that I'm advocating that---just pointing out the possibility).
But I do think that "oil from algae" is a very strong candidate for the longer term as a source of transportation fuel (and co-products, of course).
That's capital intensive, like growing crops only in green houses to avoid weeds and pests. Farmers successfully grow crops in the open. Algae is just a plant that floats. In the deep open ocean there are far fewer clouds overhead blocking sunshine and algae is the only thing that can grow there.
Unfortunately, hydrogen is VERY difficult to transport in ANY form. It is the smallest, lightest, fastest molecule in existence, which gives it the ability to penetrate the smallest flaw or weakness in its containment vessel or pipeline. Also, it is chemically an active metal and tends to react with other metals, penetrating (and thus weakening) them to the point of failure. Hydrogen distribution would require an entire new dedicated infrastructure, built from scratch.
I am aware that a few dedicated, short-distance hydrogen pipelines exist, but these are not even the beginning of what would be needed. Hydrogen works for the space shuttle, where mass is critical and dollars don’t matter, but it doesn’t scale down much better than a nuclear reactor.
Ethanol is actually a poor choice compared to butanol, which contains about 95% of the energy content of gasoline, can be blended into gasoline in ANY ratio up to 100%, is a BETTER oxygenator than ethanol, and can be made from all of the same sources, by similar means. Several companies are researching large-scale butanol production, and I would not be surprised to see it replace ethanol as a blending agent at some point.
Although bioreactor infrastructure does require significant capital investment, its productivity can be far greater - and not just because of reduced or eliminated contamination.
A closed system allows optimization of the inputs - CO2, water, and trace nutrients, plus sunlight, delivered to each individual cell. And it also supports optimization of the algae culture, whether natural or bioengineered.
So I think I am right, but I would not mind being proved wrong on some parts of what I have outlined. I still have not seen anything about how the PetroSun Algae facility in Rio Hondo, TX came through the recent hurricane. This site was originally a shrimp farm, with hundreds of shallow ponds already in place. Conversion to algae farming was thus not a major transformation. The key will be harvesting, drying, separating the oil, and processing both the oil and the residual protein and starch residues to salable products.
This is an open-pond, natural-culture facility instead of a bioreactor, so although I expect the productivity to greatly exceed “planted plants”, I do not believe that it will approach a more optimized environment. If they prove me wrong, so be it.
Please check out PetroSun and Biobutanol for more information about these initiatives.
I'm a chemist. I've used hydrogen for thirty years and more. Using gas phase hydrogen is simply not that difficult (cryongenic is another matter). And you spout the standard BS about "hydrogen embrittlement", which is simply not true for the uses envisioned. Why" Because for tankage and pipelines of carbon steel used at ambient temperature, the rate of such reactions is so low as to be non-existent. And I "can" quote chapter and verse from engineering manuals to prove it.
"Hydrogen distribution would require an entire new dedicated infrastructure, built from scratch."
Again, not true. The existing natural gas pipeline network can be used (see above point about carbon steel). It would certainly have to be expanded, but so does any other energy infrastructure designed to replace fossil fuels.
"Hydrogen works for the space shuttle, where mass is critical and dollars dont matter, but it doesnt scale down much better than a nuclear reactor."
Baloney. Hydrogen is used daily throughout the US (and the world) at scales from a few cc/min to tons/sec. It is a standard industrial gas, and used as such.
"Several companies are researching large-scale butanol production, and I would not be surprised to see it replace ethanol as a blending agent at some point."
Which it true. But a fermentation process producing butanol is not available TODAY. Ethanol is. See my previous point about ethanol being the "right thing" for "right now".
Chapter and Verse:
On average, a car is in use for ten years or more, so I think that embrittlement, as well as leakage, might be significant over that timeframe. You are talking about consumption in a fixed location, which is not the same as for private vehicle power.
An auto gasoline tank can be stamped metal, shaped to fit around other components, but a high-pressure (10,000 psi) hydrogen tank will have to be a heavily reinforced cylinder. And what is gained in the lower fuel weight will be given up many times over in the tank weight.
