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A sea of green
July 14, 2009 2:33 AM   Subscribe

"Algae is the ultimate biological system using sunlight to capture and convert carbon dioxide into fuel... I came up with a notion to trick algae into pumping more [fuel] out." Craig Venter's Synthetic Genomics partners with ExxonMobil in a $600M project to harvest biofuels from genetically engineered algae. "We have modest goals of replacing the whole petrochemical industry." [previously]

"Over the next 20 years, synthetic genomics is going to become the standard for making anything. The chemical industry will depend on it. Hopefully, a large part of the energy industry will depend on it. We really need to find an alternative to taking carbon out of the ground, burning it, and putting it into the atmosphere. That is the single biggest contribution I could make."
posted by Blazecock Pileon (45 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
Awesome post, frigging fascinating. Algae: it can make you sick, can make you well, gives us oxygen, steals it from other places, underpins a huge part of the marine food chain, and smells funny. And now you're telling me it can drive my car (if I had a car).

Truly, algae is an embarrassment of riches, and not just for effing up the pool in winter.
posted by smoke at 3:07 AM on July 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


Mind-blowing stuff. I love how he talks about "booting up a chromosome". It's also fascinating how we're now hacking life without really being able to explain what it is. I wonder if at some point we'll have a new "theory of life", or just continue on indefinitely with more and more control over this process we can't quite comprehend

And looking at that "life designer" software mockup at the end... wow. Humanity continues its progress towards becoming gods
posted by crayz at 3:37 AM on July 14, 2009


cryz: Humanity continues its progress towards becoming gods

You know, last time we became like a god, bad things happened.
posted by bigmusic at 3:49 AM on July 14, 2009


You know, last time we became like a god, bad things happened.

There was me thinking we did once become like a god. Colour me disappointed.

Algae is a much more sensible solution as biofuel than corn. 5-10 years for one production facility though. We really need to be moving faster for any change of sustainability.
posted by twistedonion at 3:59 AM on July 14, 2009


cf. constructive biology
posted by kliuless at 4:18 AM on July 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


Yet in the future we'd still be burning that algae produced fuel and making ever more carbon dioxide. Sigh.
posted by edmo at 4:20 AM on July 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


making ever more carbon dioxide.

Does it though? Would the creation of the algae not take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere?
posted by twistedonion at 4:27 AM on July 14, 2009 [2 favorites]


This will eventually alleviate the need for Soylent Green.
posted by Gungho at 4:34 AM on July 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


Algae has the potential to be carbon neutral, ie, consuming the same quantity of CO2 as it produces in burning. The reason corn biofuel isn't carbon neutral is that a significant amount of fossil fuels goes into plowing, fertilizing (Haber process), transporting, etc. Assuming that the bioengineered algae will not need fertilizer (or any equivalent of plowing), and transportation could be done with algae-fuel, algae could be carbon neutral.
posted by hydropsyche at 4:36 AM on July 14, 2009 [3 favorites]


I came up with a notion to trick algae into pumping more [fuel] out.

Two wikipedia links and a NYT article aren't going to tell me what that trick is. Does the TED talk give any hint? I mean, I've come up with this same idea more than once--the problem is, how?

Although his idea might be more to produce oil than to produce glucose. That's all I was thinking. Have the algae put the photochemical glucose out in solution rather than store it up to reproduce (or whatever they do with it). Then you can draw it off and ferment it to ethanol fuel in a continuous process, rather than a batch "grow and harvest" process.

The reason corn biofuel isn't carbon neutral is that a significant amount of fossil fuels goes into plowing, fertilizing (Haber process), transporting, etc

I never get this argument. Can't the tractors and trucks run on biofuel? Perhaps the Haber process takes more energy than the resulting plant provides? In which case, maybe we need a more efficient way to fix nitrogen (clover?).
posted by DU at 5:10 AM on July 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


Related: Juan Enriquez's TED talk on algae-based approaches to reducing global warming at a TED salon in New York on climate change. His approach involves dispersing large colonies of algae into the oceans to absorb and convert CO2.

