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algae power
April 14, 2006 5:10 PM   Subscribe

Will algae defeat global warming? "Fed a generous helping of CO2-laden emissions, courtesy of the power plant's exhaust stack, the algae grow quickly... The cleansed exhaust bubbles skyward, but with 40 percent less CO2... The algae is harvested daily and a combustible vegetable oil is squeezed out: biodiesel".
posted by reklaw (55 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
I don't believe a 40% reduction will beat global warming, but fascinating concept. Nice post.
posted by vaportrail at 5:38 PM on April 14, 2006


Defeat? Probably not, if this is anywhere close to true.
posted by rxrfrx at 5:43 PM on April 14, 2006


Algae is the smart way to make biodiesel, but even the much less efficient waste-oil and soybean processes are getting close to parity with dino-diesel.
posted by b1tr0t at 5:45 PM on April 14, 2006


But doesn't all that CO2 locked up in the biodiesel produced by the algae just get released back into the atmosphere anyway when it's eventually combusted?

I guess it's still (slightly) more efficient since in this case you only have to use hydrocarbons to produce electricity rather than extra hydrocarbons to produce electricity as well as produce hydrocarbons to power vehicles.

Bottom line though: You're still going to be adding large amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere.
posted by RockBandit at 6:03 PM on April 14, 2006


I don't believe a 40% reduction will beat global warming, but fascinating concept. Nice post.

It might if India and China were forced to cut emissions as well. And as technology improves that number could go higher.

The other interesting thing is the biodiesel. Of course, when it's burned, the CO2 will just get released again. But that could certainly reduce our dependence on foreign oil.

My best bet for truly 'clean' tech is nuclear power + hydrogen, though.
posted by delmoi at 6:12 PM on April 14, 2006


But doesn't all that CO2 locked up in the biodiesel produced by the algae just get released back into the atmosphere anyway when it's eventually combusted?

But that CO2 was going to be produced by burning fossil fuels anyway, and now it's not.

Before you have X CO2 produced by power plants, and Y CO2 produced by cars.

After this, you have X*0.6 CO2 produced by power plants and Y CO2 produced by cars.
posted by delmoi at 6:14 PM on April 14, 2006


Good post thanks.
posted by tkchrist at 6:14 PM on April 14, 2006


For the love of God, I hope so.
posted by Freen at 6:34 PM on April 14, 2006


rxrfrx and delmoi: Slightly off-topic, but I'm wondering about the methane calculations in the linked thread. Nobody brought it up at the time (and the thread's closed), but...

According to Wikipedia, methane has an atmospheric consitration of 1,745 ppb. They got that from Climate Change 2001, a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Here's the line:

Methane’s globally averaged atmospheric surface abundance in 1998 was 1,745 ppb (see Figure 4.1), corresponding to a total burden of about 4,850 Tg(CH4)

Looking at the units page, that means 4,850 teragrams. Using Google Calculator, that's 5.3 billion short tons, or 4.8 billion tonnes. delmoi, that's an order of magnitude off your calculations.
posted by sbutler at 6:37 PM on April 14, 2006


We're using the carbon twice, so wouldn't it have even more of an impact than you're saying, delmoi?

Using your X and Y labels... the carbon we extract from X is then reused in Y, meaning that Y doesn't need additional carbon input. So, ultimately, I think the equation would look like this:

X = (X * 0.6)
Y = Y - (X * 0.4)
posted by Malor at 6:37 PM on April 14, 2006


Oh, I didn't think that through. X still requires the full input, but Y diminishes. Total carbon reduction is X * 0.4, whether you look at it from the input or the output side.

Sorry.
posted by Malor at 6:52 PM on April 14, 2006


I want to buy stock in the company that that guy founds.
posted by billysumday at 6:56 PM on April 14, 2006


this sounds like the iron sulphate fertilization of the oceans
posted by drscroogemcduck at 7:29 PM on April 14, 2006


My best bet for truly 'clean' tech is nuclear power + hydrogen, though.
posted by delmoi at 6:12 PM PST on April 14 [!]


