Biofuel Conference Call Including a New Biodiesel from Algae

A few days ago I participated in a conference call (recording available here) about biofuels with an organization called Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO). In this article, I will discuss some things I found interesting, including a new technique for making biodiesel that involves feeding biomass to algae.

The call had three speakers. The first, Jim McMillan of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory gave an overview of the current US biofuel situation. According to him, a lot of current interest is in cellulosic ethanol, since corn ethanol doesn't scale up very well. At this point, the cost of cellulosic ethanol seems to be double or more that of corn ethanol. The economics are still being clarified by demonstration projects. Until there is some sort of climate legislation that raises the price of carbon, it will be difficult to overcome the price gap.

The second speaker was Reid Detchon of Energy Future Coalition, who spoke about political factors affecting biofuels. The big legislation they are looking forward to is the climate-change legislation that would raise the price of carbon, because they believe either McCain or Obama would support such legislation. Such legislation would make biofuels more cost-competitive. This fall, the EPA is scheduled to examine the carbon impact of various biofuels over their life cycles. This could have an impact on how corn ethanol is viewed relative to other biofuels.

The third speaker was Jonathan Wolfson of Solazyme. I found this the most interesting of the three presentations. Solazyme has a process for making biodiesel using algae. Instead of growing algae outside, Solazyme grows micro-algae in tanks in the dark inside, and feeds the micro-algae biomass, such as processed switchgrass. They believe they have developed a technique that is not far from commercial development.

Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) is an industry trade organization, located in Washington D. C.. In many ways it is not too different the from American Petroleum Institute (API), except operating in a different industry. As such, it shouldn't be too surprising if the material they present casts the biotechnology industry in as favorable a light as possible. This is a bias you may want to keep in mind, if you read their materials or listen to the conference call.

The first two speakers on the conference call expect that some sort of climate change legislation will be passed, once a new administration is in place. I am skeptical that that will actually happen. Once people look at the costs involved, I expect that very little will legislation will be passed that raises the price of carbon. Also, a lot of things could change between now and 2009. I expect the US financial situation will be significantly worse by the end of the year, because of the continued high price of oil. If we have a cold winter as well, I expect support for the legislation will be pretty low.

The conference call was an hour long, so there is quite a bit more on the tape than what I discuss here. If the topics are of interest, you may want to listen to the recording.

Solazyme Technology

As indicated above, I found Jonathan Wolfson's presentation on their new algae technology interesting. According to Wolfson, when the usual approach of growing algae with sunlight is used, the algae have to be efficient on two different processes: (1) transforming light into chemical energy and (2) transforming the chemical energy into oils. In Solazyme's approach, they only have to be efficient at the second half of this process--turning the chemical energy into oils.

With this approach, a variety of different feedstocks can be used. The process basically turns carbohydrates into oils. The oils that are produced can be used in various ways--as a food, as a fuel, or as a chemical feedstock. According to one video I watched from their website, the oil is somewhat similar to olive oil.

In some ways, the Solazyme approach is not too different from an ethanol approach. With ethanol, yeast often acts on corn or biomass feedstock to provide alcohol as an output. With this approach, it is algae that acts on biomass, to provide an oil as an output.

Solazyme claims that it has been able to produce biodiesel fuel that meets the standards for Number 2 diesel fuel. They claim that the fuel they produce can be used at 100% concentration, year around, without problems. I believe that the tests they have run were in only one vehicle, for one year. It seems to me that more tests would be needed to show the limitations of the fuel. For example, do microorganisms grow in the fuel, and cause the problems in the tank after a couple of years?

Solazyme claims that the process they have developed can be scaled up fairly quickly. They have tried to make the process as compatible with existing equipment as possible. The oils they have made to date have been made on large scale equipment owned by someone else, using short production runs. If they leased the equipment full time, or built their own facility, they claim they could make the oil in quantity. Whether or not this can be done needs to be proven, because collecting and processing adequate biomass for any biofuel operation is challenging.

If I understand correctly, Solazyme's goal is to produce biofuel that is competitive with diesel, without subsidies, in a fairly short time. They believe that they can scale up the process (probably to the size of a demonstration plant) in 24 to 36 months.

If you are interested in learning more about this, you will want to listen to the last third of the conference call tape. You may also want to look at the Solazyme website. There are several videos about the process available on that website.

Could this be a panacea?

Regarding whether this could be a panacea, there are still a lot of obstacles in the way. The process is only at a developmental stage, and hasn't been tested at scale. Also, the total amount of biomass available in the US isn't necessarily all that great, if one starts burning it for fuel in vehicles. We are basically using the same biomass to replenish our soil; to provide wood for heating homes; to provide biomass for fueling electric power plants; to provide feedstock for cellulosic ethanol and now to provide feedstock for algal diesel as well. There is clearly not enough biomass to do all of these things at the scale some might like, simultaneously.

Exactly how much biomass might be available is a subject for another post. A first pass estimate based on the Billion Ton Study is that there is enough biomass to replace about 20% of the US petroleum usage, if biomass is not used for other purposes, such as heating houses. This could be helpful, if we are short of petroleum products, but it isn't a complete solution.

Why haven't we heard about this before?

Solazyne is a privately held company. It is not trying to hype the stock.

Japanese brewer made superyeast for breaking down cellulose

Some seem to indicate that the 1.3 billion tons of cellulostic plant material could make 4 billion barrels of oil.
This translates to 65% of American oil consumption.

Huber, National Science Foundation and the U. S. Department of Energy titled "Breaking the Chemical and Engineering Barriers to Lignocellulosic Biofuels,"

Garbage conversion to fuel. Target commercialization by 2010. 2.5 billion gallons/year by 2022.

The University of Virginia team hypothesizes that feeding the algae more carbon dioxide and organic material could boost the oil yield to as much as 40 percent by weight. If this pans out 27 billion tons of CO2 from fossil fuel plants can be used to boost algae oil yields.

That 1.3 billion tons of cellulostic plant material is a one shot deal.

Next time around its 6 billion tons, then 3 billion, then desert.

OK slight egzageration but you get the idea.

OBTW food production would follow the same path.

We need to ramp up the ramping down process.

Craig Ventner reckons they can create 4th generation fuels, i.e. synthetic microorganisms that will produce alternative fuels, such as ethanol or hydrogen from a CO2 foodstock plus sunlight. He thinks we can have this in less than 18 months! With his usual high level of confidence in himself (and team) he says this will replace the petro-chemical industry.

We seem to be getting close to having the capability to create complex molecules, and even to create them for specific uses.

Best hopes for a sustainable future.

Repeat after me, "EROEI EROEI EROEI EROEI EROEI." If the media and culture conditions for the organism costs more energy than the the petroleum products you get out then it won't be replacing anything. When we previously discussed this on TOD, the guy who was leading the project said he needed to sell his by-products before he could market his organism. That says low EROEI to me.

I really hope C. Venter is right. However, I find it curious he thinks he can do it in 18 months, when the evolution could not make them in 4 billion years. Just based on computational time alone, I think his team is just way out of time.

Is C Venter smarter than God? I don't know, ask him.

I asked Him, and he doesn't know who C Venter is...

This is a website that seems to be on something similar. I don't know about the timeframe, though.

It looks to me like that operation would keep, maybe, 100,000 high-mileage cars on the road.

That's a big wind-farm. How many Prius's would 240 Meawatts fuel if you went straight to the grid.

Evolution didn't do it because it had no reason to. What is the competative advantage to survival for a microbe in producing biofuel?

1.3 billion tons at around 13.6 MMbtu/ton for cellulosic biomass is about 17.6 quads for the dry feedstock. Optimistically you can get maybe 10 quads of liquids from that. We use about 40 quads liquids, around 27 for transportation. Arguably better to consume it in Robert Rapier's Personal Biomass Reactors to displace natural gas and heating oil for which we use about 11 quads of the two resources in residential and commercial applications.

How about we move about 1.6 kg of uranium around the country to get the same amount of energy available ...

You have a bike ? That should (literally) do.

One of the benefits of growing algae for biofuel (in theory, at least) is that annual yield can be quite high as compared to conventionally-grown crops. The Solazyne approach seems to toss that aside by growing other things to feed the algae. We're back to adding another intermediary in the capture of solar energy.

Secondly, the amount of energy that can be stored by algae as lipids would seem to be intrinsically less than that stored by yeast or bacteria as polysaccharides. True, the energy requirements for trans-esterification (biodiesel) are different from fermentation/distillation (ethanol), but I wonder what the overall energy comparison looks like.

Alas, we can replace 20% of US petroleum usage by slowing down, but won't.

Gail, I am interested in how these projects are funded. Was there any discussion of this? The tried-and-true university lab to VC to IPO route seems too slow and inefficient, given the importance of the task, and a "Manhattan project" would produce too narrow a focus. Are you aware of any innovative funding approaches?

Alas, we can replace 20% of US petroleum usage by slowing down, but won't.

