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Biocrude
April 17, 2008 8:04 PM   Subscribe

Pond scum saves the planet? In the beginning, there were algae, but there was no oil. Then, from algae came oil. Now, the algae are still there, but oil is fast depleting. In future, there will be no oil, but there will still be algae. ^ Power your ride with pond scum. In some iterations you don't even need light. (we have talked about this before and the fact that CO2 powers the algae production is not insignificant) More details here.
posted by caddis (28 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

 
Switchgrass - pshaw
Ethanol from corn - pshaw
Peak oil - pshaw?
posted by caddis at 8:10 PM on April 17, 2008


It takes CO2 in, produces fuel out. What's not to love? If you burn the fuel, it's input to the next cycle.
posted by Leon-arto at 8:16 PM on April 17, 2008


Heat. Heat is not to love.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 8:19 PM on April 17, 2008


I'm actually really hopeful for algae. Unlike most biofuel sources (I'm looking at you, CORN), it's fast growing, does not have huge land requirements (especially with the new vertical bioreactors), wastewater is actually a favorable input, and some strains are 80% lipid. And it's actually best to place them near power plants, which provide a source of CO2. Not entirely sure about the economic feasibility of the whole system, but with oil at $114/barrel and climbing, it's only a matter of time before it's a complete no-brainer from a cost perspective...
posted by kookaburra at 9:12 PM on April 17, 2008


These processes require less water and can be run in the desert (and thus not waste farmland) but like any photosynthesizing organism, algae requires potassium, phosphates, and other mineral inputs. These are limited resources - resources that agriculture also requires. Reading the literature, of course, this isn't mentioned, and as with ethanol, is often denied, because we don't like the idea that running our cars leads to starvation elsewhere.

Ok, the politics of this aside, I'd like to see an EROEI study.
posted by MillMan at 10:10 PM on April 17, 2008


Man, I've been saying for years that if you want to pull a bio-fuel out of your ass, you need to move further down in trophic levels. Vascular plants are a wash. Too high an energy investment, too sprawling, too thirsty, and all that cellulose. Really. Wrong road. Algae is better. Multiple generations in a fraction of the time, more robust, waste resistant if not waste-thriving. Many strains have a fairly "hackable" genotype--that high generational turnover really helps you race the clock. There is a reason why biology students work with Drosophila instead of Elephants.

Hell, let's move down another trophic level. Why not bacteria? Even shorter life-span, even more robust, and shorter more understood genotypes. Most my life I've thought of bacteria as "little machines in-the-rough." It's amazing how much ground work nature has already covered when it comes to converting photons into other energy or creating complex molecules. (Though I understand Bacteria rock in that solar-into-chemical energy bit. That's what they do).

But there are larger issues. This is high-tech being used to create something else to burn. Yuck. We see these as ways to further a growth economy. Ultimately, even under ideal conditions, this too we will outstrip.

(one of my fantasies as a kid was a gene-modded grass that turned sunlight through modified photosynthesis into acidic and basic chemicals in the same plant with a netted root network that could be tapped--essentially using a lawn as a solar collector-cum-battery that could be planted, walked upon, re-seeded, and grown everywhere. Damn kids! Get the hell off my power supply!)
posted by sourwookie at 10:19 PM on April 17, 2008 [2 favorites]


but like any photosynthesizing organism, algae requires potassium, phosphates, and other mineral inputs.

Living where I live, and growing up with a botanist dad whose job it is to protect waterways, eutrophication, or the spoilage of waterways through an algal bloom caused by excessive phosphates was always a problem. I understand that these phosphates are a by-product of "green revolution" agriculture but perhaps they could be of use instead of a bane in this context.
posted by sourwookie at 10:23 PM on April 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


to create something else to burn. Yuck.

What's wrong with burning renewables for energy? The particulates? I suspect we can contain those.
posted by bystander at 10:25 PM on April 17, 2008


Though I understand Bacteria rock in that solar-into-chemical energy bit. That's what they do

Oops. I meant Algae, not Bacteria.
posted by sourwookie at 10:26 PM on April 17, 2008


What's wrong with burning renewables for energy?

