Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Whimsical Claims from BARD, an Algal Fuels Company


BARD's claims are too whimsical to put in a headline or title. But in an atmosphere of mainstream doubt regarding the short to intermediate-term viability of algal fuels, these claims are too cute to ignore. Keep in mind these claims are for yields, not for profitability:
: "Biofuel Advance Research and Development, LLC. (BARD) has entered into an agreement with The Green Institute Inc. to construct and operate a commercial scale algae system pilot facility located in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The planned facility will produce algae biomass to be used to produce biodiesel, and other commercial products. The pilot facility is estimated to produce 20,000,000 gallons of algae oil / biodiesel per acre per annum [emphasis added]. Initially, the pilot facility will produce 43,070 gallons of algae oil / biodiesel per annum using 6 modules of photo-bioreactors covering 84 square feet." _Greentechmedia
Got that? The claim is for roughly 43,000 gallons of oil in 84 square feet over one year. Since there are roughly 43,000 square feet in an acre, they claim that they would have produced over 20,000,000 gallons of oil per year had they expanded their lab facility to 1 acre size.

Here is what an algae guru from NASA and other algae experts say about the claims:
According to John Benemann [an algae expert], with 'normal' systems we can expect at the very most 5,000 gal/acre/yr from open ponds. This either means that BARD is doing something very revolutionary or they are not telling us that their yield of 9+ million gal/acre will take them 1,886 years to produce! We have a real problem with light unless of course we use artificial light and then we have an energy problem or a photonic materials cost problem... These guys may have discovered a miracle organism, but I suspect they are selling snake oil rather than making algae oil.

...According to Bob Walsh, the CEO of Aurora Biofuels: "While it is hard to comment on another company's technology when you are not under the hood, I can say we believe the absolute theoretical maximum is 10,000 gal/acre/year. The white paper GreenFuel Technologies: A Case Study for Industrial Photosynthetic Energy Capture by Dr. Krassen Dimitrov, PhD, March 2007 goes through the calculations.

"We also believe engineering systems [photo bioreactors and their ilk] will not deliver huge increases in productivity. Engineering has to drive out the typical costs of algae production but cannot double production. Our most recent scientific progress, which decreased photo inhibition increased our capability from the 2,000 gal/acre/year level to consistently producing above 4,000 gal/acre/year. Our scientific team believes 6,000 gal/acre/year is an achievable target." _GTM
Clearly BARD is doing a great deal of extrapolation, and is likely supplementing its module's sunlight with artificial light, in addition to feeding its algae some very expensive algal food. Yield is irrelevant if the process is not economically viable.

But there are ways to fudge the yield. Imagine a tall rotating cylindrical building, with a 120 ft radius and a height of 4,000 feet. The algae are grown on panels (or bags, etc) on the cylinder's outer surface. Given an oil yield of 5,000 gal / acre / year on the cylinder's surface -- but with the building's footprint occupying roughly 1 acre of land -- an algal facility could theoretically produce about 20,000,000 gallons of oil per "acre" per year, using only sunlight for photons.

Perhaps this is what BARD has in mind? They will have to find a cheap way of rotating the building to provide uniform sunlight for all the pannels. Of course their are other ways of sharing the sunlight -- rotate only the outer surface, or slide the panels around in any number of elaborate patterns . . . Or if BARD locates the building on a hill surrounded with mirrors that bathed the panels with sunlight, they might get away with a smaller building. You can probably think of a novel approach yourself if you give it some thought. But keep it between yourself and your investors, for now.

It all depends upon what BARD's investors or government sponsors are willing to go for. The numbers provided are certainly impressive -- large enough to throw your blog host into a whimsical mood at the very least. So whimsical that I hesitate to pour that scotch and water, savouring the natural whimsy instead.



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