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Can algae become the new biodiesel?

Supporters call it “clean diesel” to differentiate it from “biodiesel,” and indeed, there is a difference. Soybeans, the main feedstock for biodiesel, have only a 2-3 percent oil content. Some species of algae can have up to 60 percent oil content. This reduces the land requirements for growing a crop by a factor of 30.

So is algae biodiesel one of those great ideas that is always just over the horizon? Or has it germinated long enough that it may finally about to become a reality? The outcome still appears to be up for grabs.

The term “algae” actually cover a whole spectrum of organisms, from the 20-foot ribbon-like “seaweed” that grows in ponds and along littoral shores to the mid-ocean, microscopic “plankton” that is the diet of whales. All have one thing in common – they use carbon and sunlight to photosynthesize organic material. And they are good at it. Some species can double their mass within 24 hours. Thousands of species thrive in varying environments. Last summer, a red algae “tide” that feeds on farm runoff at the mouth of the Mississippi River “bloomed” to cover 5,000 square miles of the Gulf of Mexico, killing all manner of birds, fish and marine life, including hundreds of manatees. “If we can figure out how to make energy out of that,” President Obama told an audience at the University of Miami, “we’ll be doing alright.”

The idea of harvesting algae for energy was first suggested by Richard Harder and Hans von Witsch, two European scientists at the outbreak of World War II. Nothing much developed, however, and interest didn’t revive until the Energy Crisis of the 1970s, when the Department of Energy set up an Aquatic Species Program to pursue research.

Funded with $25 million over the next 18 years, the Aquatic Program investigated thousands of species, finding the Chlorella genus the most promising. It also made an important discovery. When Chlorella is deprived of nitrogen, it can increase its lipid (fat and oil) content to a remarkable 70 percent of mass! Remember, soybeans are only 2-3 percent lipids. But this created a conundrum. While depriving algae of nitrogen might may increase lipid content, it also severely inhibited growth. The Aquatic Program had not yet resolved this dilemma when it was disbanded in 1996.

Private companies picked up the research, however, and have tried to overcome it with genetic engineering. While pursuing this, they have developed two methods of cultivation. The easiest is to grow algae in open pools or “raceways” that devour large areas of land, since sunlight can only penetrate a few centimeters into the algal mat. The problem here is that most species are highly sensitive to variations in acidify, temperature and humidity. Their high lipid content also means they synthesize fewer proteins, which makes them extremely vulnerable to invasive species. This makes it very difficult to bring them up to commercial scale.

The more advanced technology is “photobioreactors,” conducted in large networks of glass or plastic tubes. The system overcomes environmental difficulties but is very expensive. In 2009 Exxon combined with J. Craig Venter, the decoder of the human genome, to try to develop a commercial method for developing algae-based fuels. After investing $600 million, however, Exxon pulled out of the enterprise in 2013, saying commercialization was 25 years away.

Nevertheless, several small companies say they are now making progress. Algenol, a Fort Myers, Fla. company, says it has developed a revolutionary “3rd generation” technology that can produce ethanol, jet and diesel fuel 8,000 gallons per acre, 18 times the output of corn-based ethanol, at $1.25 per gallon. Sapphire, a San Francisco company, has opened a 100-acre Green Crude Farm in New Mexico and hopes to be producing 100 barrels a day next year with full-scale commercialization by 2018. And Aurora Algae, a Hayward, Calif. firm which has operated a test facility in Western Australia for the last three years, has just announced an open-pond operation in Harlingen, Texas that it hopes to expand to 100 acres.

There is one great irony to all this. A full-blown algae industry already exists, providing feedstock for food additives, cattle silage and nutritional and pharmaceutical products. Some highly specialized fatty acids derived from exotic species can fetch $10,000 per gallon. In fact, the current industry sees algae-for-fuel as a rather low-grade use. “Until more federal funding is available, my members are going to continue growing for the higher-value products,” Barry Cohen, executive director of the National Algae Association, told Slate’s John Upton. “We have algae companies that are growing for the ingredients industry, the food industry and the nutraceutical industries. If they can grow the right species, those companies will buy every drop they can make.”