I was simultaneously surprised and appalled that Enriquez didn't seem to have given any thought to the environmental consequences of unleashing ocean-size colonies of algae. The focus was strictly on direct utility, rather than on unintended consequences. As excited as I was about this potentially valuable new approach to combating global warming, it struck me as one example of a long history of innovators being too narrowly focused on finding solutions to a particular problem regardless of the potential repercussions.

So when I looked over the links on the post, I thought, where will these production facilities go? Would artificial ponds provide enough surface area to harvest a significant amount of biofuel from algae? The Times article mentions growing algae in seawater, but it's unclear if they mean that seawater will be in the actual sea or in artificial containers. Is there any information on how this could be done on a marketable scale? How much square footage does it take to produce a gallon of fuel? More than an ocean? Less than an ocean? Or is it too early to be asking these kinds of questions?
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 5:31 AM on July 14, 2009 [2 favorites]


Humanity continues its progress towards becoming gods

There's a new master of creation. It's you!

You've unraveled DNA, and at the same time you're cultivatin' bacteria strong enough to kill every living thing. You think you're ready for that much power?

You lot? YOU LOT?
posted by 0xdeadc0de at 5:35 AM on July 14, 2009 [5 favorites]


You know, last time we became like a god, bad things happened.

As far as I'm concerned, the last time we became like a god, it was when we figured out how to transplant hearts. Or maybe when we wiped out smallpox.

I'll happily accept a little divine arrogance as the price for working miracles.
posted by Tomorrowful at 5:48 AM on July 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


You know, last time we became like a god, bad things happened.

There is no algae, only Zuul!
posted by nonspecialist at 5:58 AM on July 14, 2009 [4 favorites]


I don't know, man... every time I hear about some awesome new sustainable technology, it turns out to be 1000 times worse for the environment by every measurement except one, and not sustainable after all.
posted by No-sword at 6:08 AM on July 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


So grey goo is green! Whoda thunk it.
posted by flabdablet at 6:15 AM on July 14, 2009


Algae is the holy-grail of biofuel production, right now. Everyone is excited about it, but no one quite knows how it's going to work yet.

Algaes are so exciting because they can produce triglycerides, biological oils, in high amounts. Some species of algae can produce up to half their mass as fatty oils. These oils are almost directly usable as feedstocks for biodiesel, and with a bit of clever chemistry can be reformed into compounds that are very similar to conventional gasoline (called bio-gasoline or reformed gasoline by many in the industry).

Even better, algaes are very space efficient compared to many crops, they produce an extraordinary amount of tryglyceride per acre. They beat all of the common crops: corn, canola, soy, let alone the marginal land crops like switchgrass.

The problem with algae is growing and harvesting it on a large scale. It turns out to be very difficult to raise high-oil algaes. Tanks get contaminated by wastes and other pollutants. It's quite sensitive to its host environment and does not grow well if everything isn't to its liking. Several companies have been trying to do algal aquaculture for more than a decade now, with little success.

Algae production seems to be a bit like fusion: everyone thinks it's a great answer, but no one (right now) can do it. It's been "ten years out" since the mid 90's.
posted by bonehead at 6:19 AM on July 14, 2009 [6 favorites]


maybe we need a more efficient way to fix nitrogen (clover?).

A more efficient way to fix nitrogen would be nice, but given that roughly 1-2% of the entire world's energy output goes to fixing nitrogen via the Haber process it seems likely that if a more efficient method were available the fertilizer companies would switch to it in a heartbeat.
posted by jedicus at 6:28 AM on July 14, 2009


Fight! O plankton - greenly thrash
lest ye be warmth for trailer trash

Hide yourselves! and wane in summer
do not fuel some moron's Hummer

Beware the sieve, the net eschew
Balleen's a nobler Waterloo.

