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Can algae save the world?

Yet another story today about how genetically engineered algae can produce much more crude oil per acre than biofuels.

A liquid fuel made from plants that is chemically identical to crude oil but which does not contribute to climate change when it is burned or, unlike other biofuels, need agricultural land to produce sounds too good to be true. But a company in San Diego claims to have developed exactly that – a sustainable version of oil it calls "green crude".

Sapphire Energy uses single-celled organisms such as algae to produce a chemical mixture from which it is possible to extract fuels for cars or airplanes. When it is burned, the fuel only releases into the air the carbon dioxide absorbed by the algae during its growth, making the whole process carbon neutral.

But how do the numbers stack up?

1 (US) gallon of oil delivers around 43 KW of energy (depending on the grade). 1 barrel of oil is 42 US gallons, so delivers approximately 1806 KW – let's call it 1800 KW. So, how much algae do we need to store that much energy?

The sun delivers around 342W per day per square metre. Let's assume our production site is chosen to get enough sunny days and hours to gather a significant fraction of that onto the algal tanks, say 250Wpd.

Assume algae engineered to high conversion efficiency through photosynthesis into growing more algae, say (to make our sums easy), 180Wpd. The company described in the Guardian article referred to above, Sapphire Energy, claim their GM algae can get 40% of that into crude (and 60% into other useful chemicals).

So, we need 25,000 sq.m of algae tanks to produce a barrel of oil equivalent per day. Assume infrastructure around the tanks adds around 10% overhead (may be more, but there'll be a lot of incentive to work on getting this right). Assume that the need for energy input to the process (running the place, and making the oil out of the algae) is also fairly efficient, taking out another, say, 20%, raising that to 32,500sq.m per daily barrel.

World oil production is 88mbd and demand is rising above that.

So, replacing 1% of world oil demand needs approximately 29,000 sq.km of tanks etc (but at least would produce income of around $120 million per day to pay for all that). Replacing 10% needs 290,000 sq.km.

So, covering the whole of the Mojave desert can produce just under 2% of the world's oil (or 8% of US consumption).

Fuelling US consumption from this would require approx 725,000sq.km = just under 10% of the land area of the continental US (assume Alaska isn't available for this) - or a little more than the whole of Texas, to give a comparator. Since some of this would have to be land with more regular cloud cover, that would have to go up by a significant amount.

Er – and introducing an area of 700,000sq.km of open warm still water into the equation will increase cloud cover and rainfall (not to mention mosquitoes – you can't cover the tanks, and insecticides would alter the chemical composition of the output: you could probably stir them, but that will use energy, and cut the net gain.). 

An alternative estimate is in the article:

Yusuf Chisti at Massey University in New Zealand estimates that algae could produce almost 100,000 litres of biodiesel a year per hectare of land, compared to 6,000 litres a hectare for oil palm, currently the most productive biofuel. 

100,000 litres is 26,417 US gallons, which is 1.1 million KW, which is 113KW per sq.m, which is 311W per sq.m per day, and is seriously overoptimistic, since it pretty much turns the sun's energy into oil at near 100% efficiency and the company only claims that 40% of the harvest is oil. My numbers get just on 18,000 litres from a hectare - still three times as good as biodiesel (though I suspect that biodiesel number needs netting off for the oil used to produce it, as well).

So - even with a following wind and a lot of work on getting the processes as efficient as possible, not a laydown slam, but not impossible, either. And at least it is better than biodiesel ..



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The good Sir Rod....

A week ago I offered this link, but for some reason it was omitted from my comment.  Maybe there was a technical slippage?

Here's another:  "All our work is unattributable".

Look, I'm not suggesting that the good Sir Rod didn't give it his best shot with ruler and compass, given his undeniable expertise with people-moving.

What I'm saying is that his associations ought to be squarely in the spotlight of common public knowlege.

We seem to be assailed from all sides by entrenched interests, lobbyists and big money.  Given the coming shortage of cheap and easy liquid fuel, some of those entrenched interests might be trying to make the world a better place for themselves before the other shoe drops.

- thud!

Other organisms....

There is another organism that thrives in dark places and may be committed to the preservation of entrenched financial interests and the fossil fuel industry - especially in Victoria.