What makes these operations viable, of course, is their high-value end products, which cover the costs of growing algae in commercial quantities. An algae-for-fuel industry will either have to: a) develop new species that are much more efficient or b) perfect mass-production techniques that can bring prices down to an acceptable range. Only then will “clean diesel” become a competitor. For now, the industry seems headed in the right direction.

The U.S. and China on methanol: Two roads converge

Nobel-Prize-winning chemist George Olah recently put methanol front and center again with a powerful Wall Street Journal editorial arguing for the conversion of carbon dioxide emissions from coal plants into methanol for use as a gasoline substitute in our car engines. Co-writing with University of Southern California trustee Chris Cox, Olah noted, “Thanks to recent developments in chemistry, a new way to convert carbon dioxide into methanol — a simple alcohol now used primarily by industry but increasingly attracting attention as transportation fuel — can now make it profitable for America and the world to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions.”

The authors argued that President Obama’s recently announced policy of mandating carbon sequestration for emissions from coal plants wastes a potentially valuable resource. “At laboratories such as the University of Southern California’s Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute [founded by Olah], researchers have discovered how to produce methanol at significantly lower cost than gasoline directly from carbon dioxide. So instead of capturing and “sequestering” carbon dioxide — the Obama administration’s current plan is to bury it — this environmental pariah can be recycled into fuel for autos, trucks and ships.”

Olah, of course, has been the principal advocates of methanol since his publication of “Beyond Oil and Gas: The Methanol Economy,” in 2006.

To date, he has been recommending our growing natural gas supplies as the principal feedstock for a methanol economy. But the emissions from the nation’s coal plants offer another possibility.

This is particularly important since indications are that the Environmental Protection’s Agency’s assumption that a regulatory initiative will “force” the development of carbon-sequestering technology may be mistaken. A recent report from Australia’s Global CCS Institute said that, despite widespread anticipation that carbon capture will play a leading role in reducing carbon emission, experimental efforts have actually been declining.

The problem is the laborious task of storing endless amounts of carbon dioxide in huge underground repositories plus the potential dangers of accidental releases, which have aroused public opposition. Olah and Cox write, “By placing the burden of expensive new carbon capture and sequestration technology on the U.S. alone, and potentially requiring steep cuts in domestic energy to conform to carbon caps, the proposal could send the U.S. economy into shock without making a significant dent in global emissions… In place of expensive mandates and wasteful subsidies, what is needed are powerful economic incentives. These incentives should operate not just in the U.S., but in other countries as well.”

All this brings into stark relief the diverging paths that China and the United States have taken in trying to find some alcohol-based fuels to substitute in gas tanks. While Olah has been advocating a transformation to a methanol economy in this country, China is actually much further down the road to developing its own methanol economy. There are now more than a million methanol cars on the road in China and estimates show the fuel substitutes for 5-8% of gasoline consumption — about the same proportion that corn ethanol provides in this country.

In this country, the proposal has been that we derive methanol from our now-abundant supplies of natural gas. California had 15,000 methanol cars on the road in 2003 but curtailed its experiment because gas supplies appeared to be too scarce and expensive! Instead, the main emphasis has been on tax incentives and mandates to promote corn ethanol.

China has vast shale gas supplies and could benefit from America’s fracking technology. We could benefit strongly from China’s greater experience in developing methanol cars. The pieces of the puzzle are all there. Perhaps Olah’s proposal may be the catalyst that puts them all together.

Ironically, all this began with a Chinese-American collaboration in 1996. At the time, China had little knowledge or interest in methanol but was persuaded by American scientists to give it a try. Ford provided a methanol engine and China began ramping up its methanol industry and substituting it for gasoline. As a result, China is now the world’s largest producer of methanol, with about one-quarter of the market.

A year ago the Chinese national government was about to mandate a 15% percent methanol standard for gasoline when it ran into opposition from executives in its oil industry. Those leaders have since been deposed, however, and the 15% mandate may go ahead this year. In the meantime, provincial governments  have developed their own standards, with the Shanxi province west of Beijing in the lead.

