Monday, May 05, 2008

Problems to Solve: Solar Thermal, and Algae

Solar thermal and algal biofuels are both promising approaches for replacing fossil fuels. Solar thermal can supply large quantities of electricity for cleaner air, and better utilisation of an electrical ground transportation fleet. Algal biofuels can provide non-fossil liquid fuels for aviation, ground, sea, and rail transport that keep the commercial infrastructure of modern societies functioning.

First, a list of problems solar thermal needs to solve to meet its enormous promise:

  1. Supply of high tech turbines
  2. Cooling the heat engines
  3. Keeping mirrors and panels clean
  4. Protecting against eco-saboteurs
  5. Transmission lines
  6. Endangered species laws
  7. Indigenous peoples concerns
And there will always be other unexpected problems cropping up all the time.

See here for more.

Next, algae biofuels production currently have costs running over US $20 per gallon. That is not at all competitive with petro-fuels. What needs to be done?
In Florida, PetroAlgae said that it hoped to reach its commercial production stage next year, as algae producers begin to differentiate over varying methods of getting past the algae “shade wall” and other issues in achieving commercial scale. The shade wall refers to algae’s tendency to bloom so rapidly in large scale deployments that it blocks its own sunlight, while ventures such as GreenFuels have worked on excessive algae bloom problems in a pilot test with Arizona Public Service.

...# The University of New Hampshire Biodiesel Group said it would cost $308 billion to build enough algae farms to replace gasoline with algae-based biodiesel, and $47 billion per year to run the production system for 140 billion gallons, or $0.34 per gallon before transportation and retail costs. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory said it would take an algae field of up to 15,000 square miles. Producers and researchers are disagreeing over the wisdom of closed bioreactors versus open algae ponds. Proponents of reactors point to the control of the process, while companies such as Aquaflow Bionomic point to the affordability of open ponds.
# In California, tests on Soladiesel from Solazyme were conducted by the Southwest Research Institute concluded that algae-based biodiesel has superior performance under cold weather conditions than biodiesel derived from other feedstocks.
# The National Algae Association held its first meeting, which sold out as hundreds of algae investors and producers convened in Texas in April to discuss new ventures, and paths to profitability.
# In the Netherlands, AlgaeLink announced a new process for extracting algae oil without using chemicals, drying or an oil press. The company said that its patent-pending technique uses 26 kilowatts of power to produce 12,000 gallons of algae oil per hour, with a yield of 50 percent from the initial algae paste. __Much more at BiofuelsDigest
It will not be quick and easy. Replacing a petro-fuels infrastructure that took a century to build will take time and enormous capital expenditure. The innovations and inventions necessary to solve all the problems we know about now will require a lot of time and mental energy. The problems we don't yet know about will require even more.

We should always work from the local and regional scale first. This scale is easier to visualize and innovate on than the national and global scales.

We need to have an idea of what it would mean to solve the national and international scale of problems. But only as a point of reference. The local and regional scales should always come first.

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