Depends on what game of poker we're playing. For you to 'win' the bet you'd have to discount the CO2 used in:

1) Mine the fissionable material.
2) Transport and refine it
3) Removal of CO2 from the limestone to make the cement
4) Building and eventual desommissioning of the plant
5) guarding and montoring of the waste stream

If you want to add H2 into the mix, now you have to compare HOW the H2 is used:

1) transport of the H2
2) using the H2
3) reproccessing of the H2 to energy equiptment
vs say using a photovoltaic cell to power equipment directly.

because depending on how the bet is framed, I can make nuclear a real looser, a most cases looser, or in the case of fusion - perhaps a real winner.

As for the parent post - you still need the sun to shine to power the algae, not to mention the resources used to make the algae tanks. You may be farther ahead to make PV cells. Because at this point the algae to make 'fuel' have not be economically de-watered,. and, well, the track record of custom energy making microbes is not good.

It is cheaper to conserve. But "man uses less energy" isn't a headline or big profit maker.


(want to bind up CO2? Synthetic diamonds or carbon fibers look to be the long term winner. Too bad that takes energy to make.)
posted by rough ashlar at 7:57 PM on April 14, 2006


Working fusion power would be the biggest 'win' in the history of humanity.

No joke.
posted by Malor at 8:11 PM on April 14, 2006


Working fusion power would be the biggest 'win' in the history of humanity.

No joke.
posted by Malor at 8:11 PM PST on April 14 [!]


A cheap, "unlimited" power source would remove a consumption restriction from humanity, and mankind might then consume its way out of 'house and home'. Or, the release of ENOUGH heat energy would overheat the atmosphere.

So without a major human behavior change if such a boon was granted, the big 'win' might just be the end of a habital biosphere/
posted by rough ashlar at 8:22 PM on April 14, 2006


From what I understand, fossil fuels are a cheap form of fuel because you get so much out of it, for mainly digging it up out of the ground. When you dig coal, you are digging the condenced energy of years and years of sunlight energy that has been transformed into plant materal, the strata, and further condenced through pressure to create coal, or even had the very esscense of years and years worth of living plant material, oil.
There really is a conservation of energy. It was invested millions of years ago, thousands of days of sunlight, that get re-used in very little time today, a gallon of gas.
I have heard that you could turn every single living thing alive today, and turn it all into bio-diesel, and it doesn't even compare to using what we can re-use using fossil fuels in one month.

Future generations will be pissed we aren't burrying our rainforrests and dinosaurs now, so they can use that condenced energy later.
posted by shnoz-gobblin at 8:42 PM on April 14, 2006


If every human were to die tomorrow the earth would continue heating up due to whats already been done. It takes a while for carbon to go from the atmosphere back to the ocean. The carbon levels currently in the atmosphere we have not even reached the heat level we should be at, it takes a while for things to heat up. Of course, that is best case scenario (no new carbon), the reality is will be dumping exponentially more carbon, even if Kyoto were in full force and everyone was on board. At this point we need to plan for coping.
posted by stbalbach at 8:49 PM on April 14, 2006


this is another excellent essay about Algae as viable source of biodiesel.

this blog R-Squared is great too for info on alternative energy.
posted by kurtrudder at 8:54 PM on April 14, 2006


I have heard that you could turn every single living thing alive today, and turn it all into bio-diesel, and it doesn't even compare to using what we can re-use using fossil fuels in one month.

And yet, somehow, the cost of the old sunlight is ignored. The replacement cost is ignored.

Ignoring replacement costs is a good way to go out of business.
posted by rough ashlar at 9:02 PM on April 14, 2006



Depends on what game of poker we're playing. For you to 'win' the bet you'd have to discount the CO2 used in:

1) Mine the fissionable material.
2) Transport and refine it
3) Removal of CO2 from the limestone to make the cement
4) Building and eventual desommissioning of the plant
5) guarding and montoring of the waste stream


If you want to add H2 into the mix, now you have to compare HOW the H2 is used:

1) transport of the H2
2) using the H2
3) reproccessing of the H2 to energy equiptment
vs say using a photovoltaic cell to power equipment directly.


Why can't we just use H2 to do all of those things?