Part of the answer

David and John:
           Thanks. I simply decided that I had forgotten that I wasn’t on the engineers thread.  I have always had difficulty enough in finding the patience to explain to, and convince paying customers!
     (Don’t have to any more, unless the problem interests me, and they know me well enough to call, or I have come well enough recommended too not to have to bother, I don’t have anything to do with it.  Cost and savings, that is enough.)
    David I agree with your assessment of bio fuel. It always was a ‘feel good’ solution.
    Seems to me that a reading of the original article dispels the distractions raised by the skeptics. 
    Water? Prime agricultural land?
    "Sapphire claim they can engineer whatever they like now on the strain of algae they're working with," said Skill. The next step, he said, depended on developing the engineering and cultivation systems to grow the algae economically.
    Sea water?  Brackish water?   Regardless, these things will grow in a ‘soup’, be strained out for processing and the soup recycled.
    "You can probably derive 40% of the algae's weight in oil and you've got 60% of other stuff and there's a lot of valuable components in that in terms of chemical feed stocks."
    Perhaps, just perhaps the organism might thrive upon sewage plant waste water and return clean, or significantly cleaned up water.

Toxic algal blooms – a sign of rivers under stress

Nova, Science in the news.  Published by Australian Academy  of Science .
    First, blue-green algae like abundant phosphorus and nitrogen. These two nutrients enter Australia's waterways in large amounts from factories and sewerage outlets, and as run-off from farms and suburban parks and lawns. This process is known as eutrophication. Much of the phosphorus and nitrogen comes from ordinary household detergents.

Blue-green algae are favoured by long periods of sunlight which provide warm temperatures and the energy for photosynthesis. Sunlight is rarely in short supply in Australia.

They also enjoy still, calm conditions. Such conditions are usually present in dams and reservoirs, but they can also occur in rivers during drought or when their flow is reduced by irrigation and household use. The flow of many river systems in Australia can sometimes be too low to prevent algal blooms.

    Malcolm, often enough you express a wish that contributors would read what you wrote.  I feel the same way.
    Malcolm writes: ‘You argue that the little furry plants replace what they will take away. If the planet is warming because of the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, IF, what you propose keeps the level the same only if we don't increase consumption.’
    If all diesel/petrol type fuels could be replaced tomorrow with this process, the  pollution load made up of all uses of these fuels would stop tomorrow, and, if you read John Pratt’s simply, clear explanation in  Algae are carbon neutral, an increase in the demand for this fuel would not increase the pollution level.

    Scott Dunmore writes:   the Israelis were experimenting with algae back in the seventies. That you don't see algae plantations all over the Negev desert should tell you something.

    Over hundreds of years people  attempted to fly. The fact they didn’t succeed is merely an interesting historical fact. Knowledge, materials and processes continue to develop and a good concept that was ahead of its time becomes possible.

    An instance: in the late 50's Standard Motors, or Standard Vanguard Motors, England built a Vanguard car with a petrol fueled motor driving a generator,  driving an electric motor in each wheel.  The management of the system was of course mechanical. The project died.
    Today the management would be done by computer. Simple, cheap, light weight and although Standard Motors are long gone, the concept, with variations, is in use today and in all likelihood will become the predominant system for driving vehicles.

A small addition


MIT Researchers Make Major Solar Power Breakthrough

The process involves splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen cheaply and efficiently at room temperature.
Thomas Cliburn      InformationWeek     August 1, 2008 03:40 PM

Storing solar energy in batteries remains costly and inefficient. But that may not be true for much longer.

MIT researchers have discovered a way to store solar energy that could make solar power in homes a mainstream energy option and might even make power companies obsolete, at least for residential needs.

Daniel Nocera, a professor of chemistry and energy at MIT, and postdoctoral fellow Matthew Kanan have figured out how to split water into hydrogen and oxygen cheaply and efficiently at room temperature. The process can later be reversed, allowing the recombination of hydrogen and oxygen in a fuel cell to create carbon-free electricity.

    "This is the nirvana of what we've been talking about for years," Nocera told the MIT News Service. "Solar power has always been a limited, far-off solution. Now we can seriously think about solar power as unlimited and soon."
    Nocera's breakthrough could enable the "hydrogen economy," a possibility that many have dismissed as impractical.

 Hydrogen is in my view the way energy will go.  
    (I’m biassed!  One of two ‘major’ projects I am working on are in this area. I could now, set up so that I have 24 hour a day  renewable energy using the project I’m on in conjunction with commercially available, proven technologies.   Of course it is not economically viable at the moment, and it is not the direction for what I am doing is intended.
    If I were building now, I would not have electricity or gas connected, and if I were outside the city there would be no septic tank, or similar type installation.
    These new innovations simply make the process easier.  