Ironically, because methanol is only half the price of gasoline, many local gas stations are diluting their gasoline with methanol anyway in order to shave their costs. As a 2011 Energy Policy article by Chi-jen Yang and Robert B. Jackson of Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment reported, Private gasoline stations often blend methanol in gasoline without consumers’ knowledge… In fact, its illegal status makes methanol blending more profitable than it would be with legal standards. Illegally blended methanol content is sold at the same price as gasoline. If legalized, standard methanol gasoline would be required to be properly labeled and sold at a lower price than regular gasoline because of its reduced energy content. Such unannounced blending is now common in China.”

So both countries are feeling their way toward a methanol economy. As Olah points out, the problem in the U.S. is that the various advantages given to ethanol have not been extended to methanol.One means of addressing this inequity would be for Congress to pass the bipartisan Open Fuel Standard Act of 2013, which would put methanol, natural gas, and biodiesel on the same footing as ethanol (but without subsidies and without telling consumers which one to choose) for use in flex-fuel cars.

In China, the concern is about coal supplies but this could be alleviated with help from America’s fracking industry or by implementing Olah’s new technology for tapping coal exhausts.

Either way, the pieces are all there. It may be time to start putting them together.

Make love, not war — a national dialogue on alternative fuels

Remember the passion, the commitment and vigorous national dialogue concerning the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement and the women’s movement? No matter how one viewed the issues involved or whether one was pro or con with respect to each initiative, most of the nation, even if only watching the 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. news, seemed involved, to some extent, emotionally and many intellectually.

Given the concern many Americans seem to have for the future of the environment, the nation’s security problems and the sluggish economy (not to mention shrinking pocketbooks), why haven’t we been able to replicate the intense passions and commitments of the ‘60s and early ‘70s with respect to the muted debate over alternative transitional fuels. Very few articles in the press or on cable and TV headline the wisdom of efforts to reduce America’s dependence on gasoline through providing increased consumer choices at the pump. Those that do approach headline or first-tier status suggest, generally, often without hard analysis, that increased oil and gas production (Saudization of America) will grant the U.S. oil independence, forgetting the global nature of the oil market. The media has not focused on the costs of continued reliance on imported oil and the very restricted American vehicular fuel market limiting consumers, by and large, to costly, dirty gasoline. In-depth coverage of alternative non-renewable fuels as substitutes for gasoline and as transitional fuels before renewables are ready for prime time is rare and most times, more opinion than fact. Even the venerable New York Times rarely covers alternative transitional fuels in the context of an overall assumed national commitment to “wean” the nation off of gasoline.

Why haven’t the public and the media become involved in a real dialogue concerning the benefits and costs of alternative fuels versus continued reliance on gasoline?

I think it’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg question. Recall the intense TV coverage of Bull Connor’s vicious attack using dogs and high pressure hoses on kids in Alabama and the nobility of Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 speech on the mall? Both gripped us and made civil rights a moral issue. Remember TV’s extensive coverage of the marches by mostly young but also many older folks opposing the Vietnam War? And who could forget the photo of the little girl walking alone on the highway with her clothes burned off from a napalm attack and the many movies portraying G.I. casualties? It was difficult to stay neutral concerning the war, particularly if our kids or the neighbor’s kids were involved. Finally, while some Americans disagreed with them, the women’s movement had visible charismatic leaders like Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug and Betty Ford, who had a knack for getting on TV and in newspapers to champion the need for women’s equality. Over time, they reached many of us, and if we didn’t join the movement, we argued for its success.

President Obama’s State of the Union speech was greeted with popular applause when he said we must get off of oil, but the line concerning the need to wean us off oil seem to have a shelf life of 24 hours…or maybe 48 hours. It clearly didn’t move the needle much in public interest and the public’s attention understandably turned to more media-friendly issues, such as Washington’s dysfunctional character, the budget, the debt ceiling and the Middle East.