Hint: there is no reason. Just like there's no reason we can't use oil to power oil extraction. It takes less energy to extract oil then you get out of it. It takes less energy extract fissionable material then you get out of it, so you can use nuclear power to power nuke plants and nuke derived power to power other things.

Obviously the fact that hydrogen is a gas makes things a little more complicated, but it's not an impossible problem.
posted by delmoi at 9:19 PM on April 14, 2006


I have heard that you could turn every single living thing alive today, and turn it all into bio-diesel, and it doesn't even compare to using what we can re-use using fossil fuels in one month.

I'd like to see the evidence of that. According to wikipedia the earth has 75 billion tons of biomass. If that were all converted into biodiesel we'd get about 68 trillion kilograms, or 2,516 trillion megajouls of energy. A Barell of oil contains 159 megajoule's of energy.

Thus all the earth's biomass would be equivalent too 16 trillion barrels of oil, unless I made a mistake somewhere.
posted by delmoi at 9:29 PM on April 14, 2006


What I'm saying is that the earth is a very inefficent battery.
Over millions of years, energy is trickleing very slowly to save energy, but when we use it, we use it in large zaps.
We will never use the earth's biomass to convert to bio-diesel.
I would have to get off my ass to protest such legislation.
I'm not sure of the ratio, but let's say for discussion that every minute you run an internal combustion engine, you are using a day's worth of earth's stored energy. It might be more, a week, month..
But all that energy was stored long ago, over an immense span of time, over a slow trickle, and we are using it in a quick (inefficent) zap to take us to work.

It's not like every dinosaur and ancient fern has been converted into coal, it was a very inefficent process, and even if we could increase efficiency of both making useable oils, and combustion engines, it wouldn't compare to the millions of years invested in the fossil fuels that we tap today.
posted by shnoz-gobblin at 9:41 PM on April 14, 2006


Why can't we just use H2 to do all of those things?
Hint: there is no reason.


No wonder you will loose your bet. Alas, there is no way for me to profit from your lack of energy (or eMergy or eXergy) understanding.

H2 to exist requires an energy input to get H decoupled from whatever it is tied to. Then, somehow, you have to store the H2 for furture use. The losses just pile up in the H2 model, and not because H2 is "a gas".
http://www.tinaja.com/h2gas01.asp



Now you DO get the point, but you've not applied it to H2.

It takes less energy to extract oil then you get out of it.

You (and so many others) are SO close to grasping the energy idea...but are not quite there.

The whole 'its just lying about' concept of energy sources VS having to pay for the material to gather the energy, concentrate that energy over time, then release the gathered energy in a quick burst to be useful.

In the case of oil (or any old, stored sunlight), because no human has to extract a cost for the management of the old biomass they feel there is no cost.

Hence 'takes less energy to extract oil' line of thinking.

But lets get back to your "bet" and why the odds are someone else at the table has a better hand. Unless you want to fold on your bet.

It takes less energy extract fissionable material then you get out of it,

If you look at ONLY the 'energy extracted', then fission looks good. Add in the energy used to GET the fissionable material. Add in the cost to build the machines to finally extract that energy. Add in the cost of waste. Add in the costs of building a fissionable powercycle, then having to abandon that powercycle when the fissionable material runs out. (Yes, Fission is not a rewable resource)

If you wish to call, please show after you include the lifecycle costs and losses, how a bet for truly 'clean' tech is nuclear power + hydrogen, is gonna be the 'best'.
posted by rough ashlar at 9:49 PM on April 14, 2006


Future generations will be pissed we aren't burrying our rainforrests and dinosaurs now, so they can use that condenced energy later.


I prefer to keep my dinosaurs cryogenically frozen.

Seriously, though, good post.
posted by mkultra at 9:49 PM on April 14, 2006



I have heard that you could turn every single living thing alive today, and turn it all into bio-diesel, and it doesn't even compare to using what we can re-use using fossil fuels in one month.

I'd like to see the evidence of that.


