Friday, December 18, 2009
MICROBIAL BIOFUELS AND DARPA IN THE TWILIGHT ZONE
Today I share with you a message I sent to my internet forums (or should that be fora?). Anyway, I think this is exciting, although I harbor serious doubts.
Just this week I have had a chance to sit-in on separate three hour discussions with four of the top national/world leaders in biofuels from biomass (including algae). Depending on which virtual forum, I earlier reported on two of them. The U. S. Department of Energy does, for example, have a $564 million biorefinery program. I have a couple of colleagues I also count on for a reality check, have gained their counsel, and considered their response to my take on what happened yesterday.
But before sharing with you this extraordinary encounter, let me report on another Federal organization called the Defense Advanced Projects Agency (DARPA). It was created a little more than half a century ago as a reaction to that Sputnik embarrassment. DARPA has been one of my heroes. Al Gore did not invent the internet, DARPA did. They also are responsible for our Global Positioning System. They don't bother with peer review, for they think that limits innovation. They feature small teams focused on priorities of strategic importance. Their annual budget exceeds $3 billion with a technical staff (rumored to be geniuses) of around 140. They only have a few active projects. One of them is what could be a hydrogen jetliner. So, with what is to come, Hawaii has the field covered for the future. Can you imagine if we had that support and capability?
Yesterday was a mind-boggling experience. I still can't believe what I heard, for this was the DOD project manager who will let out $150 million in contracts just for jet fuel from algae within a few months ($90 million has already been allocated). Even more amazingly, he has targeted Kauai as the site to produce biofuels from algae for $2/gallon in a year or two and $1/gallon in five years and less. You can read his broad agency announcement (BAA) or this DARPA blurb. These dollars/gallon figures are astonishing in light of the table from my blog of November 30 (note that $1 gallon is $42/barrel, crude oil is at $73/barrel, while a gallon of gasoline costs $2.60/gallon today in the U.S. and double that in Europe) citing possible future prices for biofuels from algae:
$ 1.....A few entrepreneurs (of significant dubiousness)
$ 2.....Department of Energy (very unofficial, but murmured)
$ 3.....Defense Advanced Projects Agency (desired)
$ 4.....Noted scientific authority (someday if all goes right)
$ 5.....DARPA definition of affordable
$10+...Noted industrial authority
But maybe DARPA is right and my advisors are not. At least, pray that what he says has any kind of credibility so I could be wrong that Hawaii's economy will submerge into depression as I predicted in Jay Fidell's column on Sunday. It's almost like a Twilight Zone episode, for from those few words in that article I pinpointed Inouye/Obama and aviation fuel as the solution, and this visionary from DC shows up with the answer. Maybe I have super magical powers I'm only beginning to tap.
I don't know if Senator Inouye has been a spur, or what, for the politics were not mentioned once. Furthermore, this Man from DARPA envisions the targeted effort as not an R&D program, but a business plan. Mention was made of $7 billion in annual bio-revenues (the co-products will probably be more valuable than energy) within ten years, with 50% of Hawaii's energy (including aviation) use coming from biomass by the end of this period or soon thereafter. Yes, of course, ridiculous....but. Plus, I'm not sure if I got the exact details accurate for, when I asked for reviewed papers and the like, he kept repeating, go to my BAA, with a follow-on statement about he being a particularly careful, and, maybe, cloutful, program manager.
It's pretty clear who he is, but I choose not to mention names because I'm not sure I should even report on this. Maybe he at some point said none of this can be shared with the general public and I wasn't there. I purposely did not ask that question. I pursued in depth, but his response more than once was "I can't say at this time to protect patents, etc." I have met with hundreds of people in this field over the past third of a century because this is one of my specialty areas, and, for the very first time, ever, I catch my self saying, wow! This can't be true. But what if there is something to what he is saying?
Perhaps doomsday has been delayed, at least for Hawaii. No, I can't organize a meeting with him because he is too important and busy, but he is returning to Kauai next month. My opinion? I don't know enough to pass judgement, but, even though I'm not convinced, this is DARPA with commitment and he did impress me.
The Dow Jones Industrials edged up 21 to 10,329, while world markets almost all dropped. Gold increased $8/toz to $1113 and crude oil is at $73/barrel.