Sink to depths profoundly ebon
spurn an early chloroheav'n.

(previously employed to tumultuous applause at MoFi)
posted by fish tick at 6:29 AM on July 14, 2009 [2 favorites]


The issue is yield. We consume so much oil, it would be difficult to wholesale switch to algae based biofuel. We have to conserve and switch.
posted by SirOmega at 6:30 AM on July 14, 2009


where will these production facilities go?

The requirements are lots of sun and lots of water. The plant designs I've seen so far look a lot like municipal sewage treatment plants: think large (covered) pools or tanks with a few buildings for processing. One of the great things about triglyceride use is that the end product doesn't need a lot of post-processing, unlike petroleum sources.

The big challenge is water. Bioconversion plants, ethanol ones, in particular, are coming under heavy criticism for their very high water use in low water prairie environments in the mid-west. With this in mind, algal plants are bing designed as closed loop as possible, so as to not face the same criticism.

In principle, algal farms could be "closed loop": dead plants should be able to be recycled for essential nutrients, water should be able to be recycled. In theory, the only inputs needed are sunlight for energy and carbon dioxide and oxygen from the atmosphere. This is one of the reasons people get so excited by the possibilities.
posted by bonehead at 6:32 AM on July 14, 2009


if a more efficient method were available the fertilizer companies would switch to it in a heartbeat.

Free Market Fallacy.

Also, the Haber process may be more economically efficient without being more energy efficient.
posted by DU at 6:44 AM on July 14, 2009


You can read technical details here. Craig's interest in this came up in one of our prior discussions. Essentially, this might be different in that he claims to be able to get the algae to excrete the lipids (fuel) rather than have to harvest the algae. There are a lot of companies out there chasing this, but the Exxon investment gives things a big boost.
posted by caddis at 6:47 AM on July 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


Aww, $600M from Exxon? I mean, what's that, 1/10th of quarter profits?

Add a zero and I'll be impressed.
posted by TomMelee at 6:59 AM on July 14, 2009


Only problem that I see is that the oil companies are still going to control the source of the fuel. Regardless of how it is made, how good for the environment it is or how cheaply it can be produced, they will still control it. They can easily turn around and say "Oil is rare now. We are not going to refine as much of it anymore, and it is now 15$ a gallon for gasoline, or you can use our bio fuel for 6$ a gallon... snicker snicker!" Anymore fuel is almost the same as air or water and they found a way to charge you for it. Do you really think that the assholes responsible for hiking up the prices of gasoline are really going to settle for minimally profits for the sake of helping people out? Oil reserves are going to be used up at one point in time. This is a very smart idea but it is not done out of the need to help people. It is done so rich companies can continue to find new ways to make money off of people. Remember Exxon is not a hero here, they are just the first willing to take that step and adapt.
posted by Mastercheddaar at 7:03 AM on July 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


Regardless of how it is made, how good for the environment it is or how cheaply it can be produced, they will still control it

I wouldn't say *regardless*. For instance, DIY.
posted by DU at 7:04 AM on July 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


You're becoming jaded by today's gigantonumerics (new word, woot). Six hundred million bucks is still a goodly chunk of cash, and that's just from one company. The greening of the world is, in my opinion, well under way now. A friend of mine just jumped ship from the video game industry to greentech, for the pay raise and better opportunities. Now's a good time for youngish people, or even middle-aged people, to get in on the ground floor at green-oriented companies. Those that do so will likely have a reasonably secure future.

I freaking love the idea of an algae-powered future. I'm not so sure it's going to be easy to scale up to the level we need, but we haven't really put a ton of resources into it yet, so I remain hopeful.
posted by jamstigator at 7:08 AM on July 14, 2009


I'm not so sure it's going to be easy to scale up to the level we need...