So would I. (Not a bad job on showing why BTW)

Wattage and process numbers, including energy of universe creation

And I can't find the link I wanted which was 'this is how many watts of sunlight that hits the earth in a dav VS this is the wattage of the oil'
posted by rough ashlar at 10:03 PM on April 14, 2006


No wonder you will loose your bet. Alas, there is no way for me to profit from your lack of energy (or eMergy or eXergy) understanding.

H2 to exist requires an energy input to get H decoupled from whatever it is tied to. Then, somehow, you have to store the H2 for furture use. The losses just pile up in the H2 model, and not because H2 is "a gas".


You mean an energy input like Nuclear power? Try to pay attention.
posted by delmoi at 11:02 PM on April 14, 2006


Also you write this:

(want to bind up CO2? Synthetic diamonds or carbon fibers look to be the long term winner. Too bad that takes energy to make.)

What on earth are you talking about? You understand the difference between CO2 and C, right? One of them is not a problem.

Once you remove the O2 from the C, you've already used as much energy as you ever got burning it. And you have graphite you can just dump on the ground.
posted by delmoi at 11:05 PM on April 14, 2006


You (and so many others) are SO close to grasping the energy idea...but are not quite there.

Did it ever occur to you that you are the one who's wrong?
posted by delmoi at 11:10 PM on April 14, 2006


If you look at ONLY the 'energy extracted', then fission looks good. Add in the energy used to GET the fissionable material. Add in the cost to build the machines to finally extract that energy. Add in the cost of waste. Add in the costs of building a fissionable powercycle, then having to abandon that powercycle when the fissionable material runs out. (Yes, Fission is not a rewable resource)

Now you totally miss the point. All of the energy needed to do these things can be produced by nuclear facilities, by storing energy in H2 we can power all the equipment needed to do those things, in the same way oil powers all the equipment needed to extract and refine oil. Once we get past an initial 'bootstrapping' phase.
posted by delmoi at 11:13 PM on April 14, 2006


As far as the H2 extraction problem goes, it takes more energy of electricity to extract h2 gas than you get from burning it. It would be a 1/1 ratio, but we are not 100% efficient, and it takes more electricity due to heat loss. Therefore, we would have more efficiency just using pure elecrticity (charged batteries from nukes) than going through the extra conversion.

Or we could just have pure nucular powered cars.
posted by shnoz-gobblin at 11:20 PM on April 14, 2006


The main problem is idiot proofing the systems.
If your car crashes, you can get a fire. In electric cars, you can get live voltage. In Hydrogen cars you can get a rather large explosion, and in a nuke car, you can get fallout.

The safety concern is real.
posted by shnoz-gobblin at 11:26 PM on April 14, 2006


I trust you with nukes, delmoi, you know..
I just don't trust my crazy ole' unkle Zeke. I've seen him drive.
posted by shnoz-gobblin at 11:33 PM on April 14, 2006


As far as the H2 extraction problem goes, it takes more energy of electricity to extract h2 gas than you get from burning it. It would be a 1/1 ratio, but we are not 100% efficient, and it takes more electricity due to heat loss. Therefore, we would have more efficiency just using pure elecrticity (charged batteries from nukes) than going through the extra conversion.

You get the energy from nukes. It's easier to transport it that way then over power cables or something.
posted by delmoi at 11:52 PM on April 14, 2006


If all you are looking for is easy trasportation of energy, make nuke batteries.
One to run your car, one to heat and power your house, a little tiny one to run your wristwatch.
But then you have the problem of everybody has easy access to radioactive materials, which, from what I've read, could turn out bad.
posted by shnoz-gobblin at 11:59 PM on April 14, 2006


You could, however earn your boy scout badge.
posted by shnoz-gobblin at 12:04 AM on April 15, 2006


sorry, that article is a bit unreadable. You can google radioactive boy scout for more references.
posted by shnoz-gobblin at 12:10 AM on April 15, 2006


It's much easier to massively reduce energy consumption than it is to find a miracle-answer to our energy needs. Once energy consumption is reduced, we might even find that a lot of non-viable alternative enrgies become suddenly viable. The problem is people seeking to apply alternative energies on a macro scale.

