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Wednesday, February 10, 2016

A BREAKTHROUGH IN MICROBIAL BIOFUEL PRODUCTION?

Bummer!  The Eddie is off.  Scroll down to the next posting to read about The Eddie.  Computer models did not accurately predict the wave conditions at Waimea Bay.  There is a chance that another giant swell could get to the North Shore in about a week.  For now, the Titans of Mavericks at Half Moon Bay is on.

You can watch the live webcast competition on February 12 at RedBull.TV.  Big Wave Surfers are all flying from Honolulu to San Francisco.  The winner of these events typically takes home from $50,000 to $100,000.
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With the price of oil now down to $30/barrel, there is no serious commercial talk about biofuels.  Ethanol from corn has long been discredited, (even though farm belt politicians keep trying to preserve this idiocy) and companies floating headlines about the imminence of liquid fuels from algae have become scarce.  After a five-year study for the U.S. Department of Energy, a group I chaired evaluating the potential of biofuels from algae decided not to publish our results, for it seemed that petroleum needed to be sold at $125/barrel before algal fuels became interesting.

But liquid fuels from some form of biomass is worthy of continued R&D, and particularly from microorganisms.  Why?
  • The feedstock utilizes sunlight and sucks up carbon dioxide from the environment.
  • Thus, the total system is carbon neutral.
  • Algae can double its weight in a matter of hours.
  • The Department of Energy says that from microalgae you can produce from 10 to 100 times more biofuels/acre than any terrestrial crop.
Current algae systems use expensive reactors that show little hope of being cost effective.    Here I am two decades ago standing next to a bioreactor built by Oscar Zaborsky and Mario Tredici at one of the Hawaii Natural Energy facilities in Honolulu.  A particular troublesome hurdle facing this biotechnology was that after growing this oil-saturated organism, the extraction process to separate the lipids was an issue.

There is the potential of gasifying macroalgae and catalyzing the methane into a liquid fuel such as biomethanol.  Gasification is more cost effective than bio-growth, but nothing much his happening with finding that magic catalyst.  Then there is the potential of the direct methanol fuel cell that only more recently has drawn industrial interest.  Certainly, there are hopeful options that deserve to be perfected.

It was 40 years ago that I had a project partially funded by the Electric Power Research Institute to feed power plant effluent (the carbon dioxide) to an algae raceway.  Apparently, this concept is just now again beginning in Japan.    The difference this time could be that extraction using liquefied dimethyl ether as the solvent could make a difference.  Assistant Professor Hideki Kanda (right) and his group from Nagoya University is pursuing this research.

It was just about a year ago that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gave his Prime Minister Award to Euglena to produce microalgae to fight food and environment problems.   To the left, Abe with Mitsuro Izumi, founder of Euglena.   This was a time when oil had already dropped to $40/barrel.  

A point to remember is that many of these next generation options need a pre-commercial bridge to ultimate success.  For example, algae can provide higher value commodities such as omega 3-rich baby formula and nutraceuticals.  The University of California at San Diego announced the replacement of fossil fuels (polyurethane foam) in surfboards  with a more flexible algae foam base.

Five years ago I published in The Huffington Post:


This was a period when petroleum sold for around $100/barrel, and I could not get anyone interested in biomethanol, jet fuel from biomass or any fuel from algae, so you can imagine the activity level  today.  However, don't lose faith, for oil will someday jump in price and we will wonder why we did not use this gift of time to develop a cleaner and locally produced substitute.  You still can participate in the 6th International Conference on Algal Biomass, Biofuels and Bioproducts:



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