Don't fall for the lure of the magic bullet. If algae can give us 10%, that's a big chunk. If photovoltaic can do another 10%, we're already 1/5th of the way there. Wind and geothermal another 10%. And so forth. Diversity in energy sources is a good idea even if we didn't need to do it.
posted by DU at 7:17 AM on July 14, 2009


A better "become like god" reference.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 7:59 AM on July 14, 2009


Don't fall for the lure of the magic bullet. If algae can give us 10%, that's a big chunk. If photovoltaic can do another 10%, we're already 1/5th of the way there. Wind and geothermal another 10%. And so forth. Diversity in energy sources is a good idea even if we didn't need to do it.

Even if you factor in E-REVs like the Volt, they can reduce consumer gasoline consumption by 75% (ANL study), you're still looking at the commercial, long-haul, and aviation.

I don't know what number they're targeting, but even at 3,000L/yr per acre, an area of 10,000 sq miles in the sonoran desert is about enough for 13 days worth of gasoline use in the US.

You're not looking at 10%, you're looking at 3.5%. Same with PV, it'll get to about 3.5% total energy generation. (not to pimp my own stuff, but I blog about the numbers behind renewable energy - I do think it has promise, but mostly in geothermal and solar thermal).
posted by SirOmega at 8:02 AM on July 14, 2009


Some effort needs to be made to make sure whatever they do can't get back into the oceans and out-compete any existing algaes.

Algae is at the bottom of a vast amount of the food chain and basic planetary life-support; we screw that up, and every previous man-made problem is going to look trivial by comparison.
posted by nonliteral at 8:14 AM on July 14, 2009 [5 favorites]


Our future may lie with scum.
posted by stinkycheese at 8:25 AM on July 14, 2009


I don't mean it's not good news. I just think it's funny to hear "yay exxon!" for a paltry $600m.

There as been algal research for biodiesel for years now, from startups to universities. This dude just got Exxon in his pocket. My secret bet is that Exxon said "join the dark side or we will make you disappear."

I mean, shit, there are programs using sawdust and custom fungus to produce ethanol that's actually...you know, environmentally friendly instead of made of edible corn.

Exxon wants to give them just enough that they can continue their research while not hindering petroil sales but enough to say "WE OWN THAT" when the breakthrough comes.
posted by TomMelee at 8:28 AM on July 14, 2009


CBC's Quirks & Quarks did a pretty good segment on algal biofuel a little while back. It is good to hear about the problems that are preventing anyone from moving forward, rather than just the usual "Rah-rah, algae" talk.
posted by ssg at 9:02 AM on July 14, 2009


Some algae tried to kill me this weekend at Barton Springs in Austin (by making me slip and drown in the freezing cold water). So, the least it can do is run my car.

I had not thought of the "bioengineered algae gets out, causes food chain breakdown and planetwide extinctions!" angle though. Huh. Maybe Exxon, with its love of single-hulled spill-prone, drunk-driven transport, ain't who we want in charge of shipping....
posted by emjaybee at 9:38 AM on July 14, 2009


Aww, $600M from Exxon? I mean, what's that, 1/10th of quarter profits?

It's around .6% of their reported 2008 first-quarter earnings. From another perspective, it's about what an operator might pay for the rent on a single high-end, deep-water offshore drilling rig for about 3 years. There are about a hundred such rigs worldwide, all fully committed for years to come.

The idea that we're turning any sort of corner as far as our energy security and the environmental impacts of fossil fuel dependence are concerned is very premature. As long as the conventional industry's investments are fractions of percents compared to the cost (and profits) of running the fossil fuel infrastructure, this will remain true.
posted by nanojath at 9:48 AM on July 14, 2009


As long as the conventional industry's investments are fractions of percents compared to the cost (and profits) of running the fossil fuel infrastructure, this will remain true.

Gotta start somewhere.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:02 AM on July 14, 2009


Seconding the comment about how this still produces chemical fuel that has to get burned.

This is all still incredibly inefficient and high-pollution compared to truly renewable ways (e.g. solar, wind, hydro) of capturing energy.

