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Saturday, February 5, 2011

ALGAL BIOFUELS FOR LESS THAN $3/GALLON?

My blog of only yesterday reported that the best industry can do today is algal biofuels for $33/gallon.  I was being kind by mentioning it might be possible to reduce this cost by a factor of ten.

Well, after posting that article, I had lunch with Professor Jaw Kai Wang, who, like me, is actively retired, and is currently the only individual still associated with the University of Hawaii who is a member of the National Academy of Engineering.  He was a valuable ally in bringing to the UH the National Science Foundation Marine Bioproducts Engineering Center.  While this is his 52nd year on the Manoa Campus, he has spent the past year or so in China (near Shenzhen) on a project to reduce the cost of producing biofuels from algae.

He convinced me that it is possible to drop the cost of algal biofuels below $3/gallon.  Mind you, $3/gallon is $126/barrel, so oil would still need to shoot past $150/barrel to make even this extremely ambitious target profitable.  With Peak Oil, Global Heating and the Revolution in Africa and Arabian Nations, though, this could be any day now.

Anyway, his concept is simple:

1.  Link the biosystem to the sewage waste from a large city, stack gasses from a coal powerplant and a petroleum refinery.  

2.  Use diatoms as your algae.

That's it!  Given an algal biosystem, the cost of fertilizer and carbon dioxide turn out to be significant.  The sewage water can provide the nutrients (for which you would also be provided a tipping fee) and the powerplant supplies the carbon dioxide (and someday soon, the carbon tax will make even this input a plus, for you gain another tipping fee).  

Diatoms are used because they are sufficiently efficient in converting sunlight into mass, but, more so, can overwhelm any biointruder.  The problem is that the skin is silica, and a temperature of 300 C is needed to crack the surface, thus the need for waste heat from a refinery, which would also be able to refine his biofuel into jet fuel and other products.  Interestingly enough, he says that the seawaters around Hawaii are relatively high in silica, so this would be an ideal site for a major development.  Also, the silica shell, it turns out, can be marketed as a nanosolution to clean out nuclear contaminated soils and utilized for other pollution remediation services.

If you have a few billion dollars to invest, you can contact Professor Wang at: 

   jawkai@hawaii.edu

While his next step will be to build a prototype system in Southern China (for, when he left Taiwan in 1958 after graduating from National Taiwan University, he promised himself he would return to help China, for that was where he was born), he is particularly interested in assisting the right developer build a commercial operation in Hawaii, for he has spent his entire professional career here, and is even more desiring to give back to his adopted home.

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