Alternative energy is as much about changing our concept of solving a given problem as it is about the specific type of solution. When we tackle specific energy needs at a local, small scale level we'll realise that the correct solutions vary widely depending on circumstance.

When we as a species attempt to flex our muscles by defying nature, building indoor ski slopes with real snow in the middle of the desert, we're fighting a losing battle. Planning supervisors need to start denying planning for anything but the most efficient architecture and engineering solutions. We need to get serious about restricting air travel. We need to get serious about public transport.

Better to reduce our energy use by 60% than to burn energy with 40% less CO2 (although better to do *both* of course).
posted by nthdegx at 1:12 AM on April 15, 2006


It's much easier to massively reduce energy consumption than it is to find a miracle-answer to our energy needs.

This is true from a technological viewpoint. From an economic and political viewpoint the last decade suggests that we will only reduce energy consumption when its cost reflects its long-term scarcity and importance. This won't happen until we run out of the cheap carbon sources we can dig right out of the ground or government decides to impose huge taxes on energy use.

The only scenario in which this might change is one of escalating warfare in the Middle East and instability in oil-producing nations (Russia, the Americas) leading to political concerns about energy security and economic problems with supply leading to high energy costs. The human costs of this, of course, would be not worth paying: not just in direct death and destruction from war, but from the economic impact of expensive energy on the economies of developing nations.
posted by alasdair at 2:37 AM on April 15, 2006


I'm copying this phrase from someone-or-other, but you guys know you can put more than one sentence in a comment, right?
posted by Drexen at 3:12 AM on April 15, 2006


All of the energy needed to do these things can be produced by nuclear facilities,

"The rich uranium ores required to achieve this reduction are, however, so limited that if the entire present world electricity demand were to be provided by nuclear power, these ores would be exhausted within three years. Use of the remaining poorer ores in nuclear reactors would produce more CO2 emission than burning fossil fuels directly."

3 years for the basis of your 'bet'


I've seen EROEI on fission as low a .8. I've seen 2 and 4.5 quoted also. VS 100 at the start of oil, or 10 for oil these days.

Not to mention H2 leakage loss (10% a day)

Not to mention line losses from the power plant (7.2 to 27%)


Fission just LOOKS like a good plan when you ignore the energy and CO2 needed to get the ore, refine the ore, build the plant to split the fuel, decomission the plant, then process/store/guard the waste.



http://wolf.readinglitho.co.uk/subpages/nuclear.html
http://www.stormsmith.nl/
posted by rough ashlar at 3:18 AM on April 15, 2006


(want to bind up CO2? Synthetic diamonds or carbon fibers look to be the long term winner. Too bad that takes energy to make.)

What on earth are you talking about? You understand the difference between CO2 and C, right? One of them is not a problem.


The same thing the below links are talking about. Taking the CO2 in the atmosphere and making some C based structure.

Most of the time it is a plant, and the C is bound in a complex carbohydrate. I just suggested a carbon structure that will be harder to break down and such should have more utility than just burning it.



http://www.ncpa.org/hotlines/global/pd11498f.html
http://www.fern.org/pages/climate/carbon.html
posted by rough ashlar at 3:37 AM on April 15, 2006


Why can't we just use H2 to do all of those things?

If the research pans out, it may be possible before long.
posted by QuestionableSwami at 5:34 AM on April 15, 2006


"Will algae defeat global warming?"

Not unless we stop flying, it seems. Aviation represents the world’s fastest growing source of carbon dioxide emissions.

According to Monbiot, aviation emissions alone would exceed the British government’s target for the country’s entire output of greenhouse gases in 2050 by around 134%.
posted by insomnia_lj at 6:27 AM on April 15, 2006


I've said it before.

Loose. Lose.

Two totally different words.
posted by parki at 8:27 AM on April 15, 2006


It's much easier to massively reduce energy consumption than it is to find a miracle-answer to our energy needs.

Another way to say that is "It's much easier to restrict human welfare and constrain human horizons than it is to find a miracle-answer to our energy needs."

