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Power Transportation Science

Algal Biofuels Not Ready For Scale-Up 179

Posted by Soulskill
from the it's-not-easy-being-green dept.
Tator Tot writes with this quote from Chemical & Engineering News: "Using today's technologies and knowledge, a scale-up of fledgling algal biofuel production sufficient to meet even 5% of U.S. transportation fuel demand is unsustainable, says a report released last week by the National Research Council. The report examines the efficiency of producing biofuels from microalgae and cyanobacteria with respect to energy, water, and nutrient requirements and finds that the process falls short. The energy from algal biofuel, the report finds, is less than the energy needed to make it. In terms of water, at least 32.5 billion gal would be needed to produce 10 billion gal of algae-based biofuels, the report states. The study also finds that making enough algal biofuels to replace just 5% of U.S. annual transportation fuel needs would require 44–107% of the total nitrogen and 20–51% of the total phosphorus consumed annually in the U.S."
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Algal Biofuels Not Ready For Scale-Up

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  • English (Score:2, Informative)

    by sunderland56 (621843)

    Yes, I know that 'algal' is perfectly good english. But wouldn't 'algae-based' be much more clear to the 99% of the population that are not chemists?

    • by OzPeter (195038)

      Yes, I know that 'algal' is perfectly good english. But wouldn't 'algae-based' be much more clear to the 99% of the population that are not chemists?

      TFA uses both forms .. so which 99% are we confusing again?

    • by Hillgiant (916436)

      Algae is biology, not chemistry.

    • Re:English (Score:5, Interesting)

      by gstoddart (321705) on Friday October 26, 2012 @12:43PM (#41779735) Homepage

      Why? It's a perfectly cromulent word.

      We use "fungal" to describe "fungus-based", what is wrong with algal? One sees "algal bloom" fairly often.

      Are we trying to dumb down science for the lowest common idiot now?

      • Why? It's a perfectly cromulent word.

        We use "fungal" to describe "fungus-based", what is wrong with algal? One sees "algal bloom" fairly often.

        Are we trying to dumb down science for the lowest common idiot now?

        If I had points you, sir, would be 'awarded" one. I love your Simpsonian English.

    • by idealego (32141)

      Algae is plural, while alga is singular. If you wanted to say something like "algae-based" you would have to say alga-based. If "algae-based" doesn't sound wrong to you just substitute another plural in there such as "horses-based" to see how it sounds.

    • Re:English (Score:5, Funny)

      by Khashishi (775369) on Friday October 26, 2012 @01:50PM (#41780581) Journal

      I have rewritten the summary using simpler English for the benefit of the weak-minded. A few sacrifices in content were made.

      "Using the tech that we have today, we cannot use algae (little green sea creatures) to make our fuel (for cars) because it would be bad for the Earth. Eggheads at National Research Council wrote a report that says so, using all sorts of sciencey terms. It takes more fuel to raise the little green sea creatures than it gives back in the fuel. It also needs lots of water and nitrogen (that's a chemical in bombs) and phosphorus (that's another chemical in bombs). We need to give the little green sea creatures 3 or more times as much water as we can get fuel from them. If we use all the nitrogen and phosphorus we make in the USA, it's only enough to make fuel for one tenth the cars we have."

  • Well hey it was a good effort. One peg down. Lets try to find something else renewable that will work.
    • What it won't do is solve 'all' of our fuel needs.

