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Algae Energy: Potential and Perils

by marco Tue Jul 27th, 2010 at 11:31:11 PM EST

wonder what y'all's thoughts on algae as a source of fuel are:

Exploring Algae as Fuel - NYTimes.com

Algae are attracting attention because the strains can potentially produce 10 or more times more fuel per acre than the corn used to make ethanol or the soybeans used to make biodiesel. Moreover, algae might be grown on arid land and brackish water, so that fuel production would not compete with food production. And algae are voracious consumers of carbon dioxide, potentially helping to keep some of this greenhouse gas from contributing to global warming1.

But efforts to genetically engineer algae, which usually means to splice in genes from other organisms, worry some experts because algae play a vital role in the environment. The single-celled photosynthetic organisms produce much of the oxygen on earth and are the base of the marine food chain.



And they worry me, too, because algae reproduce extremely rapidly -- "doubling in as little as a few hours" -- and are very easily disseminated -- "they can be carried long distances by the wind".

What's more, according to the article, companies are

developing algae that can thrive in extremely salty and exceedingly alkaline water.

as well as

algae that capture less light. Right now, he explained, algae capture more light than they need and waste a lot of it as heat. If each organism captured less, then a given amount of light could be shared by more organisms, increasing biomass production.

In other words, there is this drive to create super-algae that reproduce at unprecedentedly fast rates, and that can survive in new, tougher environments.

The article quotes experts who dismiss the risks and/or harmful impact of genetically engineered algae escaping into the environment:

"Everything we do to engineer an organism makes it weaker," said Stephen Mayfield, a professor of biology at the University of California, San Diego, and a co-founder of Sapphire. "This idea that we can make Frankenfood or Frankenalgae is just absurd."

Dr. Mayfield and other scientists say there have been no known environmental problems in the 35 years that scientists have been genetically engineering bacteria, although some organisms have undoubtedly escaped from laboratories.

Even Margaret Mellon of the Union of Concerned Scientists, who has been critical of biotech crops, said that if genetically engineered algae were to escape, "I would not lose sleep over it at all."

But one quote raised a red flag for me about the possibility that all the hype about genetically modified algae's green energy potential and all the poo-poo'ing of its risks come down to money trumping caution:

"Re-engineering algae seems driven more by patent law and investor desire for protection than any real requirement," said Stan Barnes, chief executive of Bioalgene, which is one of those companies [that are sticking with searching for and breeding natural strains].

Anyone know anything about this topic?
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1Somewhat misleading:  While algae are voracious consumers of energy,

The production of biofuels from algae does not reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2), because any CO2 taken out of the atmosphere by the algae is returned when the biofuels are burned. They do however eliminate the introduction of new CO2[citation needed] by displacing fossil hydrocarbon fuels.

Algae fuel - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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IANA specialist, but claims that algae are the coming thing have been around for a while now, and industrial production still isn't coming online. On the contrary, the evidence of this NYT article is that research seems to need to focus on genetic engineering to approach a result, which smacks of desperation.

Personally, I too find genetic engineering of simple and easily-disseminated life forms like algae dangerous. This is the future of liquid fuels? I prefer to hope not.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Wed Jul 28th, 2010 at 02:03:36 AM EST
Well, if you could create an organism that requires an anoxic environment and suspend it a little bit above the ground, it would die rapidly if you lost containment. But AFAIK, algae farms have a shitty output compared to PV, and it's harder than you'd think to keep them alive long enough to be useful.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Wed Jul 28th, 2010 at 04:27:04 AM EST
[ Parent ]
outside controlled conditions:

JakeS: Well, if you could create an organism that requires an anoxic environment and suspend it a little bit above the ground, it would die rapidly if you lost containment.

Yes, the weakness of these GM algae is alleged in the article:

... at an industry-sponsored bioenergy conference, David Haberman, an engineer who has worked on an algae project, gave a talk warning of risks. Many scientists, particularly those in the algae business, say the fears are overblown. Just as food crops cannot thrive without a farmer to nourish them and fend off pests, algae modified to be energy crops would be uncompetitive against wild algae if they were to escape, and even inside their own ponds.


