Book Review: Green Algae Strategy


I love to read. I particularly enjoy books about energy, sustainability, and the environment. One of the benefits of reviewing books is that I end up getting a lot of free books on these topics. One thing about getting free books, though, is that I have to be careful that it doesn't impact my objectivity. After all, the publisher or author was nice enough to send me this free book. How do I then approach the matter if I sharply disagree with some aspects of the book?

I am on record as being very skeptical about the ability of algal biodiesel to scale up and contribute significantly toward liquid energy supplies. Mark Edwards, a Professor of Strategic Marketing and Sustainability at Arizona State University recently saw one of my essays, and said that while he agreed with my points that many algal producers have been overly optimistic, he also felt like I had glossed over algae's potential. He offered to send me a copy of his book Green Algae Strategy: End Oil Imports And Engineer Sustainable Food And Fuel.

The first thing I thought when I saw that title is "Either Mark Edwards is dead wrong, or I am dead wrong." But I believe it is important to read and understand a wide range of viewpoints, because I just might change my mind. Maybe I am dead wrong. This book won the 2009 IPPY award for the best science book, so there are definitely those who think Mark makes a good case.

Mark Edwards writes that he has three goals:

1. Create Green Independence for America and the world

2. Halt and reverse climate change

3. End American and world hunger

While I can certainly get behind those goals, the devil is always in the details. And I think in the details we are going to run into some very challenging problems. Of course this is something I wouldn't mind being dead wrong about. In fact, a few years ago I was very optimistic about the possibility of algae to produce large amounts of fuel without utilizing large amounts of good crop land. The prospects for algal fuel certainly sounded too good to be true. But a series of articles and discussions since then has swung me increasingly to the belief that the stories were too good to be true.

My Slide Toward Skepticism

First I read an essay here at TOD called Has the Algae Cavalry Arrived? The essay was mostly based on work done by Krassen Dimitrov, who had gone back to first principles of incoming solar insolation to argue that GreenFuel Technologies was exaggerating their claims. While Dimitrov's work has been criticized, he does raise a number of important issues. Primarily for me was the issue of just how much renewable diesel could be made from a square meter of area, contrasted with what the overall costs might be. Dimitrov concluded that you could make at best about a gallon of algal oil per square meter per year. However, costs were estimated to be over $100 per square meter. That sounded like a pretty serious, but potentially surmountable problem. (Important to note that in Green Algae Strategy, Mark Edwards also argues that GreenFuel made "some serious mistakes in executing strategy", and led the industry in "hope and hype").

Then came a post from John Benemann: Algal Biodiesel: Fact or Fiction? John has been heavily involved in algae studies for many years. In fact, he was the Principal Investigator and main author of the U.S. DOE Aquatic Species Program Close-Out Report. He certainly has some credentials on the topic of algae, and he weighed in to say that the essay described in the previous paragraph was generally correct. John's position is that the present status of algal biodiesel is nowhere near commercialization, but in 10-15 years commercialization may not be out of the question. But it is far from a sure thing, and it certainly won't happen soon. (See also John's recent position paper on the subject: Opportunites and Challenges in Algae Biofuels Production).

Meanwhile, more question marks emerged. De Beers Fuel, having made some pretty far-fetched claims about their ability to deliver algal biodiesel, as well as having sold 27 franchises for algal biodiesel production, turned out to be a scam and collapsed. GreenFuel Technologies finally decided their future was bleak, and they closed down.

Information about the true costs started to become publicly available. While it has long been known that algal biodiesel is currently very expensive to produce, the actual price was only vaguely quantified. Krassen Dimitrov had suggested costs of around $20/gal. The government in British Columbia commissioned a study to look at the prospects, as well as the estimated costs of production. They estimated that the net cost of production per liter for photobioreactors (PBRs) was $24.60 ($93.23 US dollars/gallon), for open raceways it was $14.44 per liter, and for fermentors was $2.58 per liter. (There are some other issues with using fermentation that I won't get into here). The report also stated that the much-touted carbon sequestration benefits of algae were illusory:

What about the value of sequestered carbon in algae-based biofuels? In short, there isn’t any. Atmospheric carbon is only sequestered for a short time until it’s burned in an engine. Under existing biofuels mandates in most industrialized countries, there will be no opportunity to sell carbon offsets unless fuel production is additional, or beyond such mandates.

Finally, Bryan Wilson, a co-founder of Solix Biofuels, went on record and stated that they could indeed make biofuel from algae, but the cost to do this was $33/gallon.

That preamble is meant to establish that there was quite a lot behind my slide from algae optimist to algae skeptic. But I was looking forward to seeing whether Mark Edwards could push me back toward the optimist camp with his book.

The Book's Strengths

Let me talk first about what I feel are the book's strengths. Edwards clearly lays out the challenges we face over our dependence on fossil fuels. He takes on current U.S. biofuel policy in a credible way. He is sufficiently skeptical about the near term prospects for cellulosic ethanol, and is harsh in his assessment of corn ethanol (even more so than I have been). He cites familiar names such as Lester Brown, delves deeply into the challenges of water and soil depletion, and discusses the issue of NPK (nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium) availability in the future.

On the overall topic of algae, the book is incredibly informative. I had no idea that algae played such an important role in food, medicines, and consumer products (e.g., Aquafresh toothpaste). Edwards discusses many different varieties of algae, and characterizes them according to lipid, protein, or carbohydrate production.

