Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Widescale Biodiesel Production from Algae

With the Oil Peak upon us, there's a need to find a way to run our society without being beholden to Fossil Fuel and its attendant dependence on OPEC. While I personally prefer electric vehicles, I also see a different solution as being very exciting.

Biodiesel is a liquid fuel that is highly compatible with the existing infrastructure. Instead of digging up fossilized oil from zillions of years ago, it takes plant material growing today and through industrial chemical magic extracts the oil. Uhm, remember that you probably have several bottles of oil derived from vegetable material already in your house. Ergo, Olive Oil, Canola Oil, or even (urgh) Crisco, all are oil products derived from plant material. With a little bit of simple processing you can take that oil, and create a diesel fuel that will easily cause your car to move down the street.

Enter, this proposal:

Widescale Biodiesel Production from Algae

The Office of Fuels Development, a division of the Department of Energy, funded a program from 1978 through 1996 under the National Renewable Energy Laboratory known as the "Aquatic Species Program". The focus of this program was to investigate high-oil algaes that could be grown specifically for the purpose of wide scale biodiesel production1. The research began as a project looking into using quick-growing algae to sequester carbon in CO2 emissions from coal power plants. Noticing that some algae have very high oil content, the project shifted its focus to growing algae for another purpose - producing biodiesel. Some species of algae are ideally suited to biodiesel production due to their high oil content (some well over 50% oil), and extremely fast growth rates. From the results of the Aquatic Species Program2, algae farms would let us supply enough biodiesel to completely replace petroleum as a transportation fuel in the US (as well as its other main use - home heating oil) - but we first have to solve a few of the problems they encountered along the way.

The article is written by Michael Briggs, University of New Hampshire, Physics Department. He goes over the use of specific algae species to produce oil, and to convert that oil to biodiesel.

He notes that current U.S. consumption of gasoline is 120 billion gallons per year, and consumption of petroleum diesel is 60 billion gallons per year, 180 billion gallons total. However biodiesel, gasoline, and petroleum diesel, are not all exactly equivalent, so he does some calculations to show that replacing U.S. fossil fuel usage with biodiesel would require 138 billion gallons per year.

That's actually quite a large chunk of fuel to produce per year. Think Wesson can handle it? Are there enough Olive trees around?

This is where the algae comes in. One would grow algae in ponds, harvest it, and extract the oil. NREL worked out the process and also production capacities.

Based on the NREL study, he shows it would take 15,000 square miles of algae ponds to produce enough biodiesel fuel to power current U.S. needs. While that might seem like a big chunk of land, it is an area only 15% the size of the Sonora desert. There is a lot of empty land out west. Though, actually, I can't imagine a water intensive industry like growing algae would work well in such a water starved place as the U.S. West.

As Dr. Briggs notes it would be best to site these plants around the country. For example they could use existing waste streams as a food source, perhaps assisting with breakdown of municipal or farm "waste" products into a more benign substance. This is already a known field, namely biodigesting. For example Fuel Cell Energy, a maker of fuel cells that can run on methane, has made several sales to corporations with existing waste streams, who are reusing the waste streams to produce methane used in running the fuel cell that provides the electricity to run their factories.

Additionally there are other byproducts that could be used in creating fertilizers.

The operating costs (including power consumption, labor, chemicals, and fixed capital costs (taxes, maintenance, insurance, depreciation, and return on investment) worked out to $12,000 per hectare. That would equate to $46.2 billion per year for all the algae farms, to yield all the oil feedstock necessary for the entire country. Compare that to the $100-150 billion the US spends each year just on purchasing crude oil from foreign countries, with all of that money leaving the US economy.

Let's go over this a little more slowly.

First, the 15,000 square miles is actually 3.85 million hectares, just viewed with a different unit of measurement.

Next, he calculates a cost of running such algae farms. You can think of that as the cost of the raw material, and by the time the material reaches consumers in the form of biodiesel it might be $150 billion worth of product (depending on the profiteering along the way).

Third, he points to the amount the U.S. spends to buy the oil we need to run the economy. The $100-150 billion per year is the amount sent to foreign countries to buy oil from them. Hence his comment about this being money leaving the U.S. economy. That amount of money degrades the U.S. balance of trade, meaning we have U.S. capital leaving this country.

Of course the money is not the only cost. There is an energy budget to consider. Does it require more energy to produce this biodiesel, than the energy you get upon burning the biodiesel. I don't know the answer, however many of the processes he's talking about here occur with the help of the Sun's energy. Algae is a form of solar power, using photosynthesis to do its magic. This means that for much of the "product cycle" we can sit back and let the algae do its work, without using some machine that requires power.

In the paper Dr. Briggs uses the term "Energy Return on Investment" to describe this. You're going to spend some energy on operating a process that produces energy in another form. If you spend more energy than you get as a result, then you've wasted your time and squandered your energy.