Perhaps the inelegance. The inefficiency. It strikes me like using a hammer to put a screw into drywall*. It will work, but the screwdriver does better.

*though the nail is cheaper and less energy intensive to make than a screw, I admit.
posted by sourwookie at 10:30 PM on April 17, 2008


Couple it to fuel cells that "burn" hydrocarbons and produce electricity and you might really be getting somewhere in terms of efficiency.
posted by dibblda at 10:38 PM on April 17, 2008


Are we prepared to accept a bacterial origin for oil, yet? :)
posted by aeschenkarnos at 11:29 PM on April 17, 2008


MillMan: These processes require less water and can be run in the desert (and thus not waste farmland) but like any photosynthesizing organism, algae requires potassium, phosphates, and other mineral inputs. These are limited resources - resources that agriculture also requires. Reading the literature, of course, this isn't mentioned, and as with ethanol, is often denied, because we don't like the idea that running our cars leads to starvation elsewhere.

It should end up as a closed system. Potassium, phosphates, and minerals go in. Algae comes out and goes to the processing station. The processing station makes the algae into oil, potassium, phosphates, and minerals. Recycle the necessary ingredients.

Unlike agriculture, matter isn't constantly being siphoned out of the system (food) and runoff should help instead of hinder (since it should be running into the algae ponds, not out.) And of course, if bioreactors are used, the system should be totally closed and the recycling essentially complete.

On a side note, I dislike the idea that we can't reduce food agriculture to produce materials we need because people in other countries could starve. How we run our own agriculture seems like it should be our prerogative. I don't like being forced into making cheap food instead of fuels which could benefit us more (in theory anyway) because people let themselves become dependent.

Not that it matters in the end - if we run out of fuel or it gets ridiculously expensive, it'll tank the economy and end cheap food production in the US anyway. We have to have fuel to farm this way, distribute the food, etc.
posted by Mitrovarr at 11:49 PM on April 17, 2008


Are we prepared to accept a bacterial origin for oil, yet? :)

Nope. And if it were happening, I doubt they are anywhere near producing at our level of consumption.

Oh, I forgot: :)
posted by sourwookie at 12:02 AM on April 18, 2008


Remember how everyone was saying that biofuel meant starvation because it turned arable land into a fuel source? Yeah.
posted by DU at 4:26 AM on April 18, 2008


I dislike the idea that we can't reduce food agriculture to produce materials we need because people in other countries could starve.
Unfortunately, the developed world has dumped subsidised farm produce on the developing world long enough to run some of their farmers out of business so those countries have trouble feeding themselves without this.
Obviously, this has also resulted in populations too high for local environmental carrying capacity.
Ideally, the developed world will recognise some moral responsibility to prevent these folk starving, but equally, the developing world population will hopefully recognise a population exceeding their local carrying capacity is super risky.
posted by bystander at 4:50 AM on April 18, 2008


Pond scum saves the planet?

but of course!
posted by quonsar at 6:21 AM on April 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


The developing world population will hopefully recognise a population exceeding their local carrying capacity is super risky.

Dude, the Vatican is screwed.
posted by FuManchu at 7:19 AM on April 18, 2008


Just another mention of our local massive algae puddle: Lake Winnipeg
posted by sporb at 7:30 AM on April 18, 2008


Craig Venter's talk at the Long Now foundation mentions what he calls "third and fourth generation biofuels" which result from essentially engineering bacteria or organisms to eat CO2 and shit diesel. It turns out that many complex hydrocarbons are produced naturally as competition-limiting antibiotics and all that should be required is to tweak and tune the metabolic pathways. His TED talk is a bit more up to date if not as comprehensive.
posted by Skorgu at 7:31 AM on April 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


This is something I follow pretty closely. The biofuel/algae folks have been developing these technologies for more than a decade and it doesn't look like any of them are very close to commercialization right now. It turns out that it's really hard to get the algae to grow properly to produce fuels in any volume. People keep at it though because algae are so hugely efficient (compared to grains or oil seeds) at turning light into fuel. Duckweed, for example, can be grown so that 50% of the plant production is in fatty acids which can be converted to biodiesel.