Edwards makes a good case for why it would be a great idea to have algae-based fuels. He emphasizes that the co-products in many cases can improve the overall economics of the process. He lays out all the possible benefits of procuring our fuel from specific waterways as opposed to trading topsoil and fossil aquifers for fuel.

I can say with certainty that this book will come in handy for me in the future as a reference book. (More details at a later date, but I am likely to do some work on algae myself in the not-too-distant future). But what I won't use this book for is as a "How To" guide. And that's a good segue into the problems I had with the book.

The Book's Weaknesses

At times it felt as if this book was written by two people. There was Mark Edwards, the cellulosic ethanol skeptic, accurately reporting on some of the potential problems with commercialization of cellulosic ethanol. Then there was Mark Edwards, the algal biofuel optimist, uncritically presenting seemingly far-fetched claims from any number of would be algae producers.

There was even Mark Edwards the algal fuel skeptic, but I just couldn't reconcile that person's views with those of Mark Edwards the optimist. On one hand, Professor Edwards notes that the current estimated costs for algal biodiesel are over $20/gallon. He said that over 75% of the companies who had algal aspirations in the 80's and 90's no longer exist. He wrote that the algal fuel industry as a whole has produced less than 100 barrels of product. Then he turns around and writes that within three years the industry will be producing hundreds of millions of gallons. (Based on the 2008 publication date, I guess we can expect a gusher of production next year).

I had a number of specific criticisms as I read the book. First, it was presented throughout the book that algae can be used to produce food and fuel, all while sequestering carbon. I don't agree with that. Certainly algae take up carbon dioxide and convert it into biomass as they grow. However, unless that biomass is stored away without being consumed, there is no real carbon sequestration. Imagine two different scenarios. In the first scenario, the carbon dioxide from a coal-fired power plant is bubbled through tubes filled with algae. The algae will consume that CO2, preventing the immediate escape into the atmosphere. But what happens if fuel is produced from the algae? The carbon dioxide ends up getting released into the atmosphere. What you can say is that the release was delayed, and (depending on the energy inputs into producing the fuel) potentially more fuel was produced for a given emission of CO2. However, that isn't carbon sequestration.

Second case, algae are grown utilizing atmospheric CO2. During the growth phase carbon dioxide is indeed removed from the atmosphere. Take that algae and bury it deep in the earth, and carbon is sequestered. Turn it into fuel, and the CO2 taken up during the growth-phase is released back into the atmosphere. This is potentially a greenhouse gas (GHG) neutral process, but there is little potential for sequestration if the goal is to use the algae for fuel. However, this carbon sequestration meme is mentioned many times in the book (and many themes in the book were unnecessarily repetitive).

He blames the lack of progress for algae on lack of funding, which is blamed on corn ethanol. This, he argues, was the politically favorable biofuel that sucked up all the R&D funding (and subsidies). He later writes "If corn ethanol makes sense, the market will reward it without taxpayer monies or protectionist tariffs." Can't we say the same about algal fuel? If the potential is so great, money should flood in from investors looking to get in early on a huge growth opportunity.

I don't recall that the issue of energy return was ever covered in the book. If the energy inputs into the process are too high - as Bryan Wilson of Solix Biofuels recently suggested - then you have a potentially serious issue. How can algae be harvested and processed with minimal energy inputs? One of John Benemann's comments from his position paper was "At present there are no low-cost harvesting technologies available." Why? It takes a lot of energy to extract the algae from the water, relative to the BTU content of the algae you are extracting.

I felt that there was some confusion around the usage of specific terminology. For instance, on Page 6 Professor Edwards wrote that oil pressed directly from algae can be used directly in a diesel engine, and this is called green diesel. While plant oils can be used straight in a diesel engine, this product is called straight vegetable oil, or SVO. (Note: Do not attempt to use SVO in a vehicle unless you understand the caveats!) Further, there is a difference between green diesel and biodiesel, but this terminology is used interchangeably in the book. (See my Renewable Diesel Primer for an explanation of the differences between green diesel and biodiesel.) Another misuse of terminology comes on Page 15, where ethanol is called a hydrocarbon.

But those aren't the biggies for me. The title of the book indicates that it is a strategy book, but I see it more as a series of facts, connected to goals. What is missing is the "how to", which would be the strategy part. Yet difficult technology challenges were addressed casually. There are numerous instances where there is a presumption that technology will solve a particular problem. The word "might" is used an awful lot in the book. But when you casually dismiss technical challenges, you can effectively argue that the most implausible scenarios are inevitable. Let me give you an example.

Bananas are a very healthy food, and in the U.S. we depend on imports from tropical countries for our banana supplies. Just imagine if we could grow bananas in the Midwest. The soil is fertile. There would be additional options for farmers to make money. New jobs could be created in the domestic banana supply chain. So let's say I write a book about my Midwest Banana Strategy. I talk at length about the benefits of bananas, and the benefits of growing them in the Midwest. These are facts. I then tie them to my goals: To commercially grow them in the Midwest. The only problem is that unless I am willing to invest in heated greenhouses - at very great expense - my banana goal is going to come to naught. So presently Midwestern bananas are a pipe dream. But if I invoke the wonders of biotech - "there will be a solution that will enable cold-tolerant bananas" - then problem "solved." And that's how I felt many problems were dealt with in the book.