    The government sale of the electricity grid is probably the right decision, for all the wrong reasons.  Within 20  there will be no grid.   Small towns will have their own supply, city blocks likewise.

    Part of the previous post came in while I was putting it together.  This followed shortly afterward. Innovation continues apace!)
'Major discovery' from MIT primed to unleash solar revolution
Scientists mimic essence of plants' energy storage system
Anne Trafton, News Office    July 31, 2008

In a revolutionary leap that could transform solar power from a marginal, boutique alternative into a mainstream energy source, MIT researchers have overcome a major barrier to large-scale solar power: storing energy for use when the sun doesn't shine.

Until now, solar power has been a daytime-only energy source, because storing extra solar energy for later use is prohibitively expensive and grossly inefficient. With today's announcement, MIT researchers have hit upon a simple, inexpensive, highly efficient process for storing solar energy.

Requiring nothing but abundant, non-toxic natural materials, this discovery could unlock the most potent, carbon-free energy source of all: the sun. "This is the nirvana of what we've been talking about for years," said MIT's Daniel Nocera, the Henry Dreyfus Professor of Energy at MIT and senior author of a paper describing the work in the July 31 issue of Science. "Solar power has always been a limited, far-off solution. Now we can seriously think about solar power as unlimited and soon."

"This is a major discovery with enormous implications for the future prosperity of humankind," said Barber, the Ernst Cha James Barber, a leader in the study of photosynthesis who was not involved in this research, called the discovery by Nocera in Professor of Biochemistry at Imperial College London. "The importance of their discovery cannot be overstated since it opens up the door for developing new technologies for energy production thus reducing our dependence for fossil fuels and addressing the global climate change problem."
'Just the beginning'

Exhilarating times!  
Within 15 to 20 years the earth will be unrecognisable.  The junk that we are using now will look to youngsters like the pre-motor vehicle  equipment looks to us today.

Now we build the pipeline

Disassociating water to produce hydrogen and oxygen. Hmmm. Wonder where I've heard that one before.

If the articles Peter Hindrup refers to are accurate and the technology is viable at reasonable cost, the first thing we do is build the plant, build a pipeline to the head of the Murray/Darling system and start burning the hydrogen. That will get some water flowing and provide huge numbers of jobs and revitalise the bush all in one go.


The patent stupidity, if not irresponsibility, of this thread makes me wonder if Alphonse shouldn't be making this comment.

Now, I'm a lawyer with qualifications in English Literature and Psychology and I only got a decile 6 in First Level Chemistry (i.e. 40% of the State doing First Level beat me - probably about 300 people in those days).

When you produce oil, you capture carbon in a chemical structure which also captures (if I remember correctly) oxygen. When you subject oil to combustion, you produce carbon dioxide.

If global warming is occurring as a result of oil being combusted by humans, how in the heck is producing 2% (or any proportion) of the combustible resource available going to reduce the carbon dioxide production?

There is so much crap being talked about this issue of "global warming" that I am starting to think the baby is being chucked out with the bathwater.

As I have said before, there is no harm in doing things but could we confine them to the sensible?

Well, duh, Malcolm ...

The algae make the oil by constructing complex long-chain chemicals combining water and sunlight and

(drum roll, wait for it ........)

Carbon  dioxide! (boom tish)

So they take the CO2 out of the air and make it back into oil.


Duh, indeed

I don't have the equations in front of me so can't do the molecular equivalents for you David Roffey and John Pratt but, THINK. Unless you store the oil you make from your little furry friends, when you burn it it goes back into the atmosphere. Best case scenario? No net loss; no net gain.

The Peak Oil lunatics argue that we have increasing demand with reduced supply. You argue that the little furry plants replace what they will take away. If the planet is warming because of the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, IF, what you propose keeps the level the same only if we don't increase consumption.

Batshit if you are right, super batshit if you are wrong.

What do you propose? We sell oil to the Saudis?

Double Duh

I rather thought, David Roffey, I was responding to your comment "not impossible".

Possibly not - just futile. 

 I ask the question again: what do you propose?

Disposing, not proposing ...

Er - you can read, can't you, Malcolm?

Sapphire Energy proposes that they have a great world-saving product.

My article says," hang on, chaps, I don't think this stacks up".

Unless you thought I was seriously proposing that Texas be levelled and covered with tanks full of algae (even if it would improve the neighbourhood).

Biodiesel is a total frigging disaster. Algae are three times as good. 