This kind of remarks always amazes me. They are perfectly valid but I always think we can't assume that because these are true now they will stay true forever. People won't slow down because they are in denial and don't see any harm. This will last only for so long.

There will come a day where it will dawn on the people that they cannot afford the price of gas and there are line ups at the gas station. It will dawn on them that there is a reason for the high price and line ups. Denial will no longer be a sustainable attitude. At this point some unthinkable things such as slowing down and taking the bike to go to work will become routine.

As long as the majority of the population has a death-grip on the past, it is going to be hard to get people to readily accept conservation.

Conservation doesn't sound like much fun to most people. They have never really been exposed to the possible alternative lifestyles that don't place industrial consumerism as the core pursuit. It is going to be hard for Westerners in partiular to accept it and there will be much social and economic disruption and chaos to go through to get to whatever it is on the other side. It is the most intersting times indeed.

Gail, I haven't gotten all the way through the call, yet; but, my impression was that the "Capital" Cost (basically, the Plant) of cellulosic is about twice the cost of corn. That jives with what I've been reading.

Companies like Bluefire, however, are projecting that they will be producing from MSW for about $1.00/gallon. BTW, they've been using this technology at a plant in Japan, producing about 1.4 Million gpy, for a couple of years.

Admittedly, the MSW (Municipal Solid Waste) Producers will have, by far, the lowest feedstock costs in the industry (in that, basically, in many cases, they're getting their feedstock for free;) but, I think the Gassifiers are, also, looking at a lower overall cost than the corn refiners.

You are probably right, it is the capital costs that are double. Producers who can get their feedstock for free are in good shape. They probably won't be a big share of the market.

It seems like the jury is still out on how much cellulosic ethanol feedstock from traditional sources will really costs. One issue is whether you really need fertilizer to make the process work, in the quantities people hope. This will add to the costs/feasibility. I know when they tried growing switchgrass in Iowa, the cost was (from memory) at least as high as that of corn--perhaps higher.

I don't know, Gail. We produce about 250 Million Tons of Solid Waste in the U.S. At 80 gal/ton that would be 20 Billion Gallons. That's about 1.3 Million barrels/day.

I think most of the energy "crops" will be grown in the south. The land is less valuable, and the climate is better. Ceres is talking 20 tons/acre in Fl. This would be between 1,600 and 2,000 gal/acre.

What I find intriguing about this process is every landfill will have a gassifier; and this means Every County will be able to raise twenty, or thirty thousand acres of Switchgrass, Miscanthus, etc. and have a close-by market for the product.

BTW, farmers have been baling hay for hundreds of years. It's not like they don't know how to work with biomass.

One thing that I think is being overlooked is that corn ethanol is creating an economic boom on the Plains! We should embrace this!

I don't want to hurt farmers, my family is from corn country in Indiana. However, corn ethanol is a poor choice for the long term because of the poor EROEI.

Industrial monoculture of corn would seem a poor choice if the goal is long-term sustainability of the soil.

Those few farm families who remain (most have left for the city) will not be building for future generations of farmers if they go down that path much longer.

The banks don't value sustainability. They just want that interest after the crop is sold this year. Farmers will grow as much as they can and sell as much as they can in order to pay the bank and still have a small profit. If someone is willing to buy the stover and straw for more than the cost of industrial fertilizer then that is what they will do. If someone will pay then to conserve soil, i.e. the taxpayers then that is what they will do. Somehow suburbanites don't understand the advantages of paying farmers not to grow on every square inch.

The website doesn't give too much information. One thing it does mention was that Chevron Technology Ventures is funding some of their work. They also have a page talking about their partnering strategies, but don't give much detail.

There are also several interesting looking videos on Solazyme's Media Page that may give some more insight. I haven't had a chance to look at them.

If this technology really works, it seems like a better use of biomass (or even corn) than most of the ethanol projects out there. For one thing, biodiesel is a better end product. For another, if the cost is lower, it probably is more efficient in its use of the feedstocks it is using. We already have a lot of sunk investment in corn ethanol, so I expect there will be desire by some to stay with what we have.

I agree that something like a "Manhatten project" probably makes sense, but I don't know precisely how. One of the catches is that we really have to be certain we have the right technology before we scale it up. Many people would like to scale up whatever their approach is.

One of the problems in assessing these non-public companies with undocumented claims is that although they may not have to attract more capital, they can have targets to meet to retain the funding they have.

A good example of this may be Nanosolar, where their claims have been subjected to heavy criticism, as they may have just produced a few panels at huge expense to reach their funding targets, and be a lot further from volume production than they are trying to apparently indicate.

Anyway, the point is that you can't necessarily trust the sort of claims Solazyme is making, even though they are not tryijng to attract public funding.

The claim is only as good as the data backing it up, and in this case it is thin, to say the least.

A good example of this may be Nanosolar, where their claims have been subjected to heavy criticism, as they may have just produced a few panels at huge expense to reach their funding targets, and be a lot further from volume production than they are trying to apparently indicate.


I read somewhere (Cnet I think) that because of the speed of the Nanosolar manufacturing process, they should be on target to produce more MW of solar PV panels from a single plant than the rest of the plants in the US put together. I seem to remember reading here on TOD, a discussion about how well their manufacturing was going and that they were able to run their "printing press" faster than originally planned. AFAIK they are definitely shipping in volume and the lack of news from them or their customers suggest that things are going at least as well as planned.

Alan from the islands

I have seen a lot of claims by Nanosolar, and not much backup.
I tend to agree with Katherine's comments here:

Nanosolar does not claim to have a 1 GW plant in production. They claim that their manufacturing line can achieve 1 GW throughput. Not the same thing, as not all of those cells will necessarily work and/or achieve the advertised efficiency. The suggestion that they achieved 1 GW actual production less than 6 months after shipping their first commercial panel is, IMO, ludicrous.

Many of Nanosolar's claims have been met with substantial skepticism by others in the industry, and most of their claims are impossible to verify independently. First Solar, in contrast, is a public company with all the financial transparency that implies.

First Solar, in contrast, is very transparent and has audited accounts of it's strides in reducing costs.

Manhattan Project doesn't make sense. Cost didn't matter in MP. Getting the A-bomb before the Nazi did matter very much. Can you envision a real fuel project in which cost doesn't matter? I don't think so.

There was a 'getting the right technology' problem in MP. It concerned separating U235 from natural uranium. Several ways were proposed. The decision was to work on all of them in parallel.

Spot on! That's the reason why no government in the world is putting any meaningful sums inot alternative energy. You only need a rudimentary understanding of economics to realise that alternatives don't stack up compared to fossil fuels and it is unlikely they ever will. The argument about applying a carbon cost penalty, whichever way you do it, to make renewables more cost competitive misses the point that it is cheap, abundant, and apparently limitless, energy that has powered modern civilization to its current heights. Knock out any of those attributes and the whole thing will go out of balance and will fall over. It doesn't matter if renewables are abundant and limitless. If they are not cheap, the economics of BAU don't stack up.

That's the reason why no government in the world is putting any meaningful sums inot alternative energy.

What do you call "meaningful"? Germany is paying 5B euro/yr in alternative energy subsidies, and has become a world leader (in both installation and manufacturing) in them as a result.

The argument about applying a carbon cost penalty, whichever way you do it, to make renewables more cost competitive

The point of a carbon tax is to make the price of fossil fuels correctly take into account negative externalities such as pollution. That renewables will (typically) suffer much less from such a tax is in many ways coincidental.

You only need a rudimentary understanding of economics to realise that alternatives don't stack up compared to fossil fuels and it is unlikely they ever will.

And perhaps one needs a more nuanced understanding of economics to realize that the situation is not as clear-cut as that.

Term & Pitt:

I wrote my objection to Manhattan Project, because IMO, talk of Manhattan Project is a cover for wishful thinking that scientists in the laboratory will save use. All we, the people, have to do is throw money at the right collection of scientists.

Concerning your comments about taxes, etc.

In the future, the price of fossil oil will rise due to scarcity. If there is no substitute for fossil oil, price will rise without bound, ie really a LOT. If no substitute is found at any price, there will be massive demand destruction, population collapse, turmoil, etc. I happen to believe that there are already substitutes from known technologies that will come into play at some very high price. But not so high a price as to cause total collapse and extinction of human race. If I'm right in this, there will be serious turmoil and demand destruction, and a residue population will come into balance with this reduced supply of substitute synthetic oil. During the time of transition to synthetic oil, the prices of the synthetic and of real oil will be essentially the same.

I'm not worried about actual extinction of human race, but I do think that some government action might mitigate the transition. Taxes on carbon from fossil fuels seem to me to be a reasonable government action. The goal is a tax that is high enough to make an unsubsidized renewable fuel price competitive with the taxed fossil fuel. The tax could start small and rise over time until suppliers of alternative fuels actually enter the market. Once alternative fuels are established, the tax should be adjusted, up or down, to maintain some reasonable market share for the 'alternatives'. Eventually the fossil fuel will become so scarce that it is not competitive even with no special tax. The tax can be repealed. The transition has been made.