There are a series of independent facts, and then we have a black box, and then we have commercial algal biofuel. Solutions are presented as inevitable ("when this happens") instead of possible ("if this happens"). Sometimes I had flashbacks to The Singularity Is Near, in which author Ray Kurzweil employed this tactic throughout to argue that the near future is so fantastic we can't even imagine it. It is certainly true that a lot of companies are working on algae. But I would argue that Professor Edwards falls prey to the Vinod Khosla fallacy on cellulosic ethanol: This is simply too important and there are too many companies working on this to fail.

If I hand wave away the challenging problems and presume technology will solve them, then who needs algae for fuel? Hydrogen is waiting to solve all of our problems. Recall all that hydrogen economy business that was all the rage a few years ago? Despite numerous potential benefits, there are multiple very challenging technical issues that keep a hydrogen economy at bay - and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. But I could still write a book called Hydrogen Economy Strategy if I am willing to brush away those technical issues as temporary.

While there were a number of claims that I thought were presented uncritically, there were also some claims that I found to be very odd. Some examples:

Page 13: As a criticism of using food crops for fuel, he states that massive planting of corn leads to high humidity because the leaves transpire water. This leads to thunderstorms and potentially tornadoes.

That large areas planted in corn can increase the risk of tornadoes is something I have never heard before.

Page 105: Algal biodiesel is carbon neutral because the power needed for producing and processing the algae can come from the methane produced by anaerobic digestion...

That sentence is inaccurate. It is only carbon neutral if the power does come from digestion, not that it can. Based on the above, we could also say that corn ethanol is carbon neutral, because the power for processing can come from methane produced from digestion.

Page 150: When writing that algal fuel mimics fossil fuels without fossilization, he writes "Skipping the fossilization step not only saves 200 million years of pressure and heat, but lowers production costs significantly."

I can't really comprehend this one. The reason biofuels have trouble competing with fossil fuels is because nature already did the heavy lifting for the fossil fuels. Nature provided all that heat and pressure for free. Humans have to provide the heat and pressure to process biofuels - at a price. So I would come to the opposite conclusion: Skipping 200 million years of pressure and heat increases production costs significantly.

Page 179: He cites a claim by Aurora Biofuels that their process creates biodiesel with yields 125 times higher and 50% cheaper than current methods.

I am going to presume that this was supposed to read 125% higher and not 125 times higher.

Page 204: "When someone invents a carbon capture filter for vehicle exhaust pipes, there will be a nearly limitless supply of low-cost CO2 for growing algae."

I don't even know what to say about that one. It gets back to the issue of energy return. Anything you do here (e.g., compressing the spent CO2 from the vehicle) is going to take energy (and add weight to the vehicle) which is a penalty against the overall energy return of the process.


Let me say that I agree with the goals of Professor Mark Edwards, and that I think his heart is in the right place. I agree that we should spend research dollars on an algal biofuel program. I agree with him that economical algal biofuel could provide substantial benefits. (A good portion of the book was devoted to algae as food, and I didn't really address that at all in this review). Where I disagree sharply is that solving the technical challenges is inevitable. This is primarily where I found fault with the book.

On the other hand, the book was very informative on the topic of algae. I learned a lot I didn't know. But at the end of the book, my skepticism had not been swayed because I did not see a real pathway to get from where we are today to vast quantities of commercial algal biofuel. The book failed to make the case that the technical challenges will be solved.

No doubt Professor Edwards will disagree with some of this review. But I am a strong proponent of allowing people to answer criticisms. I therefore extend an open invitation to Professor Edwards. If he wishes to dispute or address any of the points I have raised, I will happily publish his comments.

I've been working on algae at NASA for two years and I agree that onshore solutions have at least five problems:

  • - energy for cooling
  • - energy for mixing (300W/m2)
  • - energy for de-watering
  • - energy for pumping
  • - indirect land use problems
  • We have concluded that it makes sense to do this offshore and use the ocean to solve these problems with some cool NASA forward osmosis membranes that the astronauts use for converting urine to drinking water.
    see also

    I've read that if you spray Iron onto the Ocean you get 'algae blooms' -I guess we could 'harvest' these... (Couldn't this also be used to dramatically increase offshore fish populations too?)


    Doesn't work. There will be a secondary surge in population of grazing zooplankton and predatory zooplankton. All comes to naught. Unless perhaps you do a prediction of which zooplankton species will surge in population, and do a pre-emptive spraying of viruses and phages to wipe out the grazing zooplanktons.

    Your FO membranes will foul very rapidly from the Exopolymeric substances given off by the algae. Rob accted for 20% flux reduction, but I think depending on the species, you might be seeing something more severe than that, particularly for algae that weeps oil, like Botryoccocus Braunii.


    We have already done extensive cycling on the membranes. The algae forms a layer on top but it doesn't impact performance. We have cycled the membranes 30 times which is equivalent to 1 year of use in the ocean. We are repeating more tests, but these particular membranes have already been through some pretty severe testing required for spaceflight and other food processing applications. I'm not how you can make such statements without knowing what kind of materials that we are using.

    In response to your other concern, we are not using Botryoccocus Braunii, it grows too slowly.

    PM me. :)


    Mr. Rapier,
    I do not claim to be an expert in Biodiesel from Algae. One common theme I have noticed in alternate energy proposals from Algae for biodiesel to hydrogen to solar photovoltaics and on and on is a lack of understanding of the difference between a Scientific advance and an Engineering advance.

    Engineering advances take existing technology and adapt it to new uses. A hybrid car is an example. Existing internal combustion engines and existing batteries and electrical technologies were combined to produce the hybrid cars. Engineering takes into account the economic aspects of the system.