      Here's a hint, nothing else will either. It's the perfect solution for scenarios where long distance, remote and quick fueling requirements need to be met. The military is tops on this list. Just because it won't replace oil entirely doesn't mean it isn't working.
    • by DriveDog (822962)
      Moving, but not abandoning. Part of the problem is that many people can't seem to imagine a world where fuel and energy comes from a multitude of sources. Not 5% yet? OK, shoot for 1% with biodiesel from algae while going for 1% with ethanol from switchgrass. The nice thing about algal fuels is that they're compatible with existing engines. No chicken-and-egg problem. We've been spoiled by having fuel for almost any ICE vehicle available at every freeway exit, no planning ahead necessary.
    • Re:Gotta keep moving (Score:5, Informative)

      by bluefoxlucid (723572) on Friday October 26, 2012 @12:38PM (#41779669) Journal
      How about industrial hemp? Grows on shit land; produces fiber that can be blended with cotton for a soft, strong product; leaves behind much cellulose to process into ethanol (or compost) as well as seeds that you can press for oil and process into biodiesel (and feed). You can smoke it, but by the time it gets you high you'll be dead for want of lungs that aren't beef jerky.
      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by dmbasso (1052166)

        Drugs are bad, mmmmkay? We are in War on Drugs (tm), so that's really really bad, mmmkay?

        • So? What's your point?
          • by dmbasso (1052166)

            I see you and whoever modded my comment as flamebait have never watched South Park.

            So to be as explicit as it can get: those against hemp are idiots; those who believe the "war on drugs" is about drugs are really idiots (or haven't really given much thought to the subject); those who defend it as police are the fucking worst evil scumbags there are, but hey! that's your only option on every election!

            Is my point clear now? Now to make my previous reference clear: http://www.southparkstudios.com/full-episodes [southparkstudios.com]

            • by dmbasso (1052166)

              Oops, I meant to say 'as policy'. It is arguable that police takes advantage through corruption, but the real motherfuckers are those who make the laws.

        • The hemp we grow for energy isn't the hemp we smoke.
          • by dmbasso (1052166)

            As it is different from the hemp used for textiles. You're missing the point though, which is the stigma associated with it.

        • Yes but he misses that back then hemp was also not considered for its food uses (the seeds are good food, good for a nutritious oil, a feed stock for animals, etc.) and its biofuel potential (oils from the seeds, possible use breaking down the cellulose from non-useful material--the innards are good, but isn't the outside casing of the stem and such useless?).

          Additionally, hemp has historically been less useful to cultivate than cotton because slave labor was more suited to producing cotton. After the ci

    • by HangingChad (677530) on Friday October 26, 2012 @12:45PM (#41779769) Homepage

      Lets try to find something else renewable that will work.

      It frightens me that this is the level of intellectual clarity the majority of America brings to big problems.

      The report said it would not work for more than 5 percent of transportation fuels at the current state of the technology, not that it wasn't a viable alternative if some of the technological challenges can be addressed.

      That's what this bit means: However, the potential to shift this dynamic through improvements in biological and engineering variables exists.

      Maybe you should stick to problems that can be solved by banging rocks together.

      • by dittbub (2425592)
        my mistake!
      • Yeah, and my hamster turning a wheel technology doesn't work at the current state of the technology either, not that it isn't a viable alternative if some of the technological challenges can be addressed.
    • The most likely solution to my mind would be a soybean geneticly spliced to hell and back to drip with oil. Only it would probably be developed by Monsanto and all the Greens would try and get it banned. But I don't think you're going to get a viable fuel crop without some serious GMO work.

  • Sewage (Score:4, Interesting)

    by LunaticTippy (872397) on Friday October 26, 2012 @12:28PM (#41779523)
    We flush whole shit-tons of water, nitrogen, and phosphorus down our toilets. Why not turn that into biofuels? Cities will pay good money for you to process their waste, and you can charge for the fuel, too.
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Kreigaffe (765218)

      Good question. Seeing as how this stuff wouldn't ever come into contact with food, seems like an ideal use to me.
      If it at least would produce enough energy to keep itself running, functioning as a waste disposal plant would still be useful.

      Or hell, use the Mississippi. There's tons of fertilizer that gets flushed into the Gulf and isn't doing its ecosystem any favors. Run it through some shit that'll eat up the excess first, why not.

      • Brilliant! We're creating massive dead zones all around the world at river outlets, we could use the algae for something beneficial.
    • Exactly. Poo and runoff have substantial amounts of both nitrogen and phosphorous, and using them prevents them from poluting the rivers.