Making the tax correctly take into account negative externalities is economic doublespeak. The purpose of the tax is to encourage the move to alternatives fuels by shifting the prices in the marketplace. Talking about negative externalities opens the door to setting the tax too low to achieve its purpose. One can get a very low estimate for the required tax by not looking very hard for hidden externalities. People can be quite good at failing to find something that they don't want to find.

A problem with this proposal is what to do with the tax receipts. They would be a big windfall income for the government. I have no good ideas on how to keep these from being spent on goofy projects. And I think a big tax without commensurate spending might cripple the economy.

Its a puzzle.

I don't really expect this proposal to have much success. More likely will be subsidies for specific technologies that have well funded lobbies. And no tax to pay for the subsidies!!

IMO, talk of Manhattan Project is a cover for wishful thinking that scientists in the laboratory will save use. All we, the people, have to do is throw money at the right collection of scientists.

To a large extent, yeah.

The problem here isn't really knowledge - we could replace oil with the technology we already have - it's more an issue of rebuilding and replacing large amounts of infrastructure. That's an industrial task, not an engineering one, so the Manhattan Project isn't really a good analogy.

Taxes on carbon from fossil fuels seem to me to be a reasonable government action.

It's reasonable even without worries about peaking fossil fuels. Carbon emissions are a negative externality, and so a tax that internalizes them would make the market more efficient. (And, no, that's not double-speak.)

The fact that it would move us significantly away from oil - as demonstrated by Europe - is a happy side-effect IMHO. And - as also demonstrated by Europe - it's possible to lower oil consumption an enormous amount by a tax like this, with a relatively minor impact on people. (Before someone tries, no, the US isn't "different" because it's big; over 100M Americans live in denser states than France, so density isn't the difference.)

A problem with this proposal is what to do with the tax receipts.

Cut other taxes to make it revenue-neutral. That's the proposal I pretty much always see, and I'd argue it's the most sensible one. Indeed, it gives an opportunity to lower payroll and income taxes in favour of a consumption tax, which most economists would argue is an improvement in overall tax efficiency. Win-win.

Thanks for the link. I wonder if Chevron has selected this project because it doesn't rock their boat too much, rather than because the economics are favorable - a pitfall of the tax-deduction funding approach. If governments are going to provide matching funds and tax credits, what chance to truly disruptive technologies have?

I also wonder how the NPK nutrients get back to the field/forest in this approach, or have they considered that?

There is a definite advantage to technologies that are not too disruptive. They are easy to adopt quickly, without huge infrastructure changes. I think with the timing issues of peak oil, and the related financial problems. we really should be giving strong preference to technologies that are not too disruptive.

One of the advantages of the reported technology (assuming it works), is that the biodiesel can be blended in with the regular diesel and shipped through the pipeline. This would be much better than trying to ship huge quantities of ethanol around the country in railroad cars and trucks, and mix it in at the end. Also, engines don't have to be modified to receive higher blends.

I also wonder how the NPK nutrients get back to the field/forest in this approach, or have they considered that?

Mostly by truck, and rail, I'd imagine.

As Gail pointed out in the Q&A, there is an imbalance developing between ethanol, and diesel. As ethanol replaces more, and more gasoline the refiners are in a bind. Produce sufficient diesel, and get an oversupply of gasoline. Produce the right amount to gasoline, be undersupplied in diesel. If they can't hold ethanol back they need to find a little help in their diesel supply.

Toss in efficient driving across the board and that's closer to 50%. But keep it on the down-low, every gallon of gasoline not used keeps more than it's cost out of the economic sub-systems associated w/ it's production. Next time you decide to drive efficiently, stop and think of the billionaires.

This fall, the EPA is scheduled to examine the carbon impact of various biofuels over their life cycles. This could have an impact on how corn ethanol is viewed relative to other biofuels.

Hasn't this research already been done? IIRC (no sorry, I'm not going to try and find the research, but I think George Monbiot cites it in one of his articles) in every case, we're worse off in terms of releasing CO2 into the atmosphere by making and burning biofuels, as compared to simply burning the fossil fuels that one needed to make the biofuels. Am I missing something here?


There was a rather silly article published in the Journal, "Science," that supposed that if Rain Forest trees were cut down in Brazil to plant Soybeans, to make up for the shortage of Soybeans on the world market due to American farmers planting less beans in order to plant more corn as a result of a higher corn price due to Ethanol, THEN you could end up with more CO2 in the atmosphere than if you just burned gasoline.

Of course, the deal-killer on that argument is that there are, according to the agriculture minister of Brazil, something like 150 Million acres lying fallow in the cerrano, at present. No one in their right mind would log a forest to plant soybeans when the vacant land is lying right next door. Actually, people Log trees to get Logs!

The article was "commissioned" by the Nature Conservancy which is strongly influenced by the Donations, and two Permanent Board Seats occupied by Major Oil Companies.

Corn ethanol plants are like any other. Some are much more efficient in the use of fossil fuels than others. There are some on the way that will use virtually none.

There have been several studies on corn ethanol that have had bad results. There have also been some studies regarding oil from various oil trees with poor results.

The cellulosic ethanol studies that I have seen claim fantastic results, but they are based on a lot of assumptions (use left over biomass for most/all of the external energy). These assumptions are questionable at best.

I think having the EPA review the studies, or do some of their own, would cut down on some of the controversy regarding their findings. Corn ethanol was originally "sold" as a very "green" concept that would help greatly with CO2 and global warming. People coming from this background have a hard time accepting the recent studies showing they are bad for CO2.

last year the following research has been completed by our team at EMPA . Subsequently the Swiss legislation for tax exemption for agrofuels (biofuels) has been adjusted and a comprehensive life cycle analysis is now required for an exemption. The total green house gas emissions must be 40% less than for fossil fuels and the overall environmental and social impact is restricted as well. Accordingly a number of agrofuels, for instance US corn ethanol, are not eligible for a tax exemption. rw

Thanks for reminding us of the article. This is one graph from it. It is pretty clear that US corn ethanol rates very poorly.

Figure 6: Two-dimensional representation of GHG emissions and overall environmental impact (UBP 06). Values are relative to fossil reference petrol. Green area means both lower GHG emissions and lower overall environmental impact than petrol. Click to enlarge to full size.

The information on Solazyme's website is not terribly detailed, so it's hard to get a firm grasp on what they really have.

One thing that I am puzzled about is this claim that they are able to grow algae in the dark and feed the algae waste biomass. Perhaps some of you biologist out there can correct me, but I thought that one of the defining characteristics of algae as a group of organisms is that they are photosynthetic. If such, then claiming to be able to grow algae in the dark strikes me as a bit like claiming to be able to grow roses in the dark.

Perhaps they are using some other organism and just calling it 'algae' as a sort of shorthand. Or maybe they have genetically modified algae to act like an entirely different type of organism. (??)

Anyway, IF they can grow high-lipid microorganisms (whatever they are) at a high rate and in a stable manner without having having to rely on sunlight and thus very expensive transparent bioreactors, then I would say that they have something VERY interesting. Of course, one also needs to take a look at growth rate, average lipid content, the process of extracting the lipids from the cell mass, and last but not least, the disposition of the dead cell mass. Superimposed over all that is the overall energy consumption and economics of the process.

This is the first 'algae'news I've seen in a long time that didn't make me yawn. I'd like to learn more.

"Perhaps they are using some other organism and just calling it 'algae' as a sort of shorthand. Or maybe they have genetically modified algae to act like an entirely different type of organism. (??)"

Algae are a really mixed bag. They are paraphyletic and polyphyletic. And mostly autotrophs, but some lack chloroplasts and are not autotrophs. What Solazyme says could be true. I think there is no need to speculate that these algae are genetically modified. If they have the properties claimed it more likely is a lucky find in nature. With perhaps some old fashioned selective breeding.

geek7 -

Thanks for the info. I now know that not all organisms classified as algae are photosynthetic. These organisms that Solazyme is using must be those strains of algae that are both non-autotrophic and having a high lipid content. Quite a nice combination and, as you pointed out, a pretty lucky find.

As I've said several times on this site, having to grow algae in transparent bioreactors is a serious drawback which I consider insurmountable regarding large-scale applications, so much so as to make the concept an non-starter. Doing away with the transparent bioreactor is a major step forward, though having to rely on an organic feedstock adds some points in the negative column.

They call the organisms micro-algae. If they can use biomass for nourishment, it sounds like they are closer to what most of us would think of as animals, rather than plants.

The whole process sounds amazing, especially if they Solzyme believes that they can make the biodiesel for the price of diesel. The relatively low cost would seem to indicate that the process is relatively efficient. The web site indicates that Solazyne was selected as Most Promising U.S. Green-Tech Firm at the World Investment Conference.