Friday, April 15, 2005

Solar Opportunity Assessment Report

Solar Opportunity Assessment Report

What will it take to transform solar energy from a niche resource into a competitive, mainstream technology - and beyond, to serve society with solar's full promise? This Solar Opportunities Assessment Report, or SOAR, attempts to answer that simple but complex question and offer some possible pathways forward. It examines what is needed to grow the U.S. solar industry -- incrementally into a thriving industry, as well as through bold, audacious measures that could dramatically accelerate the transition to a clean-energy future. It focuses on three pathways for solar's future over the next quarter-century: Current Growth, Accelerated Growth, and Hypergrowth, and describes the challenges and opportunities within each.

SOAR is based on in-depth interviews with more than 30 leading authorities in the solar field to understand their perceptions and best thinking about the state of the solar industry, the challenges the industry faces, and where the best opportunities lie to break through those barriers to accelerate the growth of solar photovoltaics (PV). The interviews were complemented with additional research on and knowledge of the solar industry as well as with work done for our 2002 report Bringing Solar to Scale, which promoted a plan to dramatically ramp up the supply and demand for solar photovoltaics in a way that created a cost-competitive global industry in the state of California. This research was conducted by Clean Edge, Inc., on behalf of the Solar Catalyst Group.


Thursday, April 14, 2005

Warning: The Hydrogen Economy May Be More Distant Than It Appears

Popular Science article on 10 myths and misconceptions and why hydrogen powered cars are not just around the corner.



Is the oil peak here???

Bank says Saudi's top field in decline (By Adam Porter in Perpignan, France, Tuesday 12 April 2005, 13:52 Makka Time, 10:52 GMT , aljazeera.net)

Proving that al Jazeera isn't just about publishing the rants of terrorists (or so the U.S. news media would have us believe), they also are carrying this interesting story. It seems that Saudi Arabia's largest oil field has started to decline in production.

By definition that means Saudi Arabia's oil production has started to decline, and therefore so has the worlds.

Which, if true, signals that the world has reached the peak oil point. Maybe. If true.

"The combination of the news that there's no new Saudi Light coming on stream for the next seven years plus the 27% projected decline from existing fields means Hubbert's Peak has arrived in Saudi Arabia," says Coxe, referring to data compiled by the International Energy Association's (IEA) August 2004 monthly report.

... If Gharwar, the world's biggest field, is seen to be "in decline", as Coxe says, the effects could be problematic. Markets could panic, forcing prices up, creating shortages and profoundly affecting the world economy.

"The kingdom's decline rate will be among the world's fastest as this decade wanes," predicts Coxe. "Most importantly, Hubbert's Peak must have arrived for Gharwar, the world's biggest oilfield."

Coxe dismisses Saudi claims that the country can produce extra capacity to satisfy surging demand. He notes that Saudi promises to increase production last year failed to materialise. Aramco had pledged an extra 500,000 barrels of oil immediately and an extra 5 million bpd by 2012.

He says the markets had "assumed this first flow would be a half million barrels daily of the benchmark Saudi Light, the high-end product that any oil refinery can process. Instead ... the new oil was heavy, sulphurous oil that only a few refineries had the spare capacity to use".

Continuing, he asks: "What about those 5mbpd of new production by 2012? It turned out that only 2.5 million barrels would be net additions to Saudi output: Declines from existing fields will slash production by 2.5 million bpd."


Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Buderus Joins IdaTech, RWE Partnership

Today, IdaTech announced that the German heating equipment manufacturer Buderus Heiztechnik GmbH (Buderus), a company of the Bosch group, has joined RWE Fuel Cells in its program with IdaTech for the development of a commercial 5-kW combined heat and power (CHP) fuel cell system.

Earlier this year, IdaTech announced a joint program with RWE Fuel Cells in the development and commercialization of CHP fuel cell systems for multi-unit housing and light commercial applications up to 50 kW.

"Success in micro-CHP applications will depend on a combination of superior technology and channels for delivery of these solutions to the customer. We believe that this combination of our technologies and companies is among the best in the world," said Claude Duss, president and chief executive officer of IdaTech. "This partnership is yet another step in IdaTech's progression toward commercialization of fuel cells. It represents additional potential regarding technology, manufacturing and distribution. We are excited to be working together with Buderus, one of Europe's leading manufacturers of heating products."



Environmentally safe, dye-sensitized solar cell

Amy S. Cannon, a graduate student of John C. Warner's at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, received the 2004 Kenneth G. Hancock Memorial Student Award in Green Chemistry at ceremonies held last week in Washington, D.C. Cannon was selected for her work on designing an environmentally benign, efficient, and inexpensive titanium dioxide dye-sensitized solar cell (DSSC).



Saturday, April 9, 2005

The Nuclear Option

How do we get the energy which drives our society? If we are to continue living in the style to which we are accustomed, the energy source needs to be something other than oil, coal or any of the other carbon based fossil fuels. There's several reasons for that, one of which is environmental quality.

If we ignore the fossil fuels, what are we left with?

  1. Hydro-electric
  2. Nuclear
  3. Wind
  4. Solar
  5. Tidal

I have in front of me an op-ed column in the NY Times going over the non-fossil choices, and he says Nuclear power is the obvious conclusion. EEK!!!

