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Can algae be the next biofuel?

The lure of the oceans has always had a special appeal for advocates of biofuel. The vast reaches of the deep speak of a promise that unlimited amounts of space will be able to bring forth completely sustainable forms of energy.

“Two-thirds of the globe is covered with water,” says Khanh-Quang Tran, a Norwegian researcher who has published papers on the possibility of growing algae as a biofuel on an industrial basis. “If we used only a tiny portion of that space, we’d have enough to supply ourselves with all the fuel we needed.”

Of particular interest to researchers is one species, laminaria sacceyarina (“sugar kelp”), which grows along the coast of many countries, including Scandinavia. It is the “seaweed” that seems to be a flower but is actually all one undifferentiated cellular structure that takes on various forms in competing for sunlight. As the name implies, it contains lots of sugar – three times as much as the sugar beet. Scandinavian scientists have been especially intent on harvesting this plant for food and fuel use.

“It’s actually regarded as a nuisance, since it grows everywhere and clogs the beaches,” says Fredrik Grondahl, a researcher at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden who heads the Seafarm project. “But it absorbs nitrogen out of the water, effectively as a wastewater treatment plant. It’s regarded as an environmental problem, but it’s actually a valuable resource.”

The big question will be this: Can a weed that grows so prolifically in the sea be domesticated so that it can grow in large quantities under controlled conditions?

Sweden and Norway seem to have taken the lead on this project, mainly because of their long coastlines, where the algae grows intensely in a cold climate. The Seafarm project involves  growing underwater algae farms on ropes. The team collects excess algae from the Baltic Sea and cultivates it as food and fuel. One technique is called the “sporophyte factory farm.” The algae spores are sown onto ropes. They sink and grow in the sea. In about six months, they have grown onto the ropes and are harvested and processed on land covering two hectares. From there it can be converted to eco-friendly food, medicine, plastics and energy fuels such as methanol. The city of Trelleborg, where the farm is located, estimates that 2.8 million liters of fuel can be extracted from its algae resources.

Kahnh-Quang Tran of Norway has been following another line of research. He mixes a slurry of kelp biomass and water and heats it rapidly to 350 degrees Centigrade. Tran says the fast hydrothermal liquefaction gives him a product that is 79 percent bio-oil. A similar experiment on the U.K. was only able to produce 19 percent oil, but Tran claims that the rapid heating improves the process tremendously. “What we are trying to do it mimic the natural process that produces oil,” he said. “Whereas it takes geological time in nature to produce oil, we can do it in a matter of minutes.”

Tran is now looking for partners who can help him move up to an industrial scale.

Another plan developed in France and the Netherlands is to line highways with algae pools in the hope that they will immediately absorb the carbon exhaust that comes from automobiles. This will remove CO2 from the atmosphere and recycle the fuel as well. An experimental installation was demonstrated at the summer garden festival at Genève Villes et Champs this year.

Another country that is experimenting with algae is Australia. This October, the Muradel Corporation opened a $101. 7 million demonstration plant in Whyalla designed to produce 30,000 liters of green crude every year. The company is employing its Greeen2Black technology, designed to produce a continuous stream of environmentally sustainable crude equivalent.

Muradel CEO and University of Adelaide Associate Professor David Lewis said if the demonstration plant were successfully scaled to a commercial plant, it would produce 500,000 barrels of refinable green crude a year by 2019 – enough petrol and diesel to fuel 30,000 vehicles for a year. The planned 1,000-hectare commercial plant would create at least 100 new skilled jobs in the Whyalla region.

“This is world-leading technology which can be scaled up exponentially to help steer our fossil fuel-dependent economy toward a more sustainable future,” Lewis said.

Not everyone is enthusiastic about algae. “It will take anywhere from 5 to 15 years to produce on a scale that would be meaningful to the nation’s every needs,” says Jim Rekoske, general manager of Honeywell’s UOP division. He likened it to trying to maintain the water balance in a fish tank.

