DOE: Biofuel Production from Algae Years from Commercialization

Yale Environment 360 links the DOE report on algal biofuels. In spite of the massive hype (though much less hype than evil ethanol), the DOE agrees these possibilities remain in the far future. I remain hopeful, but not based on any deep understanding of the challenges.

Biofuels produced from algae hold “significant promise” as an alternative to polluting petroleum-based fuels, but the technology will require years of development before it is ready to be deployed at a large-scale, commercial level, according to a U.S. Department of Energy report. The “National Algal Biofuels Technology Roadmap” identifies the state of the technology and the challenges facing researchers, engineers, and policymakers in the advancement of algal biofuels. “Many years of both basic and applied science and engineering will likely be needed to achieve affordable, scalable, and sustainable

Hope is not a plan, but one positive I can offer is that I don’t know of any proposed algal fuel processes that are as damaging as corn ethanol or biodiesel made from food crops or crops that displace food crops or tropical forest.

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Biofools backing bad biofuels

Regular readers know that I am very concerned about the stampede to uneconomic, environmentally hostile biofuels. Future innovations may well lead to biofuels that make sense — e.g., if cellulosic ethanol works out. Meanwhile much of the current activity is being promoted by “biofools”. So I was very pleased to see a thoughtful, sane article in the November Smithsonian.

Cost/benefit and environmental impact of any fuel source requires a complex life-cycle analysis to assess public policy. This is definitely not a topic suitable for typical TV or mass media sound-bite journalism. E.g., did you know that

In the United States, state and federal biofuel subsidies cost about $500 for every metric ton of greenhouse gas emissions they avoid, according to a study by the Global Subsidies Initiative, an environmentally oriented nonprofit. We could pay somebody else to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, via the European carbon emissions trading market, for about $28 a ton.

Or did you know about the Gulf of Mexico “dead zone”?

In a recent Foreign Affairs article, “How Biofuels Could Starve the Poor,” Runge and co-author Benjamin Senauer noted that growing corn requires large amounts of nitrogen fertilizer, pesticides and fuel. It contributes to massive soil erosion, and it is the main source, via runoff in the Mississippi River, of a vast “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. (This year the dead zone, expanding with the corn crop, was the third-largest on record.) The article made the switch to corn ethanol sound about as smart as switching from heroin to cystal meth.

Or about the impact on wildlife?

One other problem with the rush to “greener” fuels is that, despite the biodiversity happy talk, wildlife is already prominent among biofuel victims. Last year, for instance, farmers were protecting about 36 million acres through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which works to restore degraded lands, reduce soil erosion and maintain wildlife habitat. CRP land is what biofuel proponents often have their eyes on when they talk about producing biofuels and biodiversity by growing switchgrass. But farmers look at the bottom line, sizing up the $21 per acre they net with the CRP payment (to take a representative example from southwest Minnesota) against the $174 they can now earn growing corn. And they have begun pulling land out of CRP and putting it back into production.

Other countries are also rapidly surrendering habitat to biofuel. In Indonesia and Malaysia, companies are bulldozing millions of acres of rain forest to produce biodiesel from oil palm, an imported species. The United Nations recently predicted that 98 percent of Indonesia’s forests will be destroyed within the next 15 years, partly to grow palm oil. Many of the new plantations will be on the island of Borneo, a mother lode of biological diversity.

Or about “splash and dash”?

Oh, and one final irony. The Christian Science Monitor recently reported that because of the way U.S. biofuel laws are written, foreign tankers loaded with Indonesian biodiesel can stop briefly at an American port, blend in a splash of regular petroleum diesel and qualify for a U.S. subsidy on every gallon. It’s called “splash and dash,” because the tankers generally push on to Europe to collect additional subsidies there. All in the name of greener fuels.

Highly recommended…

Rapeseed biofuel ‘produces more greenhouse gas than oil or petrol’

Rapeseed and maize biodiesels were calculated to produce up to 70 per cent and 50 per cent more greenhouse gases respectively than fossil fuels… “One wants rational decisions rather than simply jumping on the bandwagon because superficially something appears to reduce emissions”

Regular readers know that we have campaigned to stop the tariffs and subsidies for U.S. corn ethanol — which turns out to be an even worse “solution” than we thought.

Dr Dave Reay, of the University of Edinburgh, used the findings to calculate that with the US Senate aiming to increase maize ethanol production sevenfold by 2022, greenhouse gas emissions from transport will rise by 6 per cent.

That is, the massive transfer payments to farmers and political contributors will INCREASE GHG by 6% over the baseline of continuing to use fossil fuels.

…Rapeseed and maize biodiesels were calculated to produce up to 70 per cent and 50 per cent more greenhouse gases respectively than fossil fuels. The concerns were raised over the levels of emissions of nitrous oxide, which is 296 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Scientists found that the use of biofuels released twice as much as nitrous oxide as previously realised. The research team found that 3 to 5 per cent of the nitrogen in fertiliser was converted and emitted. In contrast, the figure used by the International Panel on Climate Change, which assesses the extent and impact of man-made global warming, was 2 per cent. The findings illustrated the importance, the researchers said, of ensuring that measures designed to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions are assessed thoroughly before being hailed as a solution.

“One wants rational decisions rather than simply jumping on the bandwagon because superficially something appears to reduce emissions,” said Keith Smith, a professor at the University of Edinburgh and one of the researchers.

Maize for ethanol is the prime crop for biofuel in the US where production for the industry has recently overtaken the use of the plant as a food. In Europe the main crop is rapeseed, which accounts for 80 per cent of biofuel production.

Professor Smith told Chemistry World: “The significance of it is that the supposed benefits of biofuels are even more disputable than had been thought hitherto.”

It was accepted by the scientists that other factors, such as the use of fossil fuels to produce fertiliser, have yet to be fully analysed for their impact on overall figures. But they concluded that the biofuels “can contribute as much or more to global warming by N2 O emissions than cooling by fossil-fuel savings”.

The research is published in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, where it has been placed for open review. The research team was formed of scientists from Britain, the US and Germany, and included Professor Paul Crutzen, who won a Nobel Prize for his work on ozone.

Dr Franz Conen, of the University of Basel in Switzerland, described the study as an “astounding insight”.

“It is to be hoped that those taking decisions on subsidies and regulations will in future take N2O emissions into account and promote some forms of ’biofuel’ production while quickly abandoning others,” he told the journal’s discussion board.