In addition, dispensing a gas is far different from dispensing a liquid. Expansion and compression during fueling wastes a significant amount of energy. And then how do you measure the amount dispensed? Actually, I think that the most practical solution would be tank exchange, which would require every hydrogen car to use a standard tank.
And for this, for the same tank volume you get about 1/3 the hydrogen of gasoline, and far less energy. True, it can be used far more efficiently in a fuel-cell electric car, but I don’t believe the cost will ever make it worthwhile.
Back to butanol. As a “hydrocarbone-like” alcohol, it actually can almost replace gasoline in most current engines, unlike ethanol. It used to be made by fermentation in the Weizmann ABE reaction, which produces acetone, butanol, and ethanol in a 3:6:1 ratio. Weizmann was a chemist before becoming the first Prime Minister of Israel. You can read about it from one of its proponents at Butylfuel LLC, which has developed a modified reaction to maximize butanol yield.
Go back to my first response. I do NOT consider hydrogen to be acceptable as a vehicle fuel. I can't be any plainer than that. I don't know why you keep harping on it.
And anecdotal data on the "time frame" for embrittlement. A carbon steel pipeline in the Ruhr Valley has been used to transfer hydrogen FOR ONE HUNDRED YEARS.
And I'm very familiar with the proposed use of fermentation to produce butanol. But, as yet, it is NOT considered a viable commercial approach.
OK, we covered many topics and I missed that point. We do disagree on a few points, but more in terms of degree than opposition. I don’t know that hydrogen can be transported through our current natural gas pipeline network, if only because of capacity - the same BTUs would need several times the volume, which would mean higher pressures and flow rates.
Tell me if I’m wrong, but I think your use of hydrogen gas is as a chemical feedstock rather than as fuel. I just do not believe that its use as fuel (actually, an energy vector) will ever be economically justifiable - unless it leaves the planet!
2/3 of our crude oil consumption becomes transportation fuel, and over 95% of our transportation fuel comes from crude oil, through many billions of dollars worth of infrastructure. I don’t think we can change that very quickly, so I think that the best solutions will have to make use of it. That is why I like the idea of algae culture as a new feedstock - but I also think that butanol is worth investigation.
But I was not - and am not - picking a fight. I have learned from our conversation.
You obviously have a VERY serious problem with reading comprehension. I already SAID that the pipeline network would need to be expanded in capacity. Sheesh.
"Tell me if Im wrong, but I think your use of hydrogen gas is as a chemical feedstock rather than as fuel."
"I just do not believe that its use as fuel (actually, an energy vector) will ever be economically justifiable - unless it leaves the planet!"
Well, I didn't believe that oil would cost $140 per barrel, either.
"2/3 of our crude oil consumption becomes transportation fuel, and over 95% of our transportation fuel comes from crude oil, through many billions of dollars worth of infrastructure. I dont think we can change that very quickly, so I think that the best solutions will have to make use of it."
Which is why ethanol is a good idea "now". It uses much of the existing infrastructure with the shortest lead time of any current alternative, with the possible exception of oil-seed derived diesel.
"That is why I like the idea of algae culture as a new feedstock - but I also think that butanol is worth investigation."
And again, I've already said that for the longer term they are worthy research topics---but they're not available NOW.
I have not said a single word of criticism about you and your manner of expressing yourself, and have confined my remarks to the subject under discussion. You, on the other hand, have been ill-mannered, boorish, and personal in EACH of your responses. I have gleaned a few factual items scattered among your vituperation, but I have learned a lot more about you - and it is not pleasant.
I have been polite, you have been just the opposite. That says a LOT more about you than about me.
Have a nice day.
Tough. I get REALLY TIRED of people who come onto energy threads and post the same tired old talking points.
The blooms of the pea-soup colored algae so big they've been showing on satellite photos are toxic to fish and small animals and irritating to humans. The lake once notorious for its pollution is cleaner than ever, yet the algae continues to thrive.
Why not turn it into oil? Isn't it time?
Search key word algae and lots of articles about oil and algae will come up to read.
Animal too big and rare take too much manpower to process.. krill very small and abundant processing can be automated..