Tout est pour le mieux dans le meilleur des mondes.
by marco on Wed Jul 28th, 2010 at 04:48:50 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The problem isn't so much that the pure strain will survive - it is that these primitive organisms have very rapid interbreeding, and (depending on the species) may be able to perform lateral gene transfers. Which means that they have to die reasonably fast in order to prevent contamination of the local fauna with the modified gene sequences.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Wed Jul 28th, 2010 at 05:01:12 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Good point.  Wish there were a way to comment on this particular article -- and solicit responses from the experts cited in it!

Tout est pour le mieux dans le meilleur des mondes.
by marco on Wed Jul 28th, 2010 at 05:10:55 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Why would the experts respond?  Even in our home-grown example here (the new scientist wind article), the experts aren't responding to the comments.  Generally it seems that once an article is written, it is considered done and forgotten by the authors.  (except for putting on their publications list ;)
by njh on Fri Jul 30th, 2010 at 08:09:30 PM EST
[ Parent ]
We need to find ways to get them to respond.

The journalists, too.

At least, more often.

Needs to be more interactive, two-way, multi-way.

Tout est pour le mieux dans le meilleur des mondes.

by marco on Fri Jul 30th, 2010 at 11:55:25 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Absolutely. I wasn't thinking of the GreenGlob™ oozing across the landscape, but of the possibility of plasmid transmission to other organisms.
by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Wed Jul 28th, 2010 at 05:27:12 AM EST
[ Parent ]
But if you're going to make a 50's B movie, GreenGlob™ is the thing for you.

By laying out pros and cons we risk inducing people to join the debate, and losing control of a process that only we fully understand. - Alan Greenspan
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Jul 28th, 2010 at 05:41:10 AM EST
[ Parent ]
That does not matter either - What they are attempting to do is to create an algae that expends a lot of its metabolic energy creating hydrocarbons for extraction for fuel - any wild micro organism that picks up that trait is going to be at exactly the same disadvantage as the original engineered algae, and promptly die outside the very carefully maintained production facility. The problem is that the conversion efficiency of sunlight to biomass via photosynthesis is in fact, well, eh, kind of awful. And since the yield of this setup is the metabolic surplus of the algae soup, not the total production, you loose a good bit of the already anemic output just maintaining your algae soup..
heck, I am reasonably sure that using high-grade photovoltaics or solar termal generators to produce electricity, and then converting that into liquid fuel (ammonia, or one of the other reasonably easily synthesized energy carriers) would in fact yield significantly more fuel per square meter of facility.. As in: orders of magnitude more.
by Thomas on Thu Jul 29th, 2010 at 07:21:38 PM EST
[ Parent ]
What they want to do and what they end up doing with their organisms are not precisely the same thing...

But of course the point of biofuels is not to tap into a source of sustainable energy with the least possible fuss and bother. The point of biofuels is to provide the illusion that we can keep running a society on internal combustion engines. There's a variety of reasons for people to like that idea, not the least of which being that a lot of people like (for reasons I do not quite understand) to cling to the delusion that the personal automobile is a viable form of mass transportation under a sustainable political economy.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Thu Jul 29th, 2010 at 07:33:48 PM EST
[ Parent ]
ehh.. but we can, technically, keep using combustion engines forever. A diesel engine will burn nearly anything liquid and flammable, and there are several fuels that can be synthesized with acceptable efficiency, so as long as the world can produce electricity, then combustion engines are an option. Now, economically, electric engines and batteries are quite likely to be about 3-4 times cheaper, but for applications where energy density is sufficiently important, "3-4 times more costly fuel than electricity" is still quite cheap.
by Thomas on Fri Jul 30th, 2010 at 12:35:24 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Expanding on this: Lets go with extreme pessimism about what is possible - The most widely synthesized chemical in the world is ammonia, which is a viable combustion engine fuel, even if it is rather less user friendly than gasoline. Further, let us assume that the only economically viable low-carbon power sources we are ever going to have are wind and nukes.
At five cents/kwh the cost of producing one metric tonne of ammonia via electrolysis is 6-800 dollars. This is not an unreasonable price to pay for the power density  
and note, since electrolysis can, in fact, be switched on and off at the drop of a hat, this could be night time surplus from nukes or the full output of a wind farm located in an optimally windy area specifically for this purpose so 5 cents/kwh is, in fact, a rather high estimate of actual cost, and cheaper electricity crashes the price hard. Dammit, now I am wondering why the farmers of the world arent already running their tractors off ammonia..
by Thomas on Fri Jul 30th, 2010 at 01:21:42 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Actually, there is a significant segment of the agriculture industry that does use ammonia as fuel. IIRC, this ammonia is make in Louisiana as a byproduct of the petrochemical industry and transported up the Mississippi for use in Iowa, etc. where there is farm equipment that can run on it. I also recall that the production of ammonia as fuel has been proposed as a use for "stranded wind".