      The Fine Article doesn't mention this. Like fuel cells, it's possible that their process gets poisoned by non-pure sources of nutrients.
    • by mark99 (459508)

      Its being done at a lot of places including here:
      http://www.opb.org/news/article/osu-researchers-make-electricity-sewage/ [opb.org]

      Will probably take decades to make it to common usage though. How often do they rebuild Sewage Treatment Plants?

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by LunaticTippy (872397)
        That sounds promising. It doesn't have to be a municipal sewer plant, though. New Belgium [newbelgium.com] brewery treats their own wastewater, which saves them money on their sewer bill, generates electricity from the methane produced, and gives them environmental bragging rights. From what I've heard the system already paid for itself and now reduces their operating costs every year.
    • by geekoid (135745)

      It's being worked on. Radio lab did an interesting episode on this

    • The NAS report addresses this. It's a serious possibility.

      The thing to understand here is that *in principle* the net required water input is tiny (it provides the hydrogen in the hydrocarbon output stream, but that's not much compared to the water needed as a solvent), and the net required nitrogen and phosphorus inputs are zero (they aren't in the output stream). One issue is therefore the recycling of the waste stream after hydrocarbon extraction. Another is losses (especially water) from open ponds,

    • by jwhitener (198343)

      There was a Ted Talk on that idea. http://www.ted.com/talks/jonathan_trent_energy_from_floating_algae_pods.html

      I don't understand the criticism that it takes more energy than it outputs as fuel either. Every algae project I've seen uses free sunlight to grow the algae and solar, tidal, or wind power to drive pumps for circulation.

      Also the complaint about water use is odd. The projects I've seen use waste water, or are on the ocean and use that water (either straight as salt water or de-salinated), recycl

  • Okay how's this for some numbers. It takes 2,500 gallons of water to produce one bushel of corn. That doesn't include processing to ethanol. Oil also takes huge quantities of water to produce refined gasoline or diesel. They are talking 3 to1 for biodiesel from algae. That's actually impressive! Also they assume we'd use chemical fertilizers. Why? Most proposals I've seen used farm waste especially pig waste which goes to waste and pollutes rivers. There's a frightening amount of farm waste, both pig and ch
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Baloroth (2370816)

      No offense, but I'm sure you jut figured out in 20 seconds what the DoE couldn't in 20 years. Somehow, I don't really believe that.

      For one thing, wastewater, while rich enough in nutrients, isn't suitable for growing algae, or at least not the kind of algae you want (it'll kill it). That means processing. Mind you, algal biofuel has a lot of potential, which is why no less than a dozen US universities are researching it, but it's a bit more complex than dumping pig waste into a pond of water. It has a lot o

      • The commenter was just pointing out inconsistencies between the (short) article, and reality. Since the longer article is behind a paywall, it's up to a knowledgeable Slashdot reader to fill in the gaps.

        Ask any pool/pond owner. Algae will grow in any body of water that you don't take active measures to suppress it. i.e. Kill it with chlorine, UV, heat, or keep it way from light.
        Just a conjecture here, but I imagine that the same traits that make algae produce copious quantities of oil, also make it
    • Why not experiment with salt water algae?
  • Better-ish link (Score:4, Informative)

    by OzPeter (195038) on Friday October 26, 2012 @12:31PM (#41779579)

    TFA doesn't even link to where the actual report can be found (shame on you Chemical & Engineering News)

    The actual report is behind a paywall, but has some summary points Sustainable Development of Algal Biofuels (2012) [nas.edu]

    • What paywall? I've just downloaded it for free - or at least the pre-pub version. That's good enough for me anyway.
  • by VikingBerserker (546589) on Friday October 26, 2012 @12:36PM (#41779653)
    Why doesn't anyone suggest using algae fuel for a smaller part of the transportation workload instead? I'd suggest either buses or trucks, for example. They already don't use gas stations along with cars, and usually run on diesel already. Converting their stations and vehicles should be much easier than doing so for all the gas stations across the country. Even small steps add up.
    • The majority of gas stations where I live sell diesel as well, and the "truck stops" on the highways and interstates sell gasoline as well.
    • by evilviper (135110)

      Much cheaper to convert them to natural gas, which we have lots of. Cars are going to electric at the same time, so there will be much less demand for petroleum.