There are a number of videos and articles that may provide some more information from the media page. It is possible that some of their researchers have published papers on related subjects (as in "Twilight in the Desert"). I would think on something as secret as this, it would be less likely, however.

Gail -

While I find the Solazyme process intriguing (mainly because it eliminates the need for large transparent bioreactors, a feature which I consider to be a fatal flaw in other algae schemes), until they get a large pilot plant in operation that mimics the main process operations of a full-scale commercial system, then I would pay NO attention whatsover to any cost projections at this time. They are in a very early stage of development, and any future cost projections are at this point literally guesses (and probably optimistic ones at that).

The economics of any new process is extremely sensitive to a variety of operating parameters, the true magnitude of which often doesn't become apparent until extended operating experience is accumulated with a pilot plant. For example, if the actual yield turns out to be a bit less than expected, and if the energy inputs are a bit more than expected, and if the material handling requirements are a bit more problematic than expected, or if there is just plain old trouble, then the overall production costs can easily be thrown off by a factor of 2 or more.

I wish them success and would like to follow their further developments. But we should not get our hopes up too high until will see some real data from a real pilot plant.

I think you are right.

It is pretty clear that there is a reason why commercialization is almost always ramped up to in stages. First someone does some laboratory tests that look like they work. Then the process is scaled up a bit, and checked to see if the it can be made to work on a little larger scale. Then someone makes a plant that costs in the $10's of millions, and after that a plant that costs in the $100's of millions, and finally the idea is implemented widely.

There are so many things that can go wrong, and so many things that can be fine tuned to work better, that it rarely makes sense to scale up from a small scale experiment. An awfully lot of processes that looked promising turn out not to work well in practice.

This is why we had to start with "corn" ethanol in the U.S. The farmers were already growing it. We've been making "moonshine" for three hundred years, and we had some experience with the commercial process. It, also, yielded a fallback ingredient - distillers grains (if the price of corn rose, so would, theoretically, at least, the price of distillers grains.)

We would never be able to move on to the more advanced cellulosic technologies if we hadn't already developed a marketplace using corn.

They call the organisms micro-algae.

Micro-algae means only that they are single cell organisms. Some algae are multi-cell. As I said earlier, they are a mixed bag. e.g. some algae that are autotrophic also have flagella and can propel themselves through the water.

I am very skeptical about this being anywhere close to commercialization. This is really not much different than anaerobic digestion, except that lipids are supposedly produced with very specialized (and probably finnicky) bugs rather than producing methane with ubiquitous and hardy bugs. There are tremendous issues with feedstock materials handling, process control, end products separation separation, etc. that will take a lot of time to work out and a lot of energy in a full scale production reactor. It's an interesting concept worthy of more R&D, but no panacea.

I've been ciphering over methane vs "other" in alternative fuels.

Some numbers I snagged for a plant in Linkoping, Sweden given in

Production of 807,000 cu ft a day at a capital cost of $2,133,333 US. At 1000 BTU/ft^3 thats 807,000,000 BTU for the approximate equivalent of 6207 gallons of liquids at 130,000 BTU/gal, or approximately 147 bpd. Thats around $14k per installed bpd capital expenditure. I vaguely remember seeing numbers of $60k-$80k installed bpd for CTL and $120k installed bpd for BTL in EIA's 2006 world energy report.

You're in the range of $1.00/gal/yr. That's about twice as good as corn ethanol, and 4 times as good as MSW to ethanol (Capital Costs, that is.)

There are approx. 100 Million Cows, and Calves in the U.S. This would probably electrify between 15, and 25 Million homes.

Needless to say, the Utilities aren't thrilled with the idea.

That particular plant I quoted the numbers for upgrades it to pipeline quality to be sold as fuel. Farm effluent is probably the smartest feedstock choice because it is a waste stream, but farms in Austria are producing methane from smooth meadow-grass (AKA Kentucky Bluegrass in the US). I don't know why they chose that particular grass, its fairly scrawny, but its needs little attention. The Austrians are reporting yields of 2900-5400 m^3/ha which compares roughly to 533-993 gallons/acre of ethanol. There isn't a tremendous amount of information relating to EROEI of biogas on the web, a number I recall seeing is that its about seven, and about four if upgraded to pipeline quality.

Here's a press blurb.

Barrett, I've stated several times on the Oil Drum that you can get more energy from any biological converting it to gas rather than liquid. It's interesting that I've become known as an uber-ethanol booster; but, the fact is you've got to start with "the infrastructure that you have." And, right now, we have gasoline-powered cars, and farmers raising corn.

I have no doubt that sometime in the future when the importance of affordable btus smacks us in the head, and that graph of oil production is heading over Nate's cliff the country will wake up, and say, "Hey, how much does that gas cost, again? In the meantime, we'll just get started with what we've got.

True enough, I suppose, and corn ethanol has a powerful lobby.

A pilot project I would like to see with something like one of the farm scale biomethane plants in Austria is to supplement with algae. Not a specialized high lipid or high starch species, but just random prolific wild types of algae. Forgo any extraction of lipids or fermentation of starch just pump it straight into the digesters straight from the ponds and top off with the usual feedstocks to get to the desired VS concentration in the slurry. I would think that would be the cheapest case scenario of fuel production from algae. A question I don't know the answer to is if the water from the algae ponds would have a high enough algae concentration to add anything meaningful to the digester output. Olmix in France has a plant under construction to do something similar, but the details I've been able to find have been sparse.

Minor correction, the bio-engineered algae will directly produce hydrocarbons not lipids. There's no need for transestherfication. LS9 is doing the same with e. coli bacteria.

From press release:

The fuel’s chemical composition is identical to that of standard petroleum based diesel

The limiting factor here is supplying the nutrient feedstocks. If it comes from regular plants, you're limited by arable land and fresh water. Maybe you could grow high-carb algae in saltwater open ponds and feed them to this oil-pooping algae. It'll still be cheaper than transparent bioreactors.

Solazyme --> SO-LAZY-ME. Really??? This has got to be a joke.

Yet another pratfall in the quest to find a catchy name.

I have heard a little about this company, but there isn't enough that is publicly known that I would feel comfortable in saying that they have a future.

I always wonder about the availability of biomass for these processes. I wonder though - could one use open ponds and grow garden varieties of algae to supply the biomass feedstock?


We had a concrete water trough that the cows drank from after milking. They, of course, had a little cattle feed on their mouths from feeding while being milked. Man, WE GREW ALGAE LIKE CRAZY! If we'd known that you could wring the oil out of it and get diesel we'd have saved a fortune.

I'm just kidding of course (a little bit, anyway;) but we Did grow an incredible amount of algae.

On the phone call, Wolfson talked about the fact that a wide variety of different types of biomass seem to work. It seems like "garden variety algae" might be something to test. Anything that grows quickly, and doesn't use up much land, would seem to be preferred.

Does the biomass include corn?

I remember on the call Wolfson talked about trying beet pulp as a feed. There were trying to find something that had fewer harmful effects than corn, so I don't think that was one that was used. I think some of them might have been closer to waste products.

In one os Solazyme's videos, they admit their algae feeds on sugars, not on cellulose. Therefore, their process requires large energy inputs.

I think the most efficient use for oil-producing algae is to dry it in the sun and burn it in a co-gen electricity plant. Of course, electricity isn't a liquid fuel.

Yes, some algae can feed on sugars, and there are algae species that produce long chain hydrocarbons as well. One of their web pages mentions being able to use their "biodiesel" at 100%, in cold temps. To me that indicates hydrocarbons, not transesterified fatty acids. The big problem that I see right now, is the same problems the cellulosic ethanol developers face, cost to grow, transport, and handle bulky biomass, and a cheap process to convert the cellulose into sugars.

CE, I think the beauty of biomass will be it's ability to be "localized." Efficient plants can be very small, and available to immediate feedstocks.

Think about the landfill in your county. Now, think where it's located. It's NOT in the middle of "Prime" farmland, is it? It's likely on marginal land, surrounded by marginal land. Now, visualize a couple of square miles of energy crops surrounding it.

It's not much different from a farmer baling the hay, and taking it to the barn.

Based on some of the other discussion in the thread, it sounds like it skips the lipids step, and goes directly from algae to biodiesel.

We've had a demonstration plant here in BC making a biodiesel liquid from cellulostic feed stock. The light fraction is comparable to No. 2 Heating Oil, but we don't know if it is a direct replacement. The feedstock is waste wood in the form of chips and sawdust at the moment. I use the past tense because the demonstration plant is being moved to another part of the country and reassembled. We will be running more tests in the Fall.

Matter of fact, I'm looking at some of the mass/energy balance and material models on the big-ass white board next to my desk right now. I can't disclose the size of the initial plants, but I do know one thing for sure - even with all the available sustainable wood feedstock we have in this part of the hemisphere we will not come close to replacing the volume of petroleum fuels now consumed.