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Sat Jul 31st, 2010 at 10:47:42 AM EST
[ Parent ]
What is the scope of sustainable use of liquid fuels?

Driving on a highway can be replaced by mass transportation or electric vehicles, so we're talking about off-road high-power vehicles: agricultural and construction machines, and military vehicles.

By laying out pros and cons we risk inducing people to join the debate, and losing control of a process that only we fully understand. - Alan Greenspan

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Fri Jul 30th, 2010 at 02:18:14 AM EST
[ Parent ]
and due to the engineering difficulties of transoceanic high speed rail, aviation.
by Thomas on Fri Jul 30th, 2010 at 11:59:25 PM EST
[ Parent ]
LOL - blind spot!

We could always resurrect the Zeppelin.

In the 1930s, Zeppelins successfully competed with other means of transatlantic transport. ... [Least] importantly, the technology was potentially more energy-efficient than heavier-than-air designs. ...

Today, with large, fast, and more cost-efficient fixed-wing aircraft, it is unknown whether huge airships can operate profitably in regular passenger transport though, as energy costs rise, attention is once again returning to these lighter than air vessels as a viable alternative.



By laying out pros and cons we risk inducing people to join the debate, and losing control of a process that only we fully understand. - Alan Greenspan
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Sat Jul 31st, 2010 at 04:23:40 AM EST
[ Parent ]
If your customers are willing to spend days making the crossing, you might as well operate nuclear-propulsion super liner ships. not much slower than a zep, safer, and much, much cheaper.
by Thomas on Sat Jul 31st, 2010 at 12:08:44 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The game here is the replacement of fossil fuels with manufactured liquid fuels storing solar energy. For that, it might be most efficient to look at solar-powered Dimethyl Ether factories. DME was discussed repeatedly here on ET by NNadir, for instance in the diary Obama's Energy Program Will Work: It's Why I Don't Want Him as Our Nominee. (January 16th, 2007)
On some level the depletion of oil is as much an opportunity as it is a threat.   The notion that we must continue to do things the same way our grandparents did thing is conservative, not liberal.  We have alternatives to oil, even if they are not being widely discussed in this country.   Asia is industrially developing DME, dimethyl ether infrastructure.

DME is so superior to oil as a fuel, that it is ridiculous even to consider making oil from mixtures of carbon oxides and hydrogen - the intermediates in FT chemistry.   The Japanese and the Chinese in developing DME are giving themselves a chance..   Now, it is true really regrettably too, that the Chinese are building several DME plants that are based on coal - and I oppose them - but I do not oppose the DME infrastructure since DME, even more so than oil, can be made from anything, including maybe, the ever popular renewable strategies about which people love to think.

Also by NNadir on January 24th, 2007: The Loss of Life Per Metric Ton of Carbon Dioxide Avoided: Considering Diesels.
Note that this work refers to petroleum based diesel and not biodiesel or the even better option of using DME based diesels.    While biodiesel does produce particulates, they are are lowered with respect to petroleum diesel, but, in some cases at least, NOx seems to increase with respect to petroleum diesel.    I argue to the extent that it is available, biodiesel is far superior to petroleum diesel.

The best diesel option by far though is DME, about which I've written in previous diary entries.

DME produces essentially zero particulates and very low NOx, and is clearly the superior choice.   However, the means that one uses to produce DME will itself involve parameters and variables that are subject to combinatorial optimization analysis.

I wonder whether one could engineer yeast to secrete not ethanol for booze but DME for fuels. That might be an alternative to using algae for cellulose.

By laying out pros and cons we risk inducing people to join the debate, and losing control of a process that only we fully understand. - Alan Greenspan
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Jul 28th, 2010 at 05:42:15 AM EST


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