    Scientific advances take a leap into the unknown. The clearest example which comes to mind is the development of the atomic bomb. Once the science showed that a neutron coliding with a U235 nucleus produces energy(E=MC2) and more than one new neutron the rest was engineering. Actual bomb building then became engineering difficult but engineering.

    I realize that I am oversimplifying this and people write overoptomistic reports for various reasons such as to obtain Funding Grants, getting investors(legitimately and fraudulantly), and simply wishful thinking.

    I believe this theme of failing to understand the difference between Science and Engineering is a common theme of alternate energy literature. If science can produce a strain of algae which will grow in the open air resisting contamination and being containable then producing biodiesel on a large scale becomes engineering.

    yes, I agree. It makes more sense to use engineers (NASA or private industry) to work on this problems than academics.

    Engineers are more blind to the problem than scientists as they tend to be more technocornucopians. The reality is that few people know how to think properly about energy constraints, probably because for the last 50 years there have been no meaningful energy constraints.

    And in my opinion, as an academic scientist, is that biofuels from algae will never have a positive energy return. Not even close.

    NASA astronauts are very sensitive to the environment inside of a spacecraft. They know more about sustainability than 90% of scientists, because their life depends on it.

    I suggest that you look at the EROI of offshore algae, it is much better than trying to do it on land. It will require slow moving automated seagoing barges to do the harvesting. These are all engineering problems not basic science.

    When you are running your barges on algae biodiesel, let us know. Engineering is fine, but it will not show you a way around fundamental limits.

    Astronauts know nothing about sustainability. It there was ever a prize for low return on investment (money or energy) manned space travel would win every time.

    When was manned space travel supposed to generate a return on investment?

    Presumably it generates something, but very very inefficiently, therefore very unsustainable.

    The point was not about the ROI of space travel. The astronauts were keenly aware that if the ecosystem within their space capsule fell out of balance, they would die. It couldn't be more direct. But somehow most humans still view ecosystem services as an abstraction, not their life support system.

    NASA kicked off the environmental movement with the picture of the earth taken from the lunar orbit. NASA also invented solar cells and did much of the original work on wind turbines.

    If we are going to survive on earth, we need to understand as much about our ecosystem as the astronauts on Apollo 13 knew about their CO2 scrubber. It is ironic that the build up of CO2 in the atmosphere is the main cause of ocean acidification and global warming.

    Did we not learn anything from their experience?

    We learned in order to solve global warming we just have to fit this into this with nothing but these.

    ""Did we not learn anything from their experience?""

    No, we did not learn anything at all. NASA is still in business and still a total waste of taxpayer money. The first of many, many useless government departments that need to be shut down, yesterday.

    Disclaimer: While I am not a huge fan of manned spaceflight in general, I was still in awe of the work done by the astronauts involved in the recent repair mission to the Hubble Space telescope. If I understand correctly this was not a mission that could have been executed by robots the presence of human workers was required.

    I am however a much bigger fan of unmanned space missions such as the Rover mission to Mars and to other parts of our solar system. I actually had the immense honor a few years back to support NASA scientists when I worked for a company that sold a high end technical and scientific graphics application, I could think of no finer people to work with.

    And while there may be ingrained inefficiencies in any government Bureaucracy, NASA, I'm sure has it's fair share, for someone to claim that it should be shut down because it is a total waste of taxpayer money can only be because the individual making such a statement has no understanding as to why a quest for pure knowledge is one of the most important quests for our species as a whole.

    If ever the expression "Don't throw the baby out with the bath water" was applicable this most certainly is such a case.

    Are you suggesting that we don't need satellite communication (banks and phone calls), the GPS network, solar panels and wind turbines also. Even those air cowlings on trucks were designed by NASA folks. The rocket programs were started by the Nazis so I'm not sure that putting our heads in the sand would have prevented the development of ICBM. Should we have let the Russians do it alone?


    I believe this theme of failing to understand the difference between Science and Engineering is a common theme of alternate energy literature. If science can produce a strain of algae which will grow in the open air resisting contamination and being containable then producing biodiesel on a large scale becomes engineering.

    Although I think there is some merit behind your differentiating "science" and "engineering" advances, the point Robert makes is still valid - i.e. technological breakthroughs, be they science or engineering, are not "inevitabilities".

    I fully agree that money spent to develop biodiesel from algae may not result in success. The problem is that at this stage you can't be sure until it has been researched sufficiently.

    An engineering failure is more likely to be that the goal can not be done economically than failure to attain a "technological breakthrough". People have produced biodiesel from algae so it can be done "technology wise" but so far no one knows how to do it at a cost to compete with existing alternatives.

    Even if the technology can be scaled, the capital crisis is going to ensure that not much fuel from algae will be created, in my view.

    This conclusion is based in part on the conversations I had at the March 2009 Cleantech conference in San Francisco. During the Solazyme Q&A period I asked the speaker, "How much would it cost to build a plant capable of producing 10,000 barrels per day?"

    The response was, "Gosh, that's a big plant, 420,000 gallons per day. We haven't really done the numbers but I would guess $150 million dollars."

    My first thought was, "How do these guys get funding if they supposedly 'haven't done the numbers?' Shouldn't that be part of the due diligence? Do investors' brains fall out when it comes to investing in energy startups?"

    In any case, I didn't believe the response, knowing that process plants that size are likely to be much more expensive, like $1B for a 10,000 bpd coal to liquid plant.

