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Wednesday, November 18, 2009


Yes, 2012, the movie, revealed how much humanity enjoys the prospects of doomsday (but for fantasy, only), for it was the #1 film last week, pulling in $225 million worldwide. While not as entertaining, the reality is that any end of the world will more probably "only" be a diminution of our daily life so that survival becomes a challenge. The following is an edited e-mail message I sent to a colleague yesterday. While the specific purpose was to comment on his crusade to commercialize the field of biofuels from microalgae, I thought this was a good opportunity (there was a bunch of cc's) for me to crystallize the essence of many of my postings into the beginnings of a cohesive story regarding various tangential pathways to a sustainable future. In parallel, I should mention that I'm in the midst of reparteeing with various individuals from a couple of internet forums about the future. I'm simplifying, but they essentially are of the opinion that Peak Oil and Global Warming will permanently reduce (and worse) our lifestyle, so the best we can do is to educate the masses about this coming doom. I urge you to click on a particularly excellent blog providing Jon Barrett's view on this issue. As you can see, their arguments are beginning to affect my attitude, although I remain resolute in my belief that giving up is not an option.

Dear Professor X:

I can only agree with you that biofuels from algae for the next few decades will need to link with other applications, such as environmental remediation. Now you know why I felt compelled that you meet with Dr. Y in Ozland, and when you said you were going to the Middle Kingdom to grow algae ONLY for biofuels production, I was almost rude in seeking from you and the team some calculations regarding these costs, which never came.

As I very early on felt that hydrogen was too expensive today, I similarly felt uncomfortable about algae being the pathway to biofuels. Energy, even at $100/barrel, is just too cheap to use any biological process. Ethanol, using any process, will require a few more breakthroughs or oil at a price higher than $100/barrel.

I'm also suspicious about plug-in electric cars, for the lithium battery is the last battery, coal will continue to be the prevailing electrical feedstock for many decades to come (and watch out for the real carbon tax when tens of millions perish one hot summer), and it is said that, for the same weight of fuel and power train, a fuel cell system will take a vehicle five times further than the lithium battery. Hawaii is particularly condemned because, while globally, oil is used to generate electricity in only 1% of power plants, this is the dominant fuel in Hawaii. Plus, when you additionally consider that our economy is uniquely based on jet fuel and the uncertainty of how high petroleum will go, I can't imagine any technology close to being developed in time to save our local economy when Peak Oil occurs.

Finally, returning to how our interest first got started, ground transport, the only biofuel I have any hope for is methanol through gasification and catalysis, but only if the direct methanol fuel cell can be developed. One gallon of methanol has more accessible hydrogen than one gallon of liquid hydrogen, so I can't understand the continued push for the hydrogen-powered car. We should be investing billions on the direct methanol fuel cell. While the Farm Lobby is the sole reason why this is not happening, it should be a simple matter of convincing them that their non-food fiber can more economically be converted into methanol.

Oh, by the way, as oil could skyrocket to more than $150/barrel, it is also a good idea to spend billions on algal biofuels, for there are opportunities for breakthroughs through genetic engineering and the long-term promise of the oceans. On to the Blue Revolution.



So how close are we to DOOMSDAY? I don't know, but the above is, more or less, an optimist's take on what should be our research priorities for a sustainable energy future. For a counterpoint, I urge you to click on Jon Barrett's blog.

The Dow Jones Industrials slipped 11 to 10,426, while world markets were mostly down. The Japan Nikkei, incidentally, which for some time was higher than the DJI, is today at 9553, so the American economy is at least doing better than that of the Japanese. Well, gold went up $4/toz, so now at $1144, is again, at another all-time high, while crude oil is inching back up to just under $80/barrel.

Aside for a declining Tropical Cyclone Anja in the Indian Ocean, our oceans are relatively calm.


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