Yes, capturing energy, because it can't be produced or destroyed. Part of me feels like one of the roots of our energy problems is that we use the words "produce" and "create" with respect to energy, obscuring the thermodynamic laws behind everything.
posted by spitefulcrow at 11:24 AM on July 14, 2009


This is all still incredibly inefficient and high-pollution compared to truly renewable ways (e.g. solar, wind, hydro) of capturing energy.

Algal biofuel is a method to capture and store solar energy. As long as they sun keeps shining, it is renewable. Pollution from burning the stuff (i.e. NOx,SO2) and the efficiency of burning it are separate issues to do with sustainability that have nothing to do with it being renewable.
posted by ssg at 11:39 AM on July 14, 2009


I can't wait until the debate about the pros and cons of an ocean wide oil-producing algae bloom.
posted by TwelveTwo at 11:44 AM on July 14, 2009


The idea that we're turning any sort of corner as far as our energy security and the environmental impacts of fossil fuel dependence are concerned is very premature.

The corner turned in 2008.
posted by euphorb at 11:45 AM on July 14, 2009


Genetic re-making of algae is a bad plan because of what will happen when it enters the environment. Its a good thing that Craig Venter has a history of making grand statements that just don't work out.

If the genetic special algae can only exist in glass tubes - then you have the hassle of keeping out all other algae species.

Either way, the density of photons hitting the planet act as a limiting factor. Other limiters are the CO2 (do you try and remove that from the air? That's energy intensive. ) and the finished goods to hold the algae you are growing.

From a photon -> human value chain POV solar hot water is up there with passive solar. And Photon -> PV watts is a rather 'good' use of the photon. After we've mastered solar hot water, then lets worry about algae.
posted by rough ashlar at 12:54 PM on July 14, 2009


"We have modest goals of replacing the whole petrochemical industry."

...with money from petrochemical companies, so that they can have a slice of this pie, and control the technology that supplants their energy monopoly.

What? STFU, Craig Venter. Exxon's badness doesn't begin and end with CO2.

I fervently hope that we can make some awesome renewable energy sources that aren't controlled by the world's oiligarchs.
posted by HighTechUnderpants at 1:44 PM on July 14, 2009


I fervently hope that we can make some awesome renewable energy sources that aren't controlled by the world's oiligarchs.

If you have ~$500 million you'd care to drop into basic R&D on this issue, please, I beg of you, do so.

Anywho: Some cold water courtesy of Robert Rapier on the whole algae subject. What seems to be missing here is any mention of whether or not the increased lipid production is easily separable from the production medium. Or in other words, if the oil floats to the top of the tank so's you can skim it off, that's a big step toward viability. If not --- if you have boil or filter or ultrasonically blast or centrifugally seperate the oil from the medium (or some combination of the above) then the central problem with algal biofuel (as with ethanol) remains --- you use a lot more energy to produce a gallon of it than you do to produce a gallon of oil.

Since they don't mention it, and it would be highly newsworthy if they did, then I assume they haven't figured this out yet. In which case Rapier's caveats about the industry in his discussion of a recent book on the subject still obtain: "Professor Edwards notes that the current estimated costs for algal biodiesel are over $20/gallon. He said that over 75% of the companies who had algal aspirations in the 80's and 90's no longer exist. He wrote that the algal fuel industry as a whole has produced less than 100 barrels of product."

That's $20 big fat American dollars per gallon, or $300-$400 bucks to fill 'er up. We could do Coal-to-Liquids for a quarter of that, and we already have coal and know how.
posted by Diablevert at 8:56 PM on July 14, 2009


Slashdot today mentions that everybody's favorite chemical company, Dow Chemical, is also getting into the algae game. The process they are backing generates ethanol, which is easier to collect as it evaporates into the tank headspace. Apparently, Dow is interested in using the ethanol to synthesise ethylene for making plastics, rather than as a fuel.
posted by Dr Dracator at 12:04 AM on July 17, 2009


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