3 years for the basis of your 'bet'

They only get that by hand-waving away breeder reactors.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:37 AM on April 15, 2006


In other global warming news: Walrus Calves Stranded by Melting Sea Ice
posted by homunculus at 1:39 PM on April 15, 2006


They only get that by hand-waving away breeder reactors.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:37 AM PST on April 15 [!]


Given a lack of stable long-running breeders, where's the handwaving?
posted by rough ashlar at 2:27 PM on April 15, 2006


That Biodiesel from Algae article was excellent the first time I read it and its still brilliant. What its missing is twofold: a contrary view to poke holes in it (if there are any) and a serious, detailed process to extract the oil from the algae to create biodiesel.

I've heard things like using olive-oil like presses but I've yet to see a working installation, even in small scale and not net-positive. It shouldn't be too hard, some ponds, a pump or two and a centrifuge to separate the algae, an automated extracter and an automated biodiesel reactor (to convert the oil to biodiesel).

So far, everyone making biodiesel is using traditional VO. Where's the Instructable on oil extraction from algae?
posted by Skorgu at 5:46 PM on April 15, 2006


its still brilliant.

I agree, the idea of taking waste C and N plus P and K adding sunshine - great plan. Until you ask:

a serious, detailed process to extract the oil from the algae to create biodiesel.

Well, at this point it doesn't work. And like fusion, it many never work as a process.

I've yet to see a working installation, even in small scale and not net-positive.

Yup. You are up to speed.
posted by rough ashlar at 6:24 PM on April 15, 2006


Using technology licensed from a NASA project, GreenFuel builds bioreactors--in the shape of 3-meter-high glass tubes fashioned as a triangle--to grow algae. The algae are fed with sunlight, water and carbon-carrying emissions from power plants. The algae are then harvested and turned into biodiesel fuel.

Apparently the technology is under license from NASA.
posted by b1tr0t at 6:46 PM on April 15, 2006


Another way to say that is "It's much easier to restrict human welfare and constrain human horizons

I look forward to your blog about how you are fighing all the govenrments, corporations and even the few individuals who are 'restricting human welfare and constraining the human horizons.'

And let us all know how your petition for placing a nuclear reactor in your neighborhood is going.
posted by rough ashlar at 7:01 PM on April 15, 2006


The only way this will lessen the amount of co2 in the air, is if all the algae is then buried. Using it to make bio-fuels, while a good idea to use the carbon more than one time will still release it into the air. its not "clean" at all, its just using the carbon twice before pumping it into the air. Unless of course all the cars are going to store up the co2 and pump it through an algae farm when they get to their homes....which is unlikely. this is not a solution, just a band aid until we get to wind/solar/nuclear(fission or fusion) solution.
posted by stilgar at 5:16 AM on April 16, 2006


Nukes + hydrogen sounds all very nice in theory, but according to Amory Lovins, spending X$ on nukes yields less CO2 emission reduction than spending the same X$ on gas-fired cogenerators. In other words, nukes are just too expensive to be useful.

It's noteworthy that the only customers for nuclear reactors, in this day and age, are governments with an interest in acquiring or maintaining a nuclear arsenal. Private enterprise is selling these things, not buying them.

The other salient point about nukes is that they rely on just another non-renewable fuel source.

At some point, we're going to have to meet all our energy needs from renewables, if only because we've used up everything else. It seems to me that aiming to drive energy production up and up and up using ever-spiffier non-renewable technologies is only going to make that increasingly hard to do; it will never be easier to move toward renewable generation and increased energy efficiency than it is right now.

If oily algae turn out to be a viable way of turning sunshine into motor fuel, then more power to oily algae, says I. Seems to me that using them to suck CO2 out of the exhaust air from commercial buildings might be worth a look, too.
posted by flabdablet at 8:10 AM on April 17, 2006


As far as algae not being a carbon sink, if the algea produce about 50% oil, which is then used for fuel, wouldn't the other half be a carbon sink?

I know it depends on how the remainder of the algae is used, but I *doubt* it would be used as fuel, so I think it would still be a carbon sink. At worst, algea would be roughly carbon neutral. At best, using *all* the oil for fuel, 50% of the algae would be "sunk".
posted by webnrrd2k at 12:40 PM on April 17, 2006


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