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Thursday, January 26, 2012

A POSSIBLE BREAKTHROUGH IN MARINE BIOFUELS?


What are the prospects of biofuels from algae?  My posting of 5November2009 provided a wide range of possibilities, from $1/gallon to more than $10/gallon.  The most credible was $4/gallon (or $168/barrel...which means oil would need to cost much more than $200/barrel to be commercially competitive).

Microalgae (above, upper half) are today the focus of algae research for biofuels, but all these efforts occur on land, are energy intensive, could consume precious water, and are under the watchful eye of various environmental groups.  Someday, ocean bioengineers will be able to grow microorganism in the open ocean, but I personally can't imagine how.

What remain, then, as the only algae option for the ocean are macroalgae (kelp, etc.), a subject which has been researched for more than half a century, most notably by Howard Wilcox.  While Wilcox focused on methane as the end product, John Forster is taking a slightly higher value pathway for food and feed.

However, getting to the reason for the above title, a relatively recent potential of macroalgae for energy was in 2008 reported by a group from the Netherlands (Ecofys), and here is a quote from Environmental Research Web:

Earlier studies have indicated that large-scale use of seaweed as an energy source could in theory supply the world's needs several times over 


ERW went on to say:

Natural seaweed species grow very fast – 10 times faster than normal plants – and are full of sugars, but it has been very difficult to make ethanol by conventional fermentation

and

The new microbe research, published today in the leading journal Science, represents a "critical" technological breakthrough, but the challenge of making the approach commercially viable remains.

This so-called leap of progress is a genetically modified solution, which will immediately draw certain concerns.  But already 40 different farm commodities are totally approved for the marketplace, and you regularly eat GM corn.  At least you won't be drinking this liquid, although ethanol is the biofuel of choice for marine biomass.  But it is not the macroalgae that is being modified, it will be E. coli to more effectively ferment the fiber.

There are other developments.  While I have a sinking feeling that the moisture content of any marine biomass will be too high to gasify, below is a process from Cornish Seaweed Resources:


According to Daniel Trunfio of Bio Architecture Lab, 3% of the world's coastal waters can grow 40% of the fuel burned by U.S. vehicles.  But that earlier Dutch study indicated that the open ocean can be used to provide several times the current world usage of energy.  It also indicated that most of the ocean is a nutrient desert, so the efficiency will be meager.  I won't explain that ocean nutrient map to the left, but you can click on that portal to better understand it.  But, yes, the open ocean, especially in much of the band around the equator (like Hawaii), is a "desert."

On the other hand...

...shown here is the open ocean as the greatest source of productivity.  So what is what?  Well, there is a lot of ocean, but, save for where there is natural upwelling, the surface lacks nutrients.

This is where ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) with the prospects of utilizing the deep cold water can be the future of food and energy:


Thus, the Blue Revolution and nutrient-rich effluents from the OTEC process (the rendering to the right is from Lockheed Martin), for you get free fertilizer and irrigation (after all, you are in water), and on free real estate (at this time no one will charge you for using the seas outside the Exclusive Economic Zone, which is most of the Pacific and Atlantic Ocean, where there should be dampened environmental noise).  The marine biomass can be processed on grazing platforms into the appropriate biofuel (could well be ethanol, although higher order hydrocarbons and methanol might also be of interest), and conveniently sent to markets, for ocean shipping is about the cheapest mode of product delivery (you don't need to build roads, etc).  There will also be a range of other products, including biopharmaceuticals, green chemicals, hydrogen, ammonia, fertilizer (especially phosphates for terrestrial farming), seafood, air conditioning, and so on.

So is this a significant breakthrough?  Well, that genetically modified bit of news is at least an advancement.  There is much work to be done to compete with some of the other options:  low efficiency terrestrial biomass, peaking oil, coal and tar sands.

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The Dow Jones Industrials fell 22 to 12,735, but major world markets were all up.  Gold increased $12/toz to $1721, while the WTI oil is at $100/barrel and the Brent Spot is at $110/barrel.

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There remain two cyclones in the Indian Ocean, with Funso at 130 MPH, but threatening no one, and Iggy, heading for northwest Australia:


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