“You have to have just the right temperature and the right amount of carbon dioxide to get these growth spurts,” he said. Algae farms are also very susceptible to invasive species and have to be monitored constantly. Still, an acre of algae can ideally produce 15,000 gallons of biofuel per year, as opposed to only 420 gallons per acre from corn ethanol. “We could replace all the diesel we consume now on half of 1 percent of our current farmland,” says Douglas Henston, CEO of Solix Biosystems of Fort Collins, Colo. Solix is supplying the military with biofuels at a whopping $33 per gallon.

So, will algae make the same progress in the United State that it seems to be making in Sweden and Norway? American researchers may take up the challenge as well. The long coastal lines are not there to tempt us, but research breakthroughs may finally make algae biofuels more practical and economically viable everywhere.

SEMA in review: Ingenuity rules, but fuel choice still missing

Our friend John Brackett, one of the stars of the Fuel Freedom-produced PUMP, attended the giant SEMA (Specialty Equipment Market Association) expo in Las Vegas last week.

What he found was the usual mind-blowing parade: thousands upon thousands of amazing, tricked-out vehicles. And of course ingenious technology, the product of some of the most intelligent minds who are in the business of making after-market car components.

What he found lacking, though, was fuel choice.

Here’s his report:

SEMA Exhibitors have solutions ready:

Fuel component manufacturers made it clear that dealing with ethanol and methanol fuels would be easy on their end. Companies that alter a car’s software said it’d be no problem running several fuels with their devices or programs. The car makers have put fuel choice into vehicles for a century with tens of millions already on the road. Every vehicle sold since the Oil Embargo[hyperlink to wiki Oil Embargo] should have had fuel choice. For the last quarter century, we’ve been able to update a car’s software to adjust to different fuels with no additional parts. There is no reason we can’t run on performance fuels right now.

American “Enginuity” is alive:

No two vehicles looked the same, and everyone had a different interpretation of their ideal driving experience. Even with such ingenuity, what 98.6 percent of the vehicles had in common was no fuel choice. I saw V8 engines installed in series, radial airplane engines, super-turbocharged cars, an ice cream-making Kia Soul, a wagon that unfolds into a beer stand, and a 3D-printed car. With so many options, what is holding us back from fuel choice?

Dollars per horsepower matters:

One could easily double, if not sextuple, the cost of a vehicle with some of the solutions at SEMA. Yet those solutions wouldn’t be displayed if there weren’t a demand. These companies spend millions of dollars to develop some very unique solutions for the aftermarket vehicle enthusiasts. Dollar for dollar, using ethanol or methanol over gasoline gives one a more powerful and exciting driving experience. On a naturally aspirated vehicle, adding 5-10 percent horsepower with an aftermarket intake and exhaust system will cost darn near $1,000. Why not choose a fuel that gives you that same power gain and costs 25-40 percent less to drive on?

Now watch Bracket’s video, and see how many incredible vehicles you can name:

Entrepreneur Jigar Shah: ‘We need fuel choice’

Clean-energy entrepreneur Jigar Shah makes a case for investing in technology that will help the United States end its dependence on foreign oil, instead of just talking about it.

In a post for Unreasonable.is, he laments the lost opportunities: The U.S. has reduced its oil imports by 15 percent over the last two years as the country has ramped up its own oil production. But we “still imported an average 7.4 million barrels of crude oil per day during the first nine months of 2014—at a cost of more than $240 billion.”

Increasing fuel-economy standards in vehicles has gotten us only partway toward oil independence (he notes that as miles-per-gallon have vastly increased since the 1970s, so too has the weight of the cars Americans increasingly prefer: the large SUVs). He adds:

The predicted increase in oil drilling in the U.S. and Canada will get us even closer. But no matter how we slice the data, we will still depend on imported oil. Domestic drilling and fuel standards are not enough—we need fuel choice.

Shah writes that replacement fuels like methanol, hydrogen, electricity and other renewables are cheaper than gasoline or diesel.

However, the Government has not systematically put a plan in place to give American’s access to these fuels at local refueling stations. In fact, the Government regulations in place today make it difficult to add these fuel choices.

In addition to alternative fuels, vehicle efficiency technologies offer another off-ramp towards oil independence. With only one out of every seven gallons of gas being used to move the car forward, it is time to stop waging war in the Middle East and start the war against vehicle inefficiency.