Any illusions of grandeur at this scale demonstrates a clear lack of understanding of the numbers involved.

The other week I had an epiphany regarding the liquid fuel market for our biodiesel product. It's quite simple, don't compete against the petroleum fuels. We will not be able to compete price-wise for the foreseeable future, nor should we entertain the notion of sustaining an unsustainable transportation mode. We will design our fuel and uses for bulk transportation and central energy uses. Readers of this site know the usual suspects I am referring to such as ships, ferries, local trains, farm equipment, etc.

We are not going to run out of oil for quite a while yet, so let the current modes of transportation fade into the sunset while we build up a less energy dense and sustainable system in the meantime. It really gets my ire up when I keep seeing "solutions" meant to maintain BAU. The constraints of fuel supply are not responsible for the predicament, it's our habits and methods - so let's stop encouraging the "junkie".

You know, I read an interesting axiom some years ago that went "A man will try to change the whole world around him before he changes himself." This is what we are really up against.


Can you answer a question about your process? Does it involve gasification of biomass and then Fischer-Trophs synthesis into long chain hydrocarbons? In my opinion, that seems to be a much better way to convert biomass to liquid fuels. Eliminate the "bioconversion" (yeast, algae or whatever) process altogether. I know at this point, it is still an expensive process, though it's very similar to CTL.

Of course, either way there's still the problem of mining the soil.

Washington University develops bacteria for ethanol process. Says it can Cut Energy Costs by 50%

There's just a lot going on in this field, right now. Some of it will work.

Yes, it is gasification. However, when it came to F-T, I said "Whoaaah Hawsie!!" The Choren process converts all the biomass to gas and then processes it into liquid fuel. In our process the liquid fuel is approx. 30% of the mass. I am reluctant to pass on more details due to confidentiality.

We have a fuel with 80% BTU value to diesel. Instead of forming the fuel to engine, let's get the engine system to work with the fuel. There are a number of local applications that could use all the product we could produce sustainability.

There are:

- Ore hauling mining trucks (they're not going on the road)
- Ferries (BC fleet bigger than the CDN navy - I know that's not saying much)
- Wood harvesting operations - trucks, harvesters, chippers
- Farm equipment

The old saying goes that baseball games are not won by home runs, they are won by hitting a lot of singles and that is what we expect.

In our process the liquid fuel is approx. 30% of the mass....We have a fuel with 80% BTU value to diesel.

I assume that's 80% volumetrically? I would expect the BTU value per kg would be pretty similar between the two fuels.

So am I correct in interpreting your statement as saying you're getting 1kg of oil-equivalent from 3-4kg of wood waste? That's fairly impressive (for reference, 1kg ethanol takes 4kg of corn, but that's measured from only a small fraction of the original plant).

Unless you have massive external energy inputs, it sounds like a pretty useful process. Any ability to extract nutrients (P/K) for return to the growing area?

Instead of forming the fuel to engine, let's get the engine system to work with the fuel.

Not ideal, but quite possibly more efficient. Assuming it's not that hard to set up an engine to use both your fuel and bunker fuel, there's enough demand from ships and the like that oversupply shouldn't be a problem.

And oil displaced is oil replaced; it all helps.

Lingol or Dynamotive there BC ;)

Nope, not Lignol or Dynamotive. Dynamotive uses a fast pyrolysis, whereas ours is a slower process developing higher BTU outputs, and a different mix. The process is self sustaining by feeding back a gas or liquid output to fire the system. Our net energy estimates are still being calculated.

Lignol is going for ethanol and they are welcome to it - good luck.

We'll be generating electricity, producing bio-char for fuel, activated charcoal, and fertilizer, and of course bio-oil.

I have to go back and look at the tables, (IIRC) but the energy density of the bio-oil is compared to diesel on a mass basis (MJ/kg).


Matter of fact, I'm looking at some of the mass/energy balance and material models on the big-ass white board next to my desk right now. I can't disclose the size of the initial plants, but I do know one thing for sure - even with all the available sustainable wood feedstock we have in this part of the hemisphere we will not come close to replacing the volume of petroleum fuels now consumed.

As a trained ChemE I'm happy that somebody finally brought that up. This is an energy density problem. What we require is a given energy flow rate. That rate can be obtained with energy dense material or energy diffuse material. We, as expected, started with the dense material (e.g. coal, oil, natural gas, concentrated uranium deposits, etc.) As we use up the concentrated sources, in order to continue to maintain the same net energy flow rate we need space in which to setup our process. As we head, inevitably as the universe, down the energy density ladder we will have to continually use more space (and for humans, usually more complexity, a.k.a. technology) in the attempt to stave off the inevitable decrease in flow rate associated with switching to less energy dense materials. Note how almost all of the "solutions" on the table take up so much more physical space at equivalent energy flow rates and are so much more complex than prior solutions when you consider the entire process? There is a definite root cause in play.

Simple thermo and P-chem that's all. No one can tell you WHEN it will happen, but we can know definitively THAT net energy flows available to humanity on the planet earth MUST peak and then decline. This is of course assuming the objective is to expand energy use as much as production will allow, which seems to be the nature of most living things, whether stated or not. The process mentioned in the thread could be a way to continue to produce a high-value energy transport material, but it cannot possibly replace what we've lost, because the input energy density isn't high enough at any point in the process. The trouble alas is that there are too many of us for the space available to live at the energy consumption level we've attained.

What is possibly worse is that not all (probably not MOST) investments in complexity actually yield an energy surplus. Tainter does an excellent job of showing this. Many of those investments, like the ones we make in business or the stock market, are a bust. The culture investing in this type of failed complexity often goes bust with it. This book also does a very good job of showing logically (in lieu of number or stats) that technology doesn't always save a given society. It suffers from the same diminishing returns as every other endeavor. I combine this with the concept of survivorship bias (hat tip to Nassim Taleb) to understand why we have to be so obsessed with technical solutions to a problem about which we already possess enough knowledge to understand the outcome. Because we have seen technology save us in the past we tend to believe that it will save us again - it's hardwired into our psychology.

I don't hold out much hope that this will sink into human culture before we are too far into the highly catabolic phase of this process where our efforts to generate energy today significantly weaken our ability to generate it in the future (i.e. by over-cropping soil, deforestation, etc.) Unfortunately, at best the far-future looks like subsistence farming in China or India, but for the whole world in this case. "Worst" case is collapse. But at least under that circumstance after the collapse there will again be a bountiful era for the people of that time so I am somewhat hesitant to label it worst.

One of the many reasons we need to ramp up nuclear power rapidly as China and Russia are doing is because it is an extremely dense energy source, and it's use in advanced configurations such as molten salt or breeder reactors should compensate for the very low energy density of solar and wind contributions.

Companies are not comfortable with untested nuclear reactor configurations, and I suspect the general population will not be either. I think we have as much of a problem with scaling up untested nuclear plants as we do with scaling up untested biodiesel.

This does not address the basic argument that a combination of nuclear and renewables collectively has a reasonable energy density, in fact not substantially worse than fossil fuels depending on their respective ratios.
We are really back to the old problem of solutions being rejected or at any rate downgraded by the use of other criteria extraneous to the original argument.
We know enough about both fast breeder reactors and technologies such as molten salt reactors to be confident that neither EROI nor uranium availability nor energy density considerations are show-stoppers for them.
If one wishes to broaden the argument to consider political considerations your 'general population' seems to be rather biased to the present US population.
I doubt that either China or Russia, or indeed France will have substantial difficulty in introducing these technologies, which after all are only needed if one assumes that nuclear power is greatly expanded, that we don't make the comparatively trivial switch to burning thorium or process uranium from seawater - IOW we don't need it right now, and the energy density of present systems is just fine.
The second assumption is that attitudes remain constant, and that disapproval of things nuclear and potential energy sources survive peak oil.
I find this assumption incredible.
As a political force opposition ot nuclear power is unlikely to survive the the first power cuts, in my view.

we can know definitively THAT net energy flows available to humanity on the planet earth MUST peak and then decline.

Not in any meaningful sense if you take into account wind and solar potential. Both of those are expected to contribute large amounts of energy in the medium-term future, and neither one is limited in any reasonable time-frame.

One might argue that net energy flows will decline before wind and solar can rejuvenate them, but that's an economics argument, not a thermodynamics one. Thermodynamically, there's still a ton of upside.

This is of course assuming the objective is to expand energy use as much as production will allow, which seems to be the nature of most living things, whether stated or not.

It's not at all clear that's necessarily the case for humans. Germany, for example, hasn't seen its per-capita energy consumption increase since reunification 15 years ago, suggesting that a society which can afford to use more energy but chooses not to is entirely possible.

See Hornborg's "Power of the Machine".

Your hesitancy in naming the "worst" case the worst is well placed I think. Collapse is the best case and the sooner the better. Doesn't that suck.

cfm in Gray, ME

Why is collapse the best case?