    So I asked the CEO of another prominent fuel algae company (whose name I won't disclose because it was a hallway conversation), "What do you think about that number?"

    His response was, "There is no way that's even close. That's an enormous plant — at least a billion dollars."

    At least one CEO is thinking straight. But that leaves the question: will we be willing to allocate the capital for these sorts of plants? Will the capital be available even if we are willing?

    Thanks for doing the work you do Robert. Investors often get caught up in the excitement of a new technology and this appears to be yet another case of that. We need clear thinking if we are going to handle Energy Descent with any sort of maturity.

    The US seems incapable of 'operating' normally when oil payments go above ~8% of GDP (14.3Trillion * .08 / 365 = 3.134Billion/day, divide this by 20.8Mbpd and you get $156 a barrel).

    Assuming a 10Kbpd plant cost $1B then to replace the imported oil (roughly half?) would cost 10Mbpd / 10Kbpd * $1B = $1 Trillion...

    ...So for a few hundred $B more than the recent bailout -and assuming my maths is OK!- the US could be 'energy independant' wrt imported oil via algae plants...


    Asking if "the capital" is going to be available is not an example of clear thinking. I'm struggling to understand what you're talking about.

    Since you talk about dollars and a crisis, I assume you are talking about financial capital. Financial capital is not a resource but a way to organize distribution of economic output. A lack of financial capital for an otherwise feasible project is therefore the same thing as a lack of will on the part of those who control the means to get the project done. I don't know who you were thinking about when you wrote "we" but your question ("Will the capital be available even if we are willing?") doesn't make any sense to me.
    If you are talking about real capital (industrial, human and so on), then the question makes sense but the answer would depend very much on the (yet to be determined) specifics and not on dollar amounts.

    In any case, when asking such questions it would be useful to be explicit about the scale you're considering. I doubt capital could possibly be lacking for a handful of 10 kbpd plants (provided the technology works as advertised). But if you're talking about solving the liquid fuels problem, you're talking about dozens of 1000 kbpd plants (or more)... now that is a totally different question. Considering only the financial cost and going by your CEO's estimate, we're talking trillions! Such an amount is not absurdly large but more than large enough to worry about scalability.

    Yes, I meant financial capital. In my view, investment horizons and tolerance for risk are both going to shrink dramatically as events unfold. I hold this to be a fundamental trend that follows from peak oil. I understand that you have a different view.

    No, I have no crystal ball... but what you are talking about is precisely an unwillingness to invest. So I don't understand whose will you are talking about in your post above.

    And as noutram hinted at above, such an unwillingness to invest would invite the state to play a larger role in the economy in order to finance projects such as this one, nukes and so on.

    Investment of all sorts will go down as the economy shrinks — by all players.

    You don't know that. But even if I grant you your premise, we are talking about a particular investment and not about all investments.
    If the economy shrinks, not because of an unwillingness to invest by all players (a scenario which you were apparently willing to put aside) but because of peak oil or some other energy supply issue, then the share of energy investment would increase, crowding out investments in services and consumer goods in particular. That's the assumption behind several TOD posts about economic modeling IIRC... and in any case I think it's quite plain that this is what one would normally expect unless most investment was redirected to war or some other urgent crisis.
    This being an energy investment, I would expect more and not less interest in financing such ventures (provided that they make economic sense to being with) during an energy crisis... and all the more so if it becomes clear the crisis is going to be permanent.

    Robert - Love your attitude of looking for the truth even though it may be contrary to your original thinking. We need more of that type of thinking.

    Along those lines, may we ask, "What would humans do with it, if we did find a new wonder fuel that was endlessly renewable and had no immediate negative ecological consequences?"

    Would this be a good thing for us or for the earth? Is are track record good from how we have used other dense sources of energy? Why would our use of any new source be any different? What has changed that would make us wiser users of this new energy?...

    We are five year olds that have just destroyed most of our house with the live chainsaw we have been wielding. The saw is starting to sputter as it runs out of fuel and we are casting around frantically for a new source of fuel and perhaps some more fun toys to play with.

    Would this be a good thing for us or for the earth?

    Now there's the thinking to which I object. dohboi takes as a priori proven that we have not been wise users of energy previously, to which I might agree regarding perhaps up to as much as 50% of present transportation fuel use in industrialized nations, approximately 12.5% of total energy use. It definitely disturbes me to see nihilists co-opting the issue to proclaim essentially "even if I held the key to unlimited resources of renewable energy with no effect on the environment, I wouldn't release it". Presumeably dohboi et al don't comprehend life without energy, or are they perhaps among the 300 lb bikers who would be tribal leaders then? (undoubtedly they'd have no problem finding a reason for accessing enough of that energy to keep themselves on top of the heap).

    It definitely disturbes me to see nihilists co-opting the issue to proclaim essentially "even if I held the key to unlimited resources of renewable energy with no effect on the environment, I wouldn't release it". Presumeably dohboi et al don't comprehend life without energy

    Actually, if you read it he said no immediate negative consequences. That hardly makes him a nihilist. In fact, do you know what the word means? A nihilist wouldn't care either way.

    The point that we are reaching a lot of limits besides energy is always a good one to remind people of, and rejecting the continued use of huge amounts of fuel is at least as ecologically valid as trying to continue it.

    EXCELLENT analysis by RR, per usual.

    ditto greenish

    Hey lengould. I guess I pushed some buttons here. Calling someone a name like "nihilist" does not do much to move discussion forward.