  • from the summary (Score:5, Insightful)

    by GoodNewsJimDotCom (2244874) on Friday October 26, 2012 @12:43PM (#41779747)
    >The energy from algal biofuel, the report finds, is less than the energy needed to make it.

    Yet another failed attempt at perpetual energy! Why oh why does the laws of physics mock us so?

    All joking aside, for most applications, we don't mind energy loss. The key is getting the energy into a compact and transportable form usable in cars.
    • All joking aside, for most applications, we don't mind energy loss. The key is getting the energy into a compact and transportable form usable in cars.

      Exact. The trick is to convert energy from form A to the form B as efficiently as possible. But, this conversion will never be 100% efficient, that is impossible.

    • by amorsen (7485)

      All joking aside, for most applications, we don't mind energy loss.

      Algal biofuel was supposed to be energy positive. It will take up a whole lot of space which could have been covered with solar cells or farmed instead. It is a bit of a bummer to have to waste land on something which isn't energy positive. Methane synthesis doesn't take up much space.

    • if you are developing an energy source, you want the energy produced to be more than the energy it took to create it. Solar, wind, hydro and fossil fuels all pass this test, algae does not. It's not hard.
    • for most applications, we don't mind energy loss

      What?! Of course we do. The energy is already into a compact and transportable form usable in cars. It is called gasoline or diesel. It is liquid, easy to handle and relatively safe (diesel more so than gasoline). And, you know what? It is energy efficient, too, because you spend less energy taking it out of the ground and distilling it than you gain from burning it (plus, you can make wonderful things out of the plastic you get when you add some processing steps). The only problem? It will run eventually o

  • Both side of the aisle are sufficiently full of poo that we'd be in bio-fuel heaven for the foreseeable future.

  • Corn is also a nitrogen hog. The amount of chemical fertilizer needed to grow corn for ethanol is similarly a net waste.
  • ... and if we use it at that rate, soon all of the Earth's water will be gone forever!

  • by hey! (33014) on Friday October 26, 2012 @01:18PM (#41780211) Homepage Journal

    Now imagine the people in that world imagining what it would take to create a petroleum-based economy like ours from scratch. The amazing drilling technology; the massive investment in super-ships and pipelines; the scale and sophistication of refineries; the ubiquitous distribution networks; the engine technology to burn petroleum cleanly and efficiently.

    Imagining all those things happening in the space of, say, ten or even twenty years would be impossible. And in fact it didn't happen that way. It took us more like a century.

    People seem to be daunted by any new energy technology because they can't imagine it replacing petroleum overnight. But it doesn't have to happen that way, and in fact it won't. The dominance of petroleum we've known all our lives will be gone someday, probably within the lifetime of some people alive today but that might be fifty years or more into the future. And as with any technology, success with the replacement technologies will depend on timing. You wan to be ahead of the curve, but not investing so far ahead of the curve you're dealing with impracticability. Back in '94 I worked for a new boss who was betting the company on the emergence of something like Netflix streaming in the next year or two. I explained all the difficulties and why it would not happen any time in the next decade, but she was so certain it was going to happen she could not be dissuaded (so I quit). I envisioned the same future as her, but I thought her timing was premature -- as it turned out to be by some 14 years.

    Apple's success is, apart from design, largely a matter of timing. They weren't the first to develop a tablet, but the iPad came when it was possible to make something thin enough, light enough, long-lasting enough and powerful enough to be useful. People who tried when you needed to make the things ten pounds and an inch thick to accommodate the battery failed, no matter how impressive their design was for the time, because he time was wrong.