Anti-Vietnam sentiments, civil rights and women’s rights were internalized by a relatively large, but still a minority, sector of the public. Participants in the effort to secure change viewed the three issues as affecting them personally and, for the most part, crossed class and caste lines, a fact that was deepened by the draft with respect to Vietnam. Although none of the three probably could have secured a majority vote,if placed on the ballot initially, they each grabbed the attention of most Americans over time.

Looking back, clearly the sustained involvement of a relatively cohesive minority of the public led by aggressive leadership created significant political and policy reforms. Issues were cast in terms Americans could easily understand — securing justice, freedom and a better America. They created a strong moral underpinning to proposed actions. Ultimately, grassroots support convinced key elected leaders that they could move positively without retribution to secure respective agendas.

Enveloping alternative fuels and the monopolistic gasoline markets in moral tableaux will not be easy. The issues involved are complex and don’t, without effort, engage people for more than short periods of time. They are tough to convert to brief TV or cable spots. Try going to a dinner party and raising moral variables around the reality of limited choices of consumers at the pump. Yawn…don’t expect a return invitation! Similarly, the fact that low-income households pay nearly 15% of their income for gasoline and are therefore limited concerning purchase of other basic goods does not easily translate into visual and visceral understandable, personal moral pictures. Similarly, despite the data showing increasing harm to the poor regarding the journey to work and constrained housing choices caused by high costs of gasoline, aggregate statistics blur individual problems. The economy’s overall sluggishness and its impact on most Americans, except the very affluent, divert focused attention. Happily, there is no Bull Connor, and your neighborhood gasoline station owner is often from the community. It’s difficult to make him or her an ogre. He or she is generally a hard-working individual and is struggling to make ends meet. Even the most vigorous advocates of alternative fuels and open fuel markets have yet to figure out how to vividly personalize the negative impact of the constraints imposed on the market by the oil industry on consumers, particularly low income consumers. Black hats and mustaches (whether painted in graphics or narratives) to describe the oil industry’s leadership, hasn’t worked well. Where is Norman Rockwell when we need him?

The phrase “we need all of the above” is used often in a bipartisan way by our political leaders to describe the nation’s energy strategy. The phrase may well be true, but it is difficult to get excited about it. Try it on your husband, wife or significant other tonight and see if it motivates a meaningful response. “Hey, honey, there is a meeting tonight of people interested in energy reform. The expansion of alternative fuel choices will be at the center of a strategy to grant priority to all our energy sources — coal, oil, natural gas, bio fuels, derivatives of each. It’s important. Do you want to go?” Probable response: “Are you serious? You were so romantic when I met you. What happened?”

The messages related to Vietnam, the civil rights movement and the women’s movement, at the time, were simplified into understandable, often emotional, terms. They were complemented by extensive media coverage and by strong moral certitude of both presenters and listeners. Parsed words and nuanced sentences were not often needed to convince folks to join the causes. The coalitions that were created put in hard work and lots of sweat equity to build and generate grassroots efforts. But the people were out there waiting to be recruited. While members might have disagreed on strategic policy options, they were generally together on broad objectives.

The effort to secure alternative transitional fuels and open up the gasoline market does not lend itself easily to the type of grassroots initiatives generated in the ‘60s and early ‘70s. The messages and data used to support them are seen as too complicated and, frankly, confusing to potential grassroots participants. In this context, the oil industry and its captive groups like the American Petroleum Institute (API) have big budgets and have seen fit to use their resources seemingly to confuse and distort information concerning gasoline and alternative fuels.

I am not sure a passionate grassroots movement can be created to support alternative fuels. At best, it will be difficult. But, democracy works in many ways. Progress is being made in forging working alliances among advocates of alternative fuels and leaders in the business, environmental, public sector and academic communities. Their ability to form sustainable, strong alliances will increase their likely ability to influence public policy concerning transitional fuels and open fuel markets. Building public understanding, combined with political acuity and a willingness to reach out to varied groups, will increase the odds of success in winning political, legislative and statutory support. Much will depend on their collective willingness to depart from traditional divisive ideological and institutional focus. Their leadership, borrowing the rhetoric from the Vietnam War, will probably have to learn how to make love, not war, in developing a collaborative agenda.