    I'm glad you concede that much of our transportation fuel in industrialized nations is not well used. Would you care to actually respond to any of my questions, or is the whole tone just too offensive for you?

    For the record, I agree with R. Heinberg, P. Murphy, A. Simms and many other thoughtful folks that we need to engage in a very rapid power down, curtailment, that we might have a chance to live within our ecological means. Are you aware that we are in the midst of perhaps the last (or penultimate) mass extinction event, this one human caused? And that it was going strong even before greenhouse effects started to kick in?

    Perhaps lengould et al don't comprehend life! Or they are technofantacists that would live in a glass bubble creating all food from energy from their cold fusion reactors? (undoubtedly they'd have no problem finding reason for abandoning the rest of life after having a hand in destroying it)

    Calling someone a name like "nihilist" does not do much to move discussion forward. ... Or they are technofantacists

    Its not the first time I've been called a techno.. by someone who hasn't a clue about engineering, the energy industry, or science in general. From that source i take it as a compliment meaning i back up my statements with fact.

    "someone who hasn't a clue about engineering, the energy industry, or science in general"

    And you think you know this about

    Sorry you missed the irony in my use of "technofantacist."

    Best wishes on your general demeanor.

    Likewise here. Robert's written scores of articles challenging accepted thinking here, his piece criticizing HL modeling for instance, which was met with howls of scorn, outrage, etc. This sort of blinkered reaction I'm always puzzled by - people are very emotionally attached to be proven correct to the exclusion of any data that contradicts what they wish to happen, which isn't what I'd call rational behavior.

    Frankly if world production peaked in 2020 we'd still likely be in quite the bind, purely in the logistics of transportation, given how short sighted markets generally are. I don't deny the existence of various binds described below in the thread, either, which makes most cornucopians sound a bit shallow. You don't hear Mike Lynch expound much on ocean acidification or growing water scarcity. Still I don't think we should reject any data we can get our hands on, even if it suggests things will stagger on as they are for a few years longer. People will only acknowledge this issue when it really hits home - do any of your neighbors have anything to say about de facto flat supply of crude oil 2005-2008? Decline in LSC? Probably not, I'm guessing.

    Three things need to be said about algae ever being used:
    1.The algae reactors being built today are all in huge glass/plastic closed tubes that are ridiculously expensive, same goes for PV currently using glass. Open air would be a massive problem if one phage ever floated near the reactor and the whole system becomes algae lysed sludge, which from my understanding may have actually happened in an unspecified University's closed system.
    2.Algae evolved to only compete with other photosynthetic organisms, which means they only need to achieve 2% or so conversion of the sun's light to still be around today or extent. Some human designed PV systems are kicking around maybe 60% (i.e.JTEC). This means that we would need 30 times more land devoted to this nonsense.
    3.And what about scalability? Is every home going to have one of these or can have one of these? This means more centralization of power, which means maintaining and servicing of the old oil infrastructure. Go electric or go home.

    I agree that electric-powered ground vehicles are the future. However, we cannot power jets with batteries.

    Unless you believe in the near-term collapse of civilization (a distinct possibility), then we need to develop carbon-neutral liquid fuels that don't destroy ecosystems.

    Growing algae in cheap plastic membranes filled with secondary effluent 3 miles offshore seems to get as close as we can to a sustainable biofuel. As it is a research project at this point, it remains to be seen whether it pencils out financially. But I can't see a better way to solve problems related to aviation fuel, water use, ocean dead zones, ocean acidification, phosphate loss, etc.

    The problem still doesn't get around potential phage issues, competing with other organisms, keeping boats away from these huge containers at sea, and bringing these huge containers back to land for processing. Lastly, some in this field believe we can genetically engineer super algae around these problems, God help us if they do and this stuff gets out into any ecosystem, where it is more efficient at converting light and can out compete predators. I liken it to saying, "let's replace cars with genetically engineered horses with better gas mileage, more horse power, and they can out compete any predator." I say we stick to stuff we are really close to getting to work that doesn't have some serious unintended consequences.

    Phage are a general problem for all crops. If we have modular plastic growth modules, we can isolate the problem. Since the system is enclosed, there is much lower chance of phage infection than a traditional farm.

    No GMOs are needed, natural species are sufficent. By using fresh water algae in a marine environment, any leaking algae will be killed immediately.

    The system does not require moving large containers. Imagine a roller vehicle that squeezes the algae from the bag like a toothpaste tube into an automated barge.

    If JPL can put a rover on Mars, they should be able to doc a boat with a bag in the ocean. This is not rocket science.

    You have a good point about boats running over the bags. I'm sure it will happen, but with a radar reflector and collision avoidance system, the big ships should stay away. Lets hope NOAA can define some ocean development zones. The wind and wave machines need this also.

    Thankfully, the Bush era is over. I think everyone still has PTSD from the eight years of hostility to renewables. Luckily the Air Force, DOD, DOE, EPA and NASA are concerned about this problems.

    Putting a man on the moon was Kennedy's goal. Obama's should be 80% reduction of CO2 GHG by 2020.

    If you know of a realistic plan to reduce CO2 emissions by 80% without recourse to WMDs, please reference it.
    Note that I didn't say "by 2020"... Obama is not a magician.

    The USSR also had rocket scientists you know.