Interesting concept, the larger the community, the more bio mass, the more of it's own fuel produced, and less fuel shipped. Sorry, but yes, less fuel shipped from the mid west. The food belt not the fuel belt.

This is the first decent algae argument I have seen. Great Post!

I think that's one thing the "energy density" argument might be overlooking, Ray. Biomass, Solar, and, to some extent, wind, can make up for it's lack of density by being Local.

There are a number of posts on the site you mentioned. Can you link to the individual post you consider interesting?

First of all I agree with Gail's prediction that carbon trading schemes are likely to be weak. It is the scarcity price, not administrative intervention that will force change. Whether the speed of that change is fast enough remains to be seen.

The second big idea I can see coming is that liquids are a luxury. A few elite will get to fly in planes and everybody else will have to take the train powered by gas or electricity. If we can reduce liquid fuel usage low enough it could be made(eg jet fuel) from biomass or coal yet stay within prudent carbon limits. To do that most other transport would have to run on gas or electricity. By 'gas' I mean biomethane, syngas and natural gas.

Since ethanol is best as a petrol extender and petrol may be gone within a generation I think ethanol is a dead end. In contrast lipids based green diesel or biodiesel is able to blend in any ratio with thermochemical diesel such as Choren. Thus it should continue to fill a niche market for decades to come when ethanol/petrol blends have timed out. A wild guess is that transport could become only say 20% liquid fuel based, the other 80% gas and electricity.

Good WAG, and probably the only reasonable projection that gets us from here to there.

Actually, an ICE that's built to run on ethanol will run rings around one that's optimized for gasoline. The only reason you need a little gasoline is for "cold" starts.

This could, easily, be handled with a little "squirt" of gasoline in the fuel line until the engine gets warm; or you could install a fuel line "heater" to warm the fuel during this period.

It makes no sense to optimize cars for ethanol, because there is so little around, and the situation is not likely to change all that much in the future. If cars are going to have to run most of the time on gasoline, it makes more sense to optimize them for gasoline.

Gail, you can, using the most modern engine technology, actually "optimize" for both. The two "Main" things to control are compression, and displacement. Compression is easy. A variable ratio turbocharger, ala Saab Biopower, does the job. Displacement is a little trickier; but there are at least two ways to get the job done with present technology.

The first way would be to use "displacement on demand." GM's been doing this for awhile. The second would be to use Variable Valve Timing to suck a little exhaust gas back into the cylinder during the 3rd stroke, thus partially filling the cylinder with inert gas, and, as a result, reaching higher compression with less actual fuel in the cylinder.

With either of these systems it would be possible to achieve slightly higher power, and fuel efficiency with ethanol than gasoline in an engine that is at the same time "optimized" for gasoline (and ethanol.)

If I'm not mistaken GM will be trying the first option with the Denali this year, and I expect them to try option two with the ecotecs next year. At least, I hope so.

I once read that some early cars had a switch to indicate whether one was using gasoline or ethanol. It sounds like this would be similar.

A "switch" would, almost, be preferable to the "O2 sensor" system they're using, now. It takes, in some cases, 3 tankfuls, or more, for the ECU to adjust to a change in ethanol percentage; and, sometimes, they Never do.

The Absolute, Worst Case Scenario is going from straight gasoline (whatever that is) to E10, back and forth. It's, just about, the Worst of all possible worlds.

That's exactly correct, that is how the Brazilian ethanol powered cars solved the cold morning start problem. They had a small (less than 1 gallon ) tank for gasoline. Back in the day I used to drive a VW ethanol powered Fox. My father and I even distilled ethanol from fruit waste at home as an experiment.

Thanks for the story.

The Billion Ton Study has lots of problems and was overly optimistic. A revision is in progress.

The problem I see with the algea option as with the other schemes to convert biomass to liquid fuel is that we do have a limited capacity to produce and harvest biomass (as you point out). Why take a solar powered option (algea) and feed it a terrestrial biomass? I don't know much about the photosynthetic efficiency of algae, but it seems like some type of multi-species culture would be the way to go. Maybe even a multi-trophic level system: Algae, including N-fixing cyanobacteria--> some sort of zooplankton (crustaceans are rich in oils). OR if you have an algea that makes exactly the kind of oil you need, feed it other algae rather that terrestrial plants. Switch grass is not a panacea. It can be useful as part of the mix. Diversifying biological systems is the key to sustainability and max. efficiency.

Any idea when the new study will be out? I know that one often hears that the original study was optimistic.

Switchgrass was just one of several examples given in the talk. I know that they are looking fairly widely at the options available.

I don't know if they have a date yet. I will have more info after Oct.

Still, using terrestrial biomass to power aquatic algae doesn't seem like something we would want to get into in a big way, even if the feedstocks are varied. It might be efficient/sustainable in some limited environments (i.e. those with plenty of rainfall) but these are also the most productive for food and I also wonder where the nitrogen is going to come from in this scenario.


As you know, myself and others (who are working on the problem) disagree with your 20% US petroleum usage replacement ceiling as highlighted in our most recent disagreement on the topic here at TOD, where you a) admit that your assertion is based upon 1 type of feedstock; b) use 1 production path for cellulosic ethanol; and c) negate the fact that Canada, a country totally integrated into the US energy system, will count for not as it pertains to its massive biomass reserves re: household heating.

But let us leave that aside for the moment… and instead, run the following thought experiment

- that the carbon content in a ton of biomass when gasified, has a theoretical production value of 300 gallons/ton;
- that only 1 billion tons of the 1.3 billion ton total in the DOE study is used;

Experiment A
300 gallons * 1 000 000 000 tons = 300 000 000 000 gallons
300 000 000 000 gallons / 42 = 7 142 857 142 bbls (rounded)
7 142 857 142/365 = 19 569 471 bbls/day

Experiment B
150 gallons*1 000 000 000 tons = 150 000 000 000 gallons
150 000 000 000 gallons / 42 = 3 571 428 571 bbls (again rounded)
3 571 428 571 / 365 = 9 784 735 bbls/day

No doubt Experiment ‘A’ above is truly theoretical.

Experiment ‘B’ on the other hand, is not.

In light of the above, are you willing to change your 20% petroleum replacement ceiling?

I don't want to argue about this. I will agree that it your "theoretical production value" of 300 gallons per ton is right, then replacement might be higher. I also see a number of other people on the thread who are not coming up with numbers this high. Also, the One Billion Ton study is being revised, probably downward.

First, let's break it down into units we can "work with."

Let's utilize better efficiencies to get our fuel needs down to 180 Billion Gallons. We can do that, right? Batteries, smaller cars, more efficient engines, etc.

Now, let's figure we have to replace 50% of our oil. That's what we need to do, more or less, in the coming decade, isn't it? Let's face it; when you start trying to look out 30 years, or more, it's really pretty much impossible. Just go back to 78', and try to visualize laptops, internet, trade with China, missile defense, stealth fighters, gene-splicing, etc.

Okay, we're down to 90 Billion Gallons. Divide that by 3,000 counties in the U.S. We need 30 Million Gallons/Yr per County. 80 thousand tons of MSW/County. There's Six Million Gallons/Yr.

Now, we need 24 Million Gallons. I submit that that's as easy as falling off a log. If Ceres can come anywhere close to what they're promising (heck, let's cut it in half) We need 24,000 acres (out of an average acreage of about 700,000/county?) or, an area a little more than six miles square of switchgrass, miscanthus, cattail, poplar, etc. per county. Note: The heavily wooded counties, of course, will use large amounts of wood-waste. The agricultural counties - corn cobs, corn stover, cotton hulls, etc, etc.

This Really Is Easy. I'm Not saying this is the way we will go, or even that it's the way that we should go. Just that the option is there; and, it's pretty danged easy.


This is why the integrated bio-refinery construct envisioned by NREL, seeks to establish a source of alternative liquid fuels production throughout the country.

This construct, however, is but one element of an overarching PO mitigation response strategy where -IMO- each element should be validated by its Petroleum Input Ratio or PIR.

The lower the PIR, the smarter the response.

Who in practice is getting 150 gallons equivalent from a ton of biomass?

No one. Syntech claims their process is up to about 105, I think. However, it's never been done "in the wild."

80 to 100 will probably catch it.

NREL reported 14 GJ/ton for algae feedstock in the Aquatic Species Project using anaerobic digesters producing methane. That compares to around 105 gallons. Their conversion rate was 56% in a plug flow digester, I think some modern European plants are significantly exceeding that for grasses.

If you are considering woody biomass as your feed stock, the figures will be much less.

Wood CV is about 6500 BTU/lb so 1 ton is 14.56 MBTU

If Gasoline is about 116,000 BTU/ US Gallon

If your conversion process was 100% efficient then you could only get 125 gallons per ton of woody biomass.

However no energy conversion process is 100% efficient, gasification being about 70% efficient.

So a practical maximum would be 87.5 gallons per ton.