He lists some interesting innovations for increasing fuel efficiency. Check them out.

As lighter F-150s roll out, Ford CEO says buyers care about fuel economy

The price of gas rises and falls in cycles, but buyers of the Ford F-150, the best-selling vehicle in the United States the past three decades, have consistently had one complaint: the poor fuel economy of the truck.

Ford Motor Co. CEO Mark Fields thinks the company has solved that problem with the 2015 model F-150 now rolling off the assembly line at Ford’s plant in Dearborn, Mich. The new version is 700 pounds lighter, owing to the body consisting almost exclusively of aluminum, instead of heavier steel.

Although the truck’s gas-mileage figures won’t be announced by the company until later this month, AP’s story notes:

The company says the 2015 truck will have from 5 percent to 20 percent better fuel economy than the current version, which gets up to 23 mpg. A figure in the higher end of that range might convince some buyers to switch brands, says Jesse Toprak, chief sales analyst for the car buying site Cars.com.

Fields told CNBC’s “Squawk Box” program that better fuel efficiency has been the “biggest customer unmet need, the biggest dissatisfier” in the past.

What about the effect cheap gasoline has on buyer behavior? He was asked whether consumers care less about fuel economy when gasoline is as cheap as it has suddenly become — around $3 a gallon, or even less in some places.

“They’re much smarter these days,” Fields said, adding that prices are volatile. “Our long-term view is, over time, the price of a barrel of oil is gonna go up. It’s a non-renewable resource.”

(Photo: Ford Motor Co.)

Methanol — the fuel in waiting

Methanol is a bit of a mystery. It is the simplest form of a hydrocarbon, one oxygen atom attached to simple methane molecule. Therefore, it burns. Methanol is one of the largest manufactured trading commodities after oil, and has about half the energy value of gasoline (but its high octane rating pushes this up to 70 percent). It is a liquid at room temperature and would therefore fit right into our current gasoline infrastructure — as opposed to compressed natural gas or electricity, which require a whole new delivery system.

Methanol made from natural gas would sell for about $1 less than gasoline. Methanol can also be made from food waste, municipal garbage and just about any other organic source.

So why aren’t we using methanol in our cars? It would be the simplest thing in the world to substitute methanol for gasoline in our current infrastructure. Car engines can burn methanol with a minor $200 adjustment that can be performed by any mechanic. You might have to fill up a little more often, but the savings on fuel would be significant — about $600 a year. So what’s stopping us?

Well, methanol seems to be caught in a time warp. It is the dreaded “wood alcohol” of the Depression Era. Methanol is poisonous, as opposed to (corn) ethyl alcohol, which only gets you drunk. (In fact, commercial products such as rubbing alcohol are “denatured” by adding methanol so people will not drink them.) But if methanol is poisonous, so is gasoline, as well as many, many other oil products. Yet methanol is somehow caught up in old EPA regulations that make it illegal to burn in car engines — even though it is hardly different from the corn ethanol that currently fills one-tenth of our gas tanks.

Methanol’s main feedstock is natural gas, and for a long time that was seen as a problem. “Methanol wasn’t practical because the price of natural gas was so high and we seemed to be running out of it,” said Yossie Hollander, whose Fuel Freedom Foundation has been promoting the use of methanol for some time. “But now that natural gas prices have come down, it makes perfect sense to use it to make methanol. We could do away with the $300 billion a year we still spend on importing oil.”

The EPA actually granted California an exemption during the 1990s that allowed 15,000 methanol-powered cars on the road. The experiment was a success and customers were happy but natural gas prices reached $11 per million BTUs in 2005 and the whole thing was called off. Only a few months later, the fracking revolution started to bring down the price of natural gas. It now sells at $4 per mBTU. Yet, for some reason the EPA has not yet reconsidered its long-standing position on methanol.

At the Methanol Policy Forum last year, Anne Korin of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security (IAGS), made a very insightful remark. “I think methanol fares poorly in Washington precisely because it doesn’t need any subsidies or government assistance in making it economical. For that reason you have no big constituency behind it and no member of Congress crusading on its behalf.”