    As I said, petroleum will fade away in the lifetime of many of us, and what replaces it would seem astonishing to us today, but it won't happen overnight. And we'll never run out of oil. We'll use less and less of it as the prices rises against the falling price of the alternatives. At the outset, those alternatives won't look competitive at all. And most of them will never be competitive. The few that will work out will be very difficult to pick out from the rest of the pack of doomed technologies.

    • by 0123456 (636235)

      Now imagine the people in that world imagining what it would take to create a petroleum-based economy like ours from scratch.

      As straw men go, that's a pretty poor one. This article is talking about producing algal fuel, not distributing it; when oil first began to be used as a fuel, it just squirted out of the ground ready to burn... who cared whether someone a thousand miles away can't burn it because there's no pipeline to get it there?

      BTW, when I was a kid, we only had twenty years of oil left. Oddly, we seem to have about twenty years of oil left, thirty years later.

    • What are you saying? It would be VERY easy to start a petroleum industry in that world. Literally scoop up oil and burn it. 0 technology required and you have an energy source, unlike this, which is still not a positive energy source even with modern technology.
    • Now imagine the people in that world imagining

      Yeah, man...

    • We'll use less and less of it as the prices rises against the falling price of the alternatives.

      The price of petroleum today is waaaay higher than its actual cost. If alternatives become energy-positive and cheap, the OPEC can just drop the prices to become more competitive. Why should the petroleum price rise against the falling price of the alternatives?

  • First of all, there is no study that plots photosynthetic efficiency against percent biomass output as lipids for ANY species of algae.

    Second, what is known of lipid production is that it is a response to nutrient stress -- which means the photosynthetic efficiency is highest with optimal nutrients but the biomass is going to be dominated by non-lipids. Why isn't this work being funded?

    Third, the optimal nutrient biomass is largely amino acids and although amino acids have lower market value than lipid

  • by RealGene (1025017) on Friday October 26, 2012 @02:03PM (#41780723)
    ..if you use agricultural (or even residential) runoff. Here in the NE USA we build treatment plants to remove the phosphorus (from lawn chemicals and detergents) from wastewater and stormwater so as to prevent algal blooms in our lakes and streams.
  • require 44–107% of the total nitrogen and 20–51% of the total phosphorus

    I don't understand how the nitrogen and phosphorus is consumed. Presumably the end product is supposed to be some kind of hydrocarbon fuel. In which nitrogen and phosphorus are neither needed, nor particularly desirable.

    If the two end up somewhere else, in some waste product of the process, then why can't the waste be processed and the two elements recycled?

    • why can't the waste be processed and the two elements recycled?

      They probably can be. The article is being intentionally alarmist. Look at this sentence from the article:

      In terms of water, at least 32.5 billion gal would be needed to produce 10 billion gal of algae-based biofuels,

      This is written to make consumption of 3 gal of water for each gal of oil sound like a lot. Actually this number is so amazingly small that I find it hard to believe. Producing a gallon of corn-based ethanol consumes hundreds of times that amount of water. Even producing a gallon of gasoline from petroleum requires more water than that. Yet they try to make it look like a problem.

  • A lot of people think that we are utterly dependent on burning oil for energy for our modern existence, but this is patently untrue. One example of potential independence is biodiesel. I own two diesels (a car and a truck) and I put biodiesel into them when I can, but it costs significantly more than petroleum diesel. This is due to the tax breaks given to Big Oil, and the fact that no one is paying for the major externality of burning petrofuels, carbon dioxide. The US government proved at Sandia NREL [nrel.gov] in t

  • These guys did NOT do their homework.

    Joules Unlimited/Joules Fuel actually turns SEWAGE into fuel; diesel, ethanol, etc. Now, does it use water? Yup. But that is water that would normally be cleaned up at high expenses. With this case, it turns it into a profit center. Hell, this might make it profitable enough that we will willingly send water to Colorado (via building up clouds on the west coast) to cascade into the various rivers that supply the vast majority of America.

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