This said, enthusiasts of downdraft gasifiers, (Woodgas on Yahoo Groups) for direct vehicle propulsion, using equipment devised during the 1940s, are reporting to get 2 miles per pound of wood fuel.


"In some ways, the Solazyme approach is not too different from an ethanol approach. With ethanol, yeast often acts on corn or biomass feedstock to provide alcohol as an output. With this approach, it is algae that acts on biomass, to
provide an oil as an output."

Something seems wrong to me. Isn't the algae the biomass rather than the conversion agent?

Usually, when you read about biodiesel from algae, the algae does the photosynthesis and also produces the oil.

In tis situation, the photosynthesis is done by something else. Capslock,ut the thread, points out that in one of their videos, they mention that the algae can't use the cellulose from another plant directly. Instead, it must be converted to sugar (somehow, most likely requiring energy). Algae acts on this sugar, similar to the way yeast acts on sugar, but produces a different product.

Here is a contribution to help sort out some confusion in the comments to Gail's post today. This is meant to be a mild correction, because I am a great fan of Gail's many excellent posts. But the headline for this post should actually read: "...a New Renewable Diesel from Algae", not"...a New Biodiesel from Algae...".

Being involved in multiple biofuel projects over the past few years, I have had to learn some of the fine points of biodiesel. There are now two completely different biofuel "replacement diesel products" being touted to replace (or augment) petroleum diesel. To help keep the TOD debate on track here are the two definitions.

"Biodiesel" is defined (and is a registered trademark of the National Biodiesel Board - Hah!) as the chemical compound Fatty Acid Methyl Ester or FAME. As we all know, it is made by combining a vegetable oil or animal fat with methanol in the presence of a catalyst and separating out the glycerin byproduct. Biodiesel (FAME) is definitely not the same thing as petroleum diesel. As a result, there are various ongoing debates about the physical and chemical attributes of Biodiesel as compared to Diesel. The most significant ones might be, whether or not Biodiesel generates more NOx than Diesel, and concerns over its gell point and storage life.

Recently a second, relatively new (but we'll adjust that perception in a moment!) biofuel replacement for Diesel has thrust its way onto the stage. After some bouncing around between "Green" and "Renewable" the biofuel community has settled down on the name "Renewable Diesel" for this fuel. Most support for Renewable Diesel is headed up by oil companies who favor Renewable over Biodiesel for various reasons.

However, TOD regulars will recognize that there is really nothing new about Renewable Diesel at all. It is really the same liquid fuel as good old Fischer-Tropsch "coal-to-liquid" fuel with a new feedstock and a new name!

There are two significant things that characterize Renewable Diesel: 1) there are several alternative ways to make it, and 2) technically it is virtually the SAME as petroleum diesel.

Consider the second point first. The ASTM spec for petroleum diesel is D975. A sample of Renewable Diesel passes all the physical and chemical tests of D975. So, technically and legally, Renewable Diesel simply is Diesel. That may have multiple, interesting ramifications.

Now, how to you make Renewable Diesel? Here are just three examples. There are others, too.

1. As mentioned, the classic F-T process spiffed up with various new and improved techniques is one way to make Renewable Diesel. There are so many F-T variations nowadays, (coal)C-T-L, (gas)G-T-L, (biomass)B-T-L, etc, that biofuel people generally refer to the whole group as "X-T-L" where "X" is a wild card acronym. Of course, if you make the fuel from coal or natural gas, you are not actually making a Renewable fuel. So, set those two aside. However, if you use biomass for feedstock for a B-T-L process, the fuel certainly qualifies as a Renewable Diesel.

2. You can also create Renewable Diesel by high temperature, high pressure hydrogenation of the very same feedstocks that are used for Biodiesel, i.e., vegetable oil and animal fat. This is the approach many large oil companies favor.

3. The newest approach to making a biofuel replacement for Diesel is coming from companies like Solazyme, the subject of Gail's post, and a few others. They all claim to be working with plant based technology that simply "creates diesel", i.e. a liquid fuel that passes D975. By definition, that means their fuel would be called Renewable Diesel not Biodiesel.

As many commenters have noted, none of these companies have disclosed much in the way of details. So it is not very clear yet how they create their Renewable Diesel.

Closing note: all of the Renewable Diesel processes appear (so far) to be higher cost than the classic Biodiesel process. So it appears that Biodiesel will remain the most cost-effective biofuel replacement for regular diesel, at least for some period of time.

Thanks Biobanker. Great post. Very informative. I'd heard of "renewable" diesel; but, I had no idea what the difference was.

It's shore gettin complicated.

Go out and buy or borrow a copy of this book to be published October 1, 2008:

Biofuels, Solar and Wind as Renewable Energy Systems: Benefits and Risks,

Read Chapter 7. Everything you ever wanted to know about Renewable Diesel, including the differences between biodiesel and two types of renewable diesel (and who is doing what). And I think you will find that the coverage is completely balanced (which resulted in some interesting exchanges with David Pimentel, the editor). My chapter is not a "Should we or shouldn't we" sort of chapter. It is more of a "this is what it is and this is how you make it" chapter.

Nate Hagens also contributed a chapter, and there is a chapter dedicated solely to algae for biofuel. A have a pre-release copy of the book, but haven't yet had time to read it.

If their conversion efficiency of switchgrass to fuel was better than plain old boring biogas yield from ensiled switchgrass I would be suprised.

Thanks for the clarification. I just assumed that if diesel came from a biological source, it must be biodiesel.

If anyone is interested, there is a conference of the National Algae Association on October 23-24 which you can read about here. The conference relates to fuels from algae.

A comment on 'Renewable Diesel':

As Biobanker says, it is indeed chemically identical to fossil oil diesel. But there is a difference that might be interesting in law and forensics. Renewable diesel contains radioactive C14, as does all material of recent biological origin. Real diesel has been sequestered from the atmosphere for millions of years and the radioactivity has decayed away. This is of interest if there should develop a regulatory situation in which the two diesels are treated differently in commercial law.

But beware, real diesel can be salted with C14 made in nuclear reactors, and if done correctly can be made to appear to be renewable diesel.

A first pass estimate based on the Billion Ton Study is that there is enough biomass to replace about 20% of the US petroleum usage, if biomass is not used for other purposes, such as heating houses. This could be helpful, if we are short of petroleum products, but it isn't a complete solution.

Not complete. I guess. Not even enough for 20% of US petroleum usage - IF it's not used for something else.

Hello world.

cfm in Gray, ME

Heating houses is not that bad of a use, arguably better if you're displacing high quality fuels like natural gas and heating oil with solid cellulosic biomass. You never get anywhere near 100% conversion going from solid biomass to liquid fuel and you've got lots of capital cost to do it. For applications like residential heating a BTU from switchgrass pellets is as good as a BTU from heating oil.

Algenol claims to have the most efficient system for bio-fuel from algae to date. I guess time will tell if they can pull this off.

It may be that Corn is the best biomass fuel for North America. In the end other plants may not be as efficient in energy density.

"local" is a slippery term. If you have to go out and get biomass on any kind of scale without benefit of trucks and tractors powered by oil, one's vision of local becomes somewhat narrowed.

Trucks, and tractors running on locally produced ethanol, and biodiesel. No Prob.

I've often wondered why biodiesel makers don't focus on invasive species as feed stock.

Since they have already proven to be so prolific and hardy as to be uncontrollable, you don't have to worry about keeping your crop healthy.

Milfoil and Kudzu are real problems around here. You could set up a floating refinery and just run it up and down the Tennessee river collecting the stuff. Probably getting paid to collect your feed stock.

I don't know nothin about no Milfoil; but, I do know that you sure don't have to worry about "replanting" when it comes to Kudzu.

You could, undoubtably, get rich with a "Kudzu-removal" service around here (N. Mississippi.)

Thought about it many times.

Nice coverage of a complicated subject, Gail. I only wish the MSM would approach biofuels with as much sophistication.

On another subject, your introductory grafs had the best typo I've seen all year:

... they believe either McCain or O'Bama would support such legislation.

Love it! This is a meme that could go far.

O'Bama - the latest Irish pol from the old-time Democrats.

Bart / EB

Sorry about that. You might guess I am not much into politics. I'll belatedly fix it.

The algae strains that will supposedly produce biofuels are just as vulnerable to attack from parasites as any other life form. Show me a mono culture of anything from potatoes to corn to algae, and I will show you a very precarious predicament. Especially for financial investors who want a 'sure thing' and don't like even the notion that all their investment money disappears in the blink of an eye because some 'new' bug just came out of no where and attacked their monoculture organism that produced the golden egg of biofuel.

What if someone bioengineered a parasite for the biofuel algae on purpose. You know, to fuckup the works for a competing financial interest?

This is biology we're taking about, not engineering and physics. The process is Alive and prone to the foibles of evolution, not the relatively simplistic mechanics of fossil fuel production.

The US couldn't even discover and resolve the Anthrax murderer in highest levels of their own war research complex for seven years.