    I don't have a published report, but here is a summary:

  • 1. Subsidized efficiency upgrades on every existing building with smart metering.
  • 1a. Power bills should show electricity usage of similar-sized homes in the region.
  • 2. Combination of wind, solar, hydro, nuclear and geothermal for electricity.
  • 3. States should push local govt to change zoning to encourage TOD Transit oriented development.
  • 4. Electrify passenger and local freight with elevated PRT funded by public-private partnerships.
  • 5. Long haul freight with electric rail.
  • 6. Shift highway money to bike lane projects.
  • 7. Low-carbon, Low-water biofuel for aviation and fire/police.
  • 8. Solar thermal for 80% of hot water (like China).
  • 9. $500B in targeted govt investment in above items (like China).
  • 10. Cap and dividend to nudge people along.
  • 11. Phase out middle east (military) oil subsidies ($500B savings).
  • 12. Label CO2 content in all products and food.
  • 13. SEC mandates energy use in financial reports for public companies.
  • China is planning a vast increase in its use of wind and solar power over the next ­decade and believes it can match Europe by 2020, producing a fifth of its energy needs from renewable sources.

    Beijing seeks to achieve these goals by directing a significant share of China's $590bn economic stimulus package to low-carbon investment. Of that total, more than $30bn will be spent directly on environmental projects and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

    Unfortunately they are still talking about economic "growth" (8% this year) so probably overall CO2 emissions will be higher:-(

    We all need, including both the US and China, to reduce CO2 emissions. Obfuscating the issue by talking about a share produced by renewables is just not acceptable, neither is using others as an excuse to do nothing.

    If you haven't seen it yet take a look at HOME is an ode to the planet's beauty and its delicate harmony.

    This doesn't look like a coherent plan (what about cars, buses, short-haul freight and so on?) and many points seem to be merely wishful thinking (point 7 in particular).
    There's a lot of window dressing in the list and everything seems to hinge on the "cap and dividend", if only for financing as $500B seems woefully inadequate. So this part should be fleshed out at the very least.
    If you provided details and especially numbers for this emissions trading scheme, people would perhaps be able to judge whether your plan is likely to achieve its goal and if its implementation would be desirable or even realistic without a special plan (such as a coup followed by martial law) to get such a measure through the political process as well as to guard against systematic evasion.

    If we go all-out on an "electrification of transport" effort (PHEVs, electrified freight and light urban rail, mode-switching to use more ships instead of rail and more rail instead of trucks), there will probably be a lot of oil available in years ahead for applications that cannot use a substitute. Beyond that, in the longer term (decades perhaps?), I foresee thermochemical conversion pathways using CO2 extracted from the atmosphere and water to produce a wide range of synthetic hydrocarbons with nuclear heat to drive the process. I believe pebble bed and molten salt reactors are capable of operating at sufficiently high temperatures to act as viable process heat sources for thermochemical hydrogen production and to drive the reverse water-gas shift process to generate CO / syngas.

    We don't have decades to develop an energy intensive CO2 -> liquid fuel. CO2 levels are at 338 ppm and the pH in the ocean is falling to levels that is destroying the bottom of the food chain.
    Check out a world without fish.

    If we are powering ground transport off efficiently generated electricity will there be enough liquid fuels for applications where they are not replaceable?

    Yes, but we do have the small problem of ocean acidification from increasing levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. James Hansen has called for 80-90% reduction in fossil fuels, we cannot sit around and hope for a 100% electrified ground transport system and do nothing about jet fuel. Would you continue sipping a latte if your house was on fire?

    "Some human designed PV systems are kicking around maybe 60% (i.e.JTEC)"

    Hi, can you provide a reference for this JTEC? When I googled JTEC and J T E C, I got stuff about radio-controlled cars, the Jewish Teacher Educators Community, etc. Guessing that the "TEC" part stands for "thermal energy conversion" didn't help.

    Thanks in advance.

    Excellent book review and overview of the current algal biodiesel situation; just the kind of informative TOD article we've come to expect.

    I continue to be flabbergasted at bio-fuel schemes intended to keep our internal combustion engines moving. Photosynthesis isn't that efficient (2 - 6% for raw conversion, < 1% for biomass construction) for producing biomass that can be converted into fuel for much less energy than it takes to do the conversion. Forget dollars (capital costs, unit costs, etc.) These are meaningless. All that counts is do we get more exergy from the process than we use up making it?

    Plants make good food because their power supply is matched to the rate of energy use in animals, not in 100 horsepower engines. Doesn't anybody do the energy accounting (arithmetic!)?

    Fiddle with the genes all you want. It doesn't matter how fast the algae grow (it does matter how fast you harvest -- faster means more energy used). All that matters is the boundary condition -- the amount of power per unit area in the usable bandwidth(s) for photosynthesis. And that ain't a lot folks.

    We need to focus on REAL energy solutions and stop dreaming away our future.

    Question Everything - Biophysical Economics


    "We need to focus on REAL energy solutions and stop dreaming away our future."

    And those are ??

    Jim e-mailed me this question. Here is my response:


    Gave a pointer to my blog where I have been writing about solutions under
    the heading biophysical economics. There is a series in there called "Steps
    to an energy solution". You may have to scroll down and go back a few pages
    to get to the beginning.

    I was also recently interviewed on Zapata-George Radio
    ( ) May 30th. That is the same
    group that has interviewed Nate Hagens and Mat Simmons among others.


    Nuclear power!

