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    Tuesday, December 23, 2008


    In 1996, when oil and gas prices plummeted, the Department of Energy cut back or abandoned promising research projects on alternative liquid vehicle fuels such as the development of algae-based biofuels. A few years later, the best electric vehicle experiment ever done by a major carmaker – the EV1 project – was abandoned.

    The payoff: In 2008, when oil and gas prices were at an all-time high, there was no alternative to internal combustion engine (ICE) liquid fuel vehicles and no alternative liquid vehicle fuel available. The U.S. and the world were at the mercy of oil speculators.

    Last summer, promising plug-in vehicle technology was a mere 2 years from showrooms and R&D on algae, one of the most promising sources of alternative liquid vehicle fuels, was the 3rd biggest application of venture capital in the New Energy sector last summer.

    Greg Mitchell, biologist, Scripps Institution at UCSD: “Algae yields five to 10 times more bioenergy molecules per area, per time, than any terrestrial plant…Nothing else comes close.”

    With petroleum products now at an inflation-adjusted near record low and sources of investment capital disappearing, is history – as acted out in 1996 – about to be repeated?

    If so, it is worth noting a recent International Energy Agency (IEA) report showing the world’s biggest oil fields running dry at an unprecedented rate and predicting oil prices will likely be back to $100+/barrel by 2015, a mere 6 years from now.

    If battery electric vehicles (BEVs) are not brought to market and R&D on algae biofuels does not go forward now, the summer of 2008 – with all its attendant drama over vehicle fuel costs – is merely a predictable 2nd act of a repeated, if ill-advised, historical farce whose next act can be expected in the middle of the next decade.

    By 2015, the Obama administration promises to have 1 million plug-in hybrid electric vehicles on U.S. roads. They will need liquid fuel for their longer trips. There will still be something like 240 million ICE vehicles on the road. They will need liquid fuel.

    A moment of dark humor: If there was no need to grow crops for food or animal feed (and no global climate change), it would presumably be fine to use farmlands for AGROfuel source crops. Such a plan, though, is unworkable until world populations get large enough to go the
    Soylent Green route and use people for food. (That would also solve the global climate change problem.)

    Seriously: A better plan is development of algae. Algae are immensely promising. They consume atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) to grow and can be grown in waste and ocean waters, leaving all clean, fresh water for human uses. The algals that comprise more than half of their weight can be harvested in tens of thousands times greater volumes per space used than any other biofuel source. And, unlike most other biofuels, algals can be refined into anything petroleum can be refined into.

    Challenges definitely remain. Commercial-scale growing and production facilities have yet to be established. Cost-competitive algal fuels for cars, trucks, and airplanes remain an exciting but unaccomplished hypothesis.

    Greg Mitchell, biologist, Scripps Institution at UCSD: “Given their advantages, I believe marine algae are not only the most promising option for bioenergy fuel, but the only option that can scale up massively at the global level…Most scientists who understand these processes are concluding that algae has the best chance. There is no silver bullet when it comes to energy, but there is a green bullet, or rather a green missile.”

    It is fortunate indeed that – whatever happens to the BEV projects during this anomalous period of economic downturn, compromised financing and atypical oil prices – some of the biggest money in Silicon Valley remains pledged to the development of algae.

    click to enlarge

    Biofuel Development Shifting From Soil To Sea, Specifically To Marine Algae
    December 20, 2008 (University of California, San Diego, Scripps Institution of Oceanography/Newswise via ScienceDaily)

    Scientists, Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Division of Biological Sciences, University of California, San Diego (Greg Mitchell, biologist; Ralph Lewin, Professor Emeritus; Mark Hildebrand, biologist); William Gerwick, professor and researcher, Scripps’ Center for Marine Biotechnology and Biomedicine; Bernard Raemy, executive vice president, Carbon Capture Corporation

    Scientists at UCSD are fervently pursuing research on marine algae as a source of biofuels with a variety of San Diego institutions and a combination of public and private funding. They see the potential as so great they call it a “green bullet” or “green missile.”

    click to enlarge

    - The scientists believe a new algal biofuel industry could be established within 10 years.
    - Professor emeritus Lewin grew marine algae for biofuel in experimental ponds at UCSD in the 1980s.
    - Mitchell has been at Scripps since 1987.
    - Funding for algae research evaporated in the 1990s,

    - Algae can be grown in a desert with salt water, eliminating the need for cropland or fresh water.
    - Algae are carbon neutral, consuming CO2 from pollution sources.
    - Algae can feed off the nutrients in wastewater.
    - Carbon Capture Corporation maintains ponds for algae biofuel research in California’s Imperial Valley desert.

    - Marine algae are the most efficient organisms on Earth, absorbing light energy and converting it into a natural biological version of petroleum oil.
    - The nutrient-rich protein left after the algal is harvested can be used for animal feed.
    - The first formative facilities are emerging, farms with huge ponds producing hundreds of pounds of algal biomass per day. The best species of algae must still be chosen. Airborne contaminants are a threat. Many growth scenarios and production models are being tested.
    - Algae’s energy is in their algals, a type of lipid similar to human fat.
    - Refining: A simple chemical process turns lipid globules to liquid. Further chemistry turns the liquid to biodiesel fuel for cars, trucks, and jet fuel.
    - Algae produce more oil per acre than any other plant source because they double daily but with adequate nutrition they produce more carbohydrates than algals.
    - It is considered a matter of economics and the engineering to produce alge biofuels at scale.
    - The secrets of algae are a matter of the manipulation of plant photosynthesis.

    click to enlarge

    - Bernard Raemy, executive vice president, Carbon Capture Corporation: “There is still a lot of work to do, but algal-derived biofuels have the potential to become a major source of transportation fuel…”
    - William Gerwick, professor and researcher, Scripps’ Center for Marine Biotechnology and Biomedicine: “Algae are my life…There is an amazing transformation happening at the moment with a groundswell of interest in new energy sources…We have tested about 15 different ways for eliciting (lipids)… We see some evidence in which we were able to greatly expand their growth rate and production of oils. It’s early but I’m excited.”
    - Mark Hildebrand, biologist, Scripps: “We know almost nothing about how lipids are synthesized and where the gene regulation is occurring. It’s like proposing to develop agriculture without understanding how plants grow…We’ll need to keep studying new areas and coming up with new solutions because new problems will need to be addressed. That’s the beauty of basic research.”


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