How much good would they be at protecting biofuels from premeditated biological attack?

There are a lot of things we don't think about, like the parasites. If all of the processing is inside closed tanks in buildings, and a variety of biomass is used as feedstock, I don't think there would be a lot of vulnerability. If there are open tanks of algae, or many acres of a new fuel crop, then there could be a problem.

Closed system photobioreactors (PBR) are too expensive. Google around for how much a closed pbr costs, and try and calculate the payback from the normal fuel produced (using the most outrageous production claims for good measure.). You'll be looking at at least a 300-500 year payback period.

You're talking about trying to produce essentially what is the cheapest liquid resource in the world - liquid fuel.

It has been long concluded by the Aquatic Species Program (ASP) that only open pond systems for algae can be used to produce fuel economically. The problems are lack of culture condition control and invasive species contamination. Even if you got those problems licked, there's no guarantee that the productivity will be anywhere close to theoretical yields.

Also, its not the parasite that is the problem, its other types of microbes which might drop into the growth media and outcompete the algae that is producing the biodiesel.

Here's a nice presentation by Dr. John Benemann (Principal Author of the ASP close-out report, literally the man who wrote the book on algae biodiesel) on the current state of algae biofuels:

I have also posted a guest essay here from Dr. Benemann:

To be brief, he is appalled at some of the claims being made around algal biodiesel. Let's not forget that because there is so much ignorance around this area, a large fraud has already been pulled off:

I'm suspicious of these guys,

They are still touting an agreement with the fraudulent company among their industry credentials.

If you are interested in algae, production systems and extraction technologies, you may want to check out The National Algae Association.

One of the problems with attempts to convert existing biomass to liquid energy is that as Peak Oil begins to bite that biomass will find other uses as well. Most notably, trees will get used much more heavily for heating. That's a more efficient usage of wood. Already the price of a cord of wood is over $300 in Maine. Imagine what it'll be when oil hits $200 per barrel.

Biomass energy makes sense for waste biomass such as all the lawn clippings that get picked up in trash collection. So there is a role for it, but not as big as some optimists suppose.

Also, can algae be grown in open ponds and then ground up as food for microalgae in closed containers for use in Solazyme's process? That approach still runs into the problem where the microalgae needs the biomass food to be partially digested for it into simpler sugars.

Does the Solazyme approach require advances in breaking down cellulose before it becomes practical?

Once the cellulose is broken down into sugars is the Solazyme approach more energy efficient than processes that use sugars to make ethanol?

These are good questions.
I note that Solazyme has given up on trying to use the theoretically greater capacity of algae for energy-fixing per unit area, presumably because of the attendant practical difficulties.
(Thanks to huangrx above in thread for link to Benneman who wrote the algae book
We are back to the limit of energy fixed by biomass per hectare. I have figures for Elephant Grass calculated in England by government science. This is a C4 plant like sugar cane and corn, with a relatively more efficient ratio of photosynthesis to respiration compared with wheat or willow trees.
I provide a reference for the figures I used in the following Abstract. A million hectares is about 14% of UK's total area that could be ploughed, excluding forests and low quality grazing areas.

There is potential for more home-grown biomass for power stations, but realistic amounts do not come close to substituting for coal, let alone natural gas. For example, the efficient perennial Elephant Grass (Miscanthus) could indicate an upper bound for fixed energy per hectare. An average 6.2t coal equivalent per hectare per year from a field-dry yield of 16t/ha [2], compares with UK’s imports of coal, presently ~50Mt/y, and decreasing UK production at 19Mt/y, providing ~36% of electricity. A million hectares of Miscanthus could substitute less than 10% of coal presently burned in UK power stations (or ~3.6% of coal-generated electricity, or ~1.3% total electricity) to DEFRA July 2007

I think its a good time to link it back to an earlier TOD article:

The Man Who Wrote the Book on Algal Biodiesel
Posted by Robert Rapier on May 17, 2007 - 10:22am

Essentially the same old issues. Fermentation systems will not work for economic production of fuel. Photobioreactors are too expensive. Open ponds are the only way, but are plagued with wild-type invasive contamination and lack of growth media condition control.

The only places where algae biofuels might actually be worth a shot are the Equatorial regions, where environmental conditions are very ideal for rapid micro-algae growth, and little in form of abrupt culture condition shocks. However, the problem of invasive species contamination is magnified 100x or more due to the abundant biodiversity of the environment.

For fresh water media, you need a fast growing algae (Essentially you are left with just Chorella genus as an option) that produces a reasonable amount of oil, and a mean to moderate the invasive contaminants. I think phage therapy might work, but I've been dissed before in TOD on that idea here.

Alternatively, you can rear extreme-philes (Dunaliella Salina (high salt), Pleurochrysis carterae (high pH), and maybe some form of microbe which thrives in similar alkaline environments as spirulina, and maybe some microbe that thrives in highly acidic conditions.) with high oil yields to reduce the contamination problem.

If interested to hear more about my babble on this, pls contact me via email: huangrx [at] live [dot] ca

Ray Huang

Regards contaminants due to local biodiversity: Australia has desert region that goes pretty close to the equator, correct? I would expect that would provide lots of sunlight all year around and less contaminants.

Possible - but the dryness of the Oz desert means the evaporative loss of water is great - essentially your growth media soon becomes excessively saline, unless you keep replenishing the loss water, which can drive up production costs. There's probably only 1 type of algae that can be grown in the Oz desert - Dunaliella Salina. And indeed, its being cultivated there by some algae farms, but for Beta Carotene production. Much more valuable. On a weight to weight basis, Beta Carotene is at least 5000 times more expensive than biodiesel.

Have a read on the wiki:

Ray Huang

I have lurked for about 3 years and am involved in the biofuel business since 2001. I attended the world ASPO conference in Ireland an I am a member of FEASTA an organisation promoting the economics of sustainability and possible zero-growth economic models.
There are developments in Europe where the results of years of research - particularly in Germany - are starting to bear fruit. There is no need to waste energy and money converting bio-liquids such as vegetable oil, chicken fat etc. into biofuels when they can be utilised as a fuel directly. For instance Wartsila have sold their heavy-fuel engines to burn vegetable oil in CHP installations - the largest one in an olive oil factory in Italy about 30 MW electrical. Also check out - this company has 200 trucks running on chicken fat! In German but Google translation does a good enough job.
TOD is a wonderful site and I read it nearly every day, the links provided are a great source of information but there is a lot lot more available in the non-english speaking world. Thank you all for the time you put into it including the fights which always amuse even is they don't always enlighten!

Thank you for writing! That is interesting about using the different fats directly, rather than converting them to biofuel. It would definitely save energy.

It is good that we have readers like you who can read research in other languages and tell us about it. We are interesting in hearing what you have to say.

Hello TOD'ers!

I really question the scalability of algae-to-fuel due to availability constraints on P and K fertilizer.

Your thoughts?

Thank you.

I would think that most of the P and K are in the spent goop left over after the processing and is recoverable.

I beg pardon for being very naughty posting here without reading many of the preceding comments. But to me this concept seems not merely speculation but not even good speculation. How about the huge energy to be expended on growing/harvesting/gathering the feedstock then transporting it to these tanks? What a huge quantity of these tanks notwithstanding that they be standard issue? What about unwanted evolution processes taking place to confound the nice plans? Irish potato blight famine etc.

For these reasons I don't see this as presenting any significant prospect of countering the liquids peak. I look forward to being proved wrong but I don't rate it very likely.

Unfortunately you are likely to be right. Its very likely that algae biofuels will not work. Unfortunately given things as they are currently, there's probably no solution can scale up quickly enough. Conservation & a peaceful powerdown seems like the best-case scenario. However, people generally don't like to be told that the quality of life will go downhill from this point onwards, and we're past the peak of human civilization.

Ray Huang

"Quality of life going downhill from this point onwards" - hah.
I've been around long enough to have long observed the harsh decline of quality of life that comes with "growth" and its "economic benefits". Not least the horrendous deterioration of our public spaces due to excessive motor transport. And the loss of quality products and quality community and culture. Increasing pollution and deteriorating behaviour. Beautiful landscapes turned into commercial developments. Will I ever forget how a tall block was built next door overshadowing the garden my parents had worked on developing for years, how machines suddenly appeared at the picturesque local river and turned it into a bleak drainage channel, how all the elm trees in England were killed by an importer bringing disease from Canada..... Increasingly trashy food. In the uk's second city it is now virtually impossible to get decent food anywhere such has been the "progress".

Myself and others I know have long looked forward to the ending and reversal of this "growth". Sure it will involve extreme hardships, but there'll also be some extreme compensations (for some at least) of seeing the parasitic oppressors (judges, politicians, corporate conmen) have the status tables turned on them as their lack of any genuinely useful skills becomes evident.

Think you'll see chaos...hard for a smooth reversal. Too many people on this planet, particularly in the cities.

Ray Huang