Friday, May 30, 2008

Biofuels Digest Algae Update, with Caution

Biofuels Digest has an ongoing update and wrapup of the state-of-the-art in algae biofuels research and development. Today's update also links to some cautionary words from a Popular Mechanics article out of yesterday's online edition.
This is algae's second coming. The first attempt, run by the U.S. government in the wake of the last oil crisis, was killed in 1996 by the Clinton administration while oil hovered around $20 per barrel. But even now, with record-high petroleum prices, algae stands in no position to compete, and hurdles remain at every stage of production.

Just choosing which kind of algae to start with is a herculean task. There are well over 100,000 species, each adapted to grow in different environments at different rates, and each capable of producing different amounts of oil—or none at all. The government collected more than 3000 different strains from all over the world in the 1980s, 300 of which were deemed promising. Today, many algal strains have been engineered into genetically modified superplants—the secret formulas of biofuel startups—but there is, as yet, no proven winner. Not to mention, there remains the small matter of how to make the algae flourish, how to cheaply dry several million gallons of subsequent slush, and how to get the oil out of minuscule cell walls and into the metaphorical barrel.

"It's not as easy as running a combine through a field of canola to get the seeds and crush them," says Michael Weaver, CEO of the Washington biofuels company Bionavitas. "For anybody who thinks that we can go from ‘Hey, let's look at algae,' to full-on fuel production in the period of the past three to five years, it's just never going to happen that way."

A number of pilot plants scheduled to come online in the next several months will likely give the most accurate glimpse of algae's future: how much oil it can produce, how soon and whether it will live up to its promise. GreenFuel, one of the oldest names in algae, already operates a pilot plant in Arizona, where it houses algae in large, clear plastic bags. Solix will break ground this summer on a new plant in Colorado, growing algae in what are essentially 230-ft.-long, 5-ft.-high freezer pops, suspended vertically in shallow pools; a smaller array, with eight 65-ft.-long bioreactors, has entered production in recent weeks. HR BioPetroleum, which signed a deal with Shell last year to produce biodiesel from algae, is currently building a pilot plant in Hawaii using a "hybrid system"—growth begins in long, clear, horizontal tubes before being dumped into open ponds to multiply further. Blitzing the ponds with algae for a short time has the advantage of rendering species invasion a nonissue, the company says.

"The jury is out on all of them—nobody has fully demonstrated that their system is going to be affordable and scalable, and be robust in terms of operations and maintenance and the ability to produce a large amount of oil routinely," says Ron Pate, a researcher at Sandia National Laboratories who evaluated algal oil in conjunction with DARPA's jet fuel project last year. "There are a lot of naysayers out there, and that's fine. It's good to be skeptical. But at the same time, I think there's enough promise with algae that it needs to be given a better shot than what's been done in the past." __PopMech
The latest cost estimates from the US DOD continue to price algal biodiesel's production costs at around US $20 a gallon. I would expect that number to be reduced by a factor of 4 or 5 based upon some of the more recent developments from state of the art research, but even at production costs near US $3 or $4 a gallon, the fuel could not be sold competitively at today's prices. Scaling to industrial production would take about 5 years.

Read both links (Biofuels Digest and Popular Mechanics) to understand both the progress being made and the challenges remaining. One other interesting development in biodiesel, is the expansion of the Neste NExBTL process for hydrogenating biodiesel to an improved "next generation" biodiesel, which has superior cold weather performance to biodiesel and superior emissions characteristics to petro-diesel.

Today's energy shortages are due to high demand from the emerging worlds of China, India, etc. There is still room to increase oil production over time, but it will become more expensive. Our current speculative oil price bubble may prove to be good training for the years ahead.

Sadly, if the past is any guide, we too quickly forget earlier lessons learned under duress.

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