That may be about to change, however. China has a million cars burning methanol on the road and wants to expand. In the past few weeks alone, Texas and Louisiana have been hit with what is being called “Methanol Mania.” The Chinese are planning to build six major processing plants to turn the Gulf Coast into the world’s biggest center of methanol manufacture. One project will be the largest methanol refinery in the world, two times the size of one located in Trinidad.

All this methanol is intended to be sent back to China. The Chinese want to employ it as a feedstock for their own plastics industry, plus use it in Chinese cars. They will be shipping it the expanded Panama Canal, which will be completed in 2015.

But at some point someone in this country is going to look around and say, “Hey, why don’t we use some of this methanol to power our own automobiles.” At that point the methanol industry, along with the Texas and Louisiana, may have enough political leverage to get the EPA off the dime and see a decision about using methanol in our cars as well.

(Photo credit: Stockcarracing.com)

New Yorker: Low oil prices put Venezuela in a bind

The New Yorker quotes Harvard economist and former Venezuelan government official Ricardo Hausmann’s cautionary words about Venezuela’s budget situation in the face of plummeting oil prices.

As Girish Gupta writes:

Serious concern remains that Venezuela will eventually default on some of the more than seventeen billion dollars it is due to pay in the next three years, or that its economic problems will lead to political crisis. Many industries, from airlines to pharmaceuticals to small retailers, are fighting for a limited supply of hard currency in Venezuela, which means that, so long as the current climate prevails, the country will be presented with decisions about whom to pay. “The problem in Venezuela is that they’re playing a game of musical chairs, and there aren’t enough chairs for all the players,” Hausmann told me. “My piece clarified to Wall Street the magnitude of the musical chairs.”

Some 96 percent of the nation’s foreign currency pours in from oil revenues, and falling crude prices mean the government, led by Hugo Chavez’s successor, President Nicolás Maduro, might not be able to provide as many services to the public as it did when oil exceeded $100 a barrel. For instance, the government subsidizes gasoline purchases for citizens — it costs only a few pennies for them to fill up their tanks — and this benefit costs the treasury some $12 billion a year.

Further cuts to services could mean more unrest in Venezuela. As Gupta writes:

Earlier this year, Maduro faced the biggest anti-government unrest the country has seen for a decade, but, even so, he denies that Venezuela is yoked to global oil prices. “The price of oil can go down to forty dollars a barrel and I guarantee to the people all of their rights: for food, education and life,” he said on state television in mid-October, adding that he expected oil prices to rise again. OPEC, however, does not seem keen to cut output.

 

North Dakota taking steps to use more of its natural gas

North Dakota flares more than 25 percent of the natural gas it extracts from the Bakken oil-shale play. Not only is natural gas cheaper (i.e. not as profitable) than the oil that comes out of the same wells, there’s a lack of pipeline and storage capacity in that region. Texas, by comparison, flares only 1 percent of its natural gas.

But the state is taking steps to build the infrastructure to capture and use more natural gas. As Adam Belz of the Minneapolis Star Tribune notes:

A quiet transformation is underway, however, as the state bids to turn natural gas into a native business and drive down flaring.

A growing network of pipelines and processing plants has made North Dakota a recent target for billions of dollars of investment toward factories that convert natural gas into other products like fertilizer and plastic.

Breaking Energy: Kansas ethanol plant a big win in RFS equation

While the debate rages about what the threshold for biofuels should be in the government’s next (and long-delayed) Renewable Fuel Standard, Breaking Energy’s Jared Anderson has a timely post about the makeup of the current RFS, as it was proposed by the EPA last November.

There are thresholds within the larger thresholds, and it looks like the cellulosic ethanol target will go down. But as Anderson notes:

“While the battle over the RFS continues, the cellulosic ethanol industry took a major step forward today with the inauguration of a commercial-scale plant in Hugoton, Kansas. The biorefinery has the capacity to produce 25 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol per year, which alone exceeds EPA’s proposed 17 mm gallon blending target under RFS. The plant also generates 25 MW of electricity, which supplies its own needs and provides excess power to the local community.”

Anderson signs off with:

“The RFS will remain controversial, but this new plant is a big win for the cellulosic ethanol portion of the equation.”

(Photo credit: Shutterstock)