Algae are carbon neutral

Malcolm, I always thought lawyers were intelligent. Oil, natural gas and coal are fossil fuels, that is they are made from plants that were alive millions of years ago. The carbon stored in fossil fuels will stay out of the atmosphere until we burn it. The burning process produces C02 a greenhouse gas and global warming.

If we use algae and plants that are grown today to produce energy, the plants while growing take carbon from the atmosphere today and return it to the atmosphere when burnt: that is, they are carbon neutral.

Carbon in the ground in the form of coal or oil will not cause global warming. It is only when we release the fossilized carbon that we create the problem.

I am not sure which part of that process you fail to understand.

Maybe I should speak to Claude.

Seen all this before

David, without bothering to analyse your figures, one thing struck me.

"So, covering the whole of the Mojave desert can produce just under 2% of the world's oil"

As I posted before, the Israelis were experimenting with algae back in the seventies. That you don't see algae plantations all over the Negev desert should tell you something.

Trouble with algae is it needs water to grow.

Would you return this planet to the conditions that existed a billion years ago?(give or take a couple of years.)

That link was interesting, thank you.

Need a nice wet sunny place ...

Yes, Scott, it's the combinatorial stuff that gets you.

To get best yields, you need a place that's sunny all day and has lots of water, which tends to be agricultural land, thus obviating one of the suggested advantages of the algae (that they don't need to be grown on agricultural land) - so, best yields essentially aren't available, and hence the area needed to be covered in tanks (and floodlights?) grows and grows ...

I've got it!

Bergen, plenty of water and they could use hydro-electricity to power up the flood lights.


Maybe Malcolm we should quietly go away and talk amongst ourselves.

Oil & coal, fading into the sunset?

David, thanks, a really interesting contribution.

Your calculations leave my head spinning, but what if we approach the issue differently?

Twenty odd years ago I was doing some research on indoor flower production. The experts, at least at the time were the Dutch and the light requirement experts were Philips.

From memory, they had established that for 15 or 20 minutes, I’m no longer sure which, after the lights were switched off, nutrient conversion continued unabated. They then hit the lights for something like 30 minutes, before again switching them off.

Assuming that this alga behaves in a somewhat similar way — and of course it may not! — then it ought to be possible to pump the solution from a holding tank in to an illuminated area — as intensively lit as needed for peak production — by using mirrors and/or reflectors.

Periods of light and darkness could be managed by controlling the speed of the flow, and so production per area unit could be multiplied.

A similar result could be obtained, but with less precision by using large deep tanks and setting up an agitation system so that a permanent ‘current’ was created which circulated the solution in a circular motion over the length of the tank.

Innovation proceeds apace! I was considering posting the following item, but it may fit as easily here.

EE Times: MIT claims 24/7 solar power

R. Colin Johnson (07/31/2008 2:00 PM EDT)

PORTLAND, Ore. — Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have combined a liquid catalyst with photovoltaic cells to achieve what they claim is a solar energy system that could generate electricity around the clock.

Second law of thermodynamics

Nice thought on the hydroponics and lamp set-up, Peter (I wouldn't want to suggest that you've tried this on any other crops ....)

Sadly, the second law of thermodynamics tells us that the algae cannot use all of the energy output from the lamps, and thus your scheme produces less net energy than it does if you don't turn the lamps on at all.

OTOH, if what you need is nice portable liquid energy for transport, and you power the lamps off of a windfarm, you do indeed get more oil. Not sure what a Texas-sized floodlit area looks like from orbit, but it probably will signal to aliens, as well.


David Roffey, actually no. While others get 'high' on the many and varied ways that are available, my problem was always the opposite – keeping some contact with the ground.

I do get paid, from time to time to assess business and/or production options. (Being paid for what you would happily do for nothing has been one of the intermittent pleasures of my life.)

I obviously didn’t make myself clear. The reference to the lights was to raise the work done on the length of time growing continues when lights are cut off. (With the commercial flower production that the study referred to.)

[ The Dutch produce flowers on a moving belt system in these controlled environments where flowering is controlled to the day!]

I was talking of reflecting, deflecting and directing sunlight.

Having had some time to think on it, visualise a series of large diameter tubes with ‘flutes’ of the same clear material corkscrewing around the outside of the tube. The ‘soup’ is run down the corkscrew, being exposed to focussed light, with reflected light being directed through the tube.

Maximum light exposure with oxygenation of the ‘soup’ thrown in. (Assuming these things like oxygen.)

This would also allow for maintaining an optimum temperature.

Operating in this sort of environment one would have to assume that production energy was being produced by some form of solar energy.

This would be a fun project to be involved in.

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