3 Feb 17 @ 10:45am by Matt Smith in Biofuels, Global Energy, Technology

Topic #153 that I find fascinating but need to know more about: Algae

There is something about algae that I find absolutely fascinating. I don’t know if it’s because I find it so incredulous, but producing biofuel from squeezing seaweed really hard (presumably that’s how they do it) is mind-boggling to me. Hence its charm.   

algaeAlgae, or Oilgae as those in-the-know like to call it (ie - not me), is taking over the mantle as the potential savior of biofuels, as the energy world scrambles to find a way to meet the renewable fuels standard, a law requiring the US (stipulated by,erm, the US) to produce 36 billion gallons of biofuel by 2022. 

The US government, having passed the law five years ago, are obviously getting a little tetchy about achieving the goals they have outlined. The data aren’t fully in yet, but preliminary results indicate that the US has fallen short of their mandated level for 2009 of 11.1 billion gallons, and are keen to find a solution to such a behemoth of a problem. Hence, their interest in algae has been piqued, with $80 million in stimulus money recently paid out to research algae-based biofuels.

To add (bio)fuel to the fire, the cause is also not without the support of ‘big oil’. Exxon Mobil’s first ever venture into the green arena has been to team up with algae research company, Synthetic Genomics, in an initial $300 million joint venture. Admittedly, this is spare change (almost a gesture?) when compared to Exxon’s annual capital and exploration spend of approximately $30bln (= more than the US government’s renewable energy budget) . However, as an affirmation of algae’s potential, there doesn’t come any higher endorsement. 

...not to be confused with the DARPA Initiative...

...not to be confused with the DARPA Initiative...

Last April the Pentagon tasked DARPA, who helped to develop some of the most revolutionary technology used today (from the internet to a propane-powered GPS system), to develop algae as a biofuel on a large enough scale to supply the entire US military. All becomes clear when it’s realized the US military is the largest single consumer of energy in the world (60 – 75 million barrels of oil a year); oil dependence on the countries you could potentially be at conflict with is not ideal.
 
As for the recent ripples of excitement, these were caused by an article in the newspaper, The Guardian, last weekend. It claims that DARPA’s research shows they are already producing biofuel from algae ponds at a cost of $2/gallon, and are months away from developing the technology to produce biofuel for $1/gallon – similar to gasoline costs. And we are not talking niche quantities here; a 50 million barrel-per-year refining operation could be up to speed within the next two years. 

This revelation has taken the biofuel industry by surprise – even algae producers. This has also followed hot on the heels of a backlash against algae in a study released last month, which stated algae required much more water and energy to produce than originally projected. This claim was vehemently refuted by market players.

36 beeellion gallons

36 beellion gallons

So in a bizarre twist, in a world where technological advancement is making madcap biofuel visions a reality, algae looks well positioned to lead, or at least be a part in this effort. In similarly interesting news this week, British Airways announced they will be producing their own biofuel from London garbage. Who would have believed even five years ago that jet fuel would be being produced from seaweed and trash? Modern life is indeed rubbish.

As with its predecessors, algae has been placed on a pedestal, which is set to wobble and topple under the weight of its own expectations. Other fuels have received similar treatment – jatropha (=topic #137 I found fascinating but needed to know more about) and corn-based ethanol, to name but two. If only expectations could be tempered somewhat, algae could be perceived for what it is – another paving stone on the path to oil independence, but not the path itself.

3 Comments on this post:

  1. Ginny says:

    Sung to the tune of “Angie” by Mick Jagger of “The Rolling Stones”.

    Algae, Algae, when will those skeptics all disappear?
    Algae, Algae, where will it lead us from here?
    With two dollars/gallon to produce, that’s a price we should reduce
    You can’t say we’re satisfied
    But Algae, Algae, you can’t say we never tried
    Algae, you’re a bio-fuel, but you’re still not a good buy
    Algae, I still love you, you’re much sweeter than seaweed and trash
    All the dreams that you recall were just corn-based ethanol
    Let me whisper in your ear:
    Algae, Algae, I know we’ve both done all the math
    Algae, Algae, you’re just a paving stone on the path

  2. Matt Smith says:

    Ginny, you are as mad as a hatter, and all the better for it. Great stuff!!

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