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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

NOBU'S VERSUS MORIMOTO'S, PLUS BIOFUELS FROM ALGAE


There is a new expensive Japanese restaurant in Honolulu, Morimoto Waikiki (in the now posh section of the formerly decaying Ilikai).  When we arrived, we were almost alone.  When we left, the place was filled, and this is a large restaurant.  All of three months old, I finally had dinner there, with John and Kate.   No, not that couple on television with eight children.  If you know John, you know his last name.  If you don't, you don't care.

I sampled the chilled Morimoto junmai (not so good), ginjo (very good), daiginjo (better, but expensive) and 10 year old (has a brownish color and tastes 10 years old) sake flight.  John likes hot sake, so we had that, too.  The first course was a foie gras chawan mushi, the best I've ever had in my life.  So creamy and rich, with foie gras instead of shrimp.  If you have a cholesterol problem, take Lipitor or some equivalent.  I followed with cold green tea soba, perfectly al dente.  Our main entrees were what looked like John's french fried fish and Kate's salmon.  Mine was an over the top Morimoto loco moto (yes, moto), with wagyu beef:

This was the best loco moco type meal I've ever eaten.  The sauce was delicate and elegant.

Oh, I did say versus Nobu's, the other really expensive Japanese restaurant in town.  I've been to Nobu's around five times and Morimoto's once.  With this limited experience, I can say that Morimoto's is simpler, but tastier, and an ideal fusion of Japanese, French and Hawaiian.  Nobu's does have this barely distinguishable South American flair, and, perhaps is more distant from traditional Japanese.  Count on spending a hundred bucks per person with sake.

We talked about Cellana, Phycal, LiveFuels and a range of other biofuels from algae enterprises, but I can't remember what I can say or not, so let me leave this at that.  However, John sent me his 20-page paper on "Microalgae Biomass and Biofuels Production," so I'm attaching below his conclusion if you are wondering what is the state of development of this topic:

14.  CONCLUSIONS    

Microalgae biofuels production has recently become a major focus of R&D around the 
world, with billions of dollars invested by private companies and governments, and a 
myriad of projects and ventures started in the last couple of years.  A flood of patents is 
being applied for, papers published, mostly of the review type with few containing actual 
data, and there are almost daily announcements of “breakthroughs” at universities and 
private companies, with nearly weekly conferences on this topic.  Almost all the major oil 
companies now have algae projects, with ExxonMobil leading the field with a $600 million 
investment. Governments are also entering the fray, with the U.S. Department of Energy 
spending several hundreds of millions of dollars, not only on R&D but also two pilot and 
one $50 million, 120 hectare, demonstration plant (by Sapphire Energy).  The EU recently 
funded three 10 ha pilot scale projects, projects are being supported in the U.K., Australia, 
and many other countries, with a 5 ha algal biofuel project (four 1.25 ha of unlined ponds 
fed with municipal wastewater treatment plant effluent) already operating in New Zealand. 
  
What are we to make of this flood of interest, publicity and money?   What is new that has 
merited this tidal wave of investment in a technology that, to be kind, is still at an early 
stage of development, and by any realistic measure will require several years of R&D to 
determine its real potential? Most drivers for these investments are external: the recent rise 
(then fall, now rise again) in oil prices, the specter of “peak oil”, the need to develop fuels 
that have lower greenhouse gas emissions, and the lack easy alternatives.  These, drivers, 
together with a lack of knowledge and understanding of the challenges in this field, perhaps 
due to a superficial reading of prior work (e.g. Sheehan et al., 1996), may have made 
microalgae biofuels appear more attractive than other options.  In any event, almost all the 
new ventures and projects were initiated by novices to the field, whose visions of a short 
sprint to success, often based on genetically improved algal strains or new PBR designs, 
will shortly give way to a recognition of the long R&D march still ahead.  Indeed, this 
realization is already setting in, with some companies founded on a mission of biofuels 
production now changing their business models, even names, to emphasize animal feeds. 

Of course, as to be expected, some critical voices are also being raised, including a number 
of recent LCA (life cycle analysis) studies claiming that microalgae biofuels production 
would consume more energy than produced and generate more greenhouse gases than the 
alternatives, even fossil fuels.  These can be dismissed as based on assumptions that often 
do not reflect even current reality, let alone the future R&D goals that microalgae biofuels 
production must achieve for net energy and greenhouse gas benefits, as well as low costs.  


The large investments in microalgae biofuels production will, in the next few years, likely 
shake out to a more rational, longer-term development of this technology with a stage-wise 
and multi-pronged approach to achieving intermediate goals, such as wastewater treatment 
and aquaculture feeds, on the road to biofuels and commodity animal feeds.  Neither the 
excessive promises of many of the current promoters, nor the inevitable failure of most of 
such ventures, a normal patterns in any such new field, should detract from the fundamental 
promise of microalgae technology to contribute, even if to a limited, though still significant 
extent, to our future economies, operating within the constraints imposed by sustainability. 
Achieving this goal will require long-term R,D&D (Benemann, 2002, US DOE, 2010). 


A nice, safe statement from John Benemann, the world authority on this subject.  (If you can't read the above conclusion, go to View and click on Zoom In.)

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