Nukes Are Green (By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF, Published: April 9, 2005, NYTIMES.COM)

The very concept of the title is counter to the typical "Green" ecologist. I know it's really bothering me. So let's take a look at what he has to say.

Global energy demand will rise 60 percent over the next 25 years, according to the International Energy Agency, and nuclear power is the cleanest and best bet to fill that gap.

Hum, that strikes me as being similar to the Neuro-Linguistic-Programming technique where the person says a true statement, followed by the statement they wish the subconscious to accept as true. Nuclear power isn't the cleanest, however it is true that global energy demand is rising at a fast pace. How? Why, it is the industrialization of the 3rd world, especially the boom happening in India and China. Along with industrialization must go a rapid rise in energy demand, because it is through energy that industrialization can occur.

Solar power is a disappointment, still accounting for only about one-fifth of 1 percent of the nation's electricity and costing about five times as much as other sources. Wind is promising, for its costs have fallen 80 percent, but it suffers from one big problem: wind doesn't blow all the time. It's difficult to rely upon a source that comes and goes.

Here we see a debate technique, to poison the well of the opponents.

The alternatives of Solar and Wind haven't taken off very well because the cost to buy the equipment is higher than the cost to buy fossil fuel equipment. It's economics, and short-term economics at that. And it's an uneven playing field, because the fossil fuel industry is entrenched and has economies of scale to its benefit that the solar industry can only dream of. Solar power hasn't had the dedicated R&D which the fossil fuel industry has been able to apply, and so I ask, what would happen if the investment in Solar power were greatly increased? The history of technology shows that when people are funded to solve a given problem, they'll find a way to do so. But the bulk of existing R&D is to improve the fossil fuel industry, when it's the fossil fuel industry that's the problem.

The Wind technology is a different story. The cost for that equipment is dropping to where it's starting to be competitive with the entrenched fossil fuel industry. As a result there's increasing investment in its use. But his argument there is ridiculous, because all one would have to do is store the electricity and release it when needed. Unfortunately electricity is tough to store, but that's solveable. For example one can use todays electricity to pump water uphill, then release the water through a hydroelectric system tomorrow.

He goes on to argue that the nuclear power plants can be safe, that the new pebble-bed designs are meant to be entirely safe, impossible to melt down, etc. Hmm... that's a tough argument to make given the background of the nuclear industry and the long history of accidents. Additionally the byproduct of nuclear plants is a highly radioactive materials that will remain unsafe for tens of thousands of years. I don't care how few people live in Nevada, the idea of storing such poisonous wastes as that for that long is simply ridiculous.


Friday, April 8, 2005

U.S. Report Sees Gasoline Prices Moving Higher Still

U.S. Report Sees Gasoline Prices Moving Higher Still

( By RICHARD W. STEVENSON and MATTHEW L. WALD, Published: April 8, 2005, NYTIMES.COM)

The Energy Information Administration, an arm of the Energy Department, said it expected the price of unleaded regular gasoline to hit a peak national average of $2.35 a gallon in May and to average $2.28 from April through September. Last week the average price was $2.22.

Okay, here in California the average price is higher than that. But that's besides the point.

The point is what I posted this morning. Namely it's nonsensical to tie the solution of this problem to continued reliance on oil. There isn't enough oil in the U.S. to fuel our needs for very long, the U.S. already spent it's wad in terms of the oil available in this country.

I fully support the general goal of energy independance. That the U.S. is so dependant on foreign oil causes several problems, from balance of trade, to requiring us to meddle with Middle Eastern politics. If the U.S. were instead more self sufficient we could ignore the Middle East with no problems, but so long as we keep up the reliance then the quirks of their political situation will determine the U.S. political situation.

And, really, the price of oil is not going down ever again, probably. The cause? It's the Oil Peak.

What's needed is the development of alternative energy sources. The technologies are known, they just need more R&D to develop them.

But I suppose with President Enron, Vice President Halliburton, and Secretary of State Chevron in office, we aren't going to see any solution that risks the oil industry's dominance. Eh?


Saturday, April 2, 2005

DaimlerChrysler thinking of killing the SMART car

The SMART car is an interesting phenemon. They're kind of the opposite of what Detroit thinks America wants, for it's teensy tiny, gets tremendous gasoline mileage, etc. Yet it sells well, and when it was introduced in Canada last year they sold out all the ones imported without doing any marketing. Can you say "popular"?

I've sat in one, and it's very roomy inside, despite being extremely small. Also I understand the designers went to great extreme to make it crash-safe since the small size obviously will raise safety concerns.

The most exciting thing about the car, from my perspective, is that it gets 60 miles per gallon. In todays environment of ever-increasing oil prices, that kind of fuel efficiency is to be greatly desired. The last time the U.S.A. had a gasoline "crisis", in the 1970's, the average fuel economy went up. For a few years. Until "we" forgot (I didn't forget).

DaimlerChrysler to Scale Back Mini-Car Unit (By MARK LANDLER - Published: April 2, 2005 - NY Times)

So, can someone explain to me the logic to this? They have a popular car, but they want to scale back production? They see a great success in Canada, they want to start shipping to the U.S.A. and they want to scale back.

Someone help me please. How does this make sense?