That's another thing---these things are all about diesel, not a gasoline replacement. The vehicule fleet would have to change over to diesels for there to be substantial benefits from this technology. As the retail vehicule sector tends to renew on 5-8 year cycles, it would take the better part of a decade for North America to adjust to these new fuels. The manufacturers would have to redisign and retool all of their engine lines for diesel engines. Fortunately, Europe, and in particular Germany, has done all the hard work in developing clean diesel tech for cars, so little R&D needs to be done.

Biodiesels have a few downsides as a future fuel though: emissions are approximately the same as regular diesels. Testing has shown that there's little reduction in particualte and NOX---cars running biodiesel cause smog as bad as petrodiesel vehicules. There's no easy way to make them ZEV under California law, for example.

Biodiesels also lock us into an IC engine future. It's probably possible to make a biodiesel fuelcell, but it's beyond the current state of the art.

One interesting other possibility, not mentioned in the article, is that if you stress most algae, put them in an anoxic environment without light, they start to burn these fatty acid fuel reserves they spend so much effort producting. One of the byproducts of this is hydrogen gas---it's a waste product from the anaerobic cycle.

Further, it turns out that it's quite easy to adapt a gasoline engine to run on hydrogen. It's very similar to installing a natural gas conversion kit. Again, the technology for this already exisits. This means that it would be faster nd cheaper for the car companies to retool for hydrogen. they just have to change the fuel and ignition systems, not the whole engine blocks. Furthermore, hydrogen fuel offers a way forward to fuel cells which are double the efficiencies of IC engines. Finally, on-road emissions from hydrogen combustion is steam only. Hydrogen vehicules are (or are very close to) zero-emission mobile sources.

So there's a few chances there. Biofuels from algae are a real bright spot for research that have the potential to solve a lot of the problems associated with diverting food crops to fuel production. They're still a few years away from reality however. It's an area I really hope pays off. It's got a lot of potential.
posted by bonehead at 7:34 AM on April 18, 2008 [3 favorites]


Further: Here are some satellite images of the algae in Lake Winnipeg:
posted by sporb at 7:38 AM on April 18, 2008


Hell, let's move down another trophic level. Why not bacteria?

I'm not a biologist, but my understanding is that algae are just about the simplest organisms that efficiently do photosynthesis. Are there efficient photosynthetic bacteria? I don't know for certain, but I don't think so.
posted by bonehead at 7:39 AM on April 18, 2008


Yes, there are efficient photosynthetic bacteria. Cyanobacteria were the first photosynthesizing organisms on the planet and thus were responsible for the origination of life based on breathing oxygen. They are also tough little cells and are found pretty much everywhere. They used to be known as "blue-green algae" but for reasons of cell structure are properly bacteria.
posted by hydropsyche at 11:49 AM on April 18, 2008


...and now I'm kicking myself. I deal with Nostocs all the time. I'd forgotten those were bacterial.
posted by bonehead at 12:01 PM on April 18, 2008


Interesting comment, bonehead. How about an FPP on this? This whole area is fascinating (thanks for the post, caddis!) and biofuels + hydrogen fuel cells = exponential awesomeness.
posted by Quietgal at 12:32 PM on April 18, 2008


and this old article claims you can grow enough biodiesel in a small patch of desert to run the entire US commercial-transport sector - which is already designed to run on diesel.

It'd be good to see algae used as a CO2 scrubber on power stations.

And emissions of CO2 from biodiesel are irrelevant - they're the same CO2 that the algae pulled from the air. Biodiesel is just a fancy chemical battery for storing solar energy using life as a catalyst.
posted by polyglot at 9:42 PM on April 18, 2008


Of course, growin' 'em in the dark is stupid, because you have to make up for it in their feed, and where do you think the calories in that sugar came from? Dragon tears? But all the same, I'm glad people are taking the algae seriously enough to try stuff with 'em, instead of just blowing smoke.

(Now I want to set up a secret lab where algae grow under lights powered solely by a home-built nuclear reactor. I'll have the only car that doesn't run on sunlight!)
posted by eritain at 9:54 PM on April 19, 2008


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