    This is an engineering and business problem, not a scientific one. We know the science after 50 years of nuclear power. The energy per unit mass is six orders of magnitude greater than the next best thing (fossil fuels). This has profound consequences for the minimum possible "environmental footprint", both in terms of "physical plant" per unit power out and waste stream volume, that make nuclear power the only real alternative to support an industrial society for billions of humans without destroying the planet.

    Its just a matter of getting it done...

    Takes too long to build!! I say change the regulatory model. It takes YEARS just to file the paperwork and get it approved, before a single shovel breaks ground!

    It still takes too long! Too risky for private capital! I say change the business model by moving to pre-approved modular units that are factory mass-produced rather than having to finance billions on each green-field mega-plant that will take years before the first Watt is produced with all the inherent financial risks that implies.

    But what about the waste?! I say start reprocessing and begin implementation of Thorium & fast-spectrum reactors so ultimately only fission fragements are destined for disposal (short half-life, miniscule volume produced).

    But what about Peak Uranium?! See above- global resources would be sufficient for millennia.

    But new technology will take to long! We don't have the time! I say it doesn't HAVE to be so... The technologies have already been demonstrated (pebble bed, molten salt, integral fast reactor, etc.). Fine tuning the engineering bugs to get to commercial prototypes could be done within a few years if made a national / global priority with many research / prototype reactors put into service in parallel. If there is a concerted will, it could be done. Just look to the Manhattan Project, the Apollo Program to the moon as to what can be done when the national will is put behind it. Besides, we could start with what we know first while accelerated next gen technology development is in the pipeline. NuScale Power is a good example (a time tested LWR design, but in a modular format).

    A MASSIVE nuclear technology drive on the scale of WWII mobilization ramp-up would solve both our energy dilemma, global warming problems and put the economy on a new path forward to a viable future for which a secure, abundant, scalable, non-polluting high-grade heat supply is a NECESSARY condition.

    Besides that algal fuel doesn't necessarily try to solve the low CO2 "electricity generation issue":

    Now you just need to invent and develop commercial big rigs and commercial aircrafts that run on nuclear power and you are all set.
    Well, you might also need to start to work on nuclear powered commercial ships which actually deliver a return on investment (submarines and aircraft carriers don't need to).

    Steve is right about demonstrated nuclear power technologies. A tutorial introduction to the technology and benefits of the molten salt thorium reactor is at, and there's a Google Tech Talk at

    No new technology is needed. The US is still producing nuclear reactors at a pace of about one every year. They simply aren't tasked for civilian electricity production, and they aren't cheap.

    The LFTR does appear to be a good design though. It will be interesting to see how it matures.

    All that counts is do we get more exergy from the process than we use up making it?

    This statment is incorrect. Your are right of course that we need get more exergy out than we put in. Zero is indeed equal to zero. However, other inputs besides exergy are important. Suppose I have an exergy producing process that consumes half of its own gross output of exergy. So for every two mega watt hours that I produce 1 megawatt hour has to be diverted into the exergy producing process (EROI=2). Why does this diversion matter economically? It matters because if I want to expand my exergy supply I have to expand all the factors of production (e.g. labor, land, water) associated with this process. If these other factors of production are in finite supply then significant opportunity costs are associated with diverting them into the energy production process.

    If the cost of non-energy related factors of production were trivially small, then it would be possible to economically produce energy from a process with a low EROI. So if I could harvest energy from a parallel universe by waving my magic wand once per second over a batch of energy, causing it to vanish and then to be replaced by a new batch which is 10% larger (EROI=1.1), then in one hour I could expand my energy supply by a factor of 10E+149 with the only cost being the lost hour of labor.

    It is the resource intensity(ies) of net exergy production which is (are) important. If r is the amount of a given resource required to produce a gross exergy output G, and P is the exergy consumed during the production of G then the amount of resource required to provide 1 net unit of exergy is given by rn = [G/(G-P)]r. In the limit that G==>P (i.e. EROI==>1) the resource intensity goes to infinity.
    In the real world exergy gain and resource intensity are qualitatively correlated. Exergy processes with high gain tend to have low resource intensity and vice versa. But resource intensity is the more fundamental conception.

    A lot of r2's skepticism comes from the idea that NOTHING can replace drilled petroleum.

    It is a marvelous thing that in the past we were able to drill into the ground and a gushing black ooze could be quickly distilled into kerosene or gasoline. How did we ever manage without this miraculous fuel.

    It is not an argument.

    Before WWI( before the oil tanker), a good deal of Europe's oil came from mining oil shale, Autun in France and Lothian in Scotland. Today Brazil gets a majority of its transportation fuel from ethanol.
    When the South Africa was embargoed, they built the largest coal to liquids plant in the world(100000 bpd).

    These were not directly competitive with oil on a dollar basis but the latter have become self-sustaining businesses and the Chinese are developing Fushun oil shale( orginally developed by the oil poor Japanese) up to 700000 tons per year.

    When the oil price gets high enough people will get interested in substitute products. No need for excessive skepticism.

    A lot of r2's skepticism comes from the idea that NOTHING can replace drilled petroleum.

    Ludicrous. That is your straw man. So whack away...

    It is not an argument.

    Sure it is. It is the argument you just made up. But if it was my argument, why would I spend time searching for a replacement for petroleum? Of course there is the possibility that you simply don't know what you are talking about.

    This guy is a business professor -- of "strategic marketing," no less!

    Nuff said.

    Enough said for a 13 year old. If you have a point.. make it.

    OK, since you can't understand the point, I'll say it. The author of the book is not a scientist. His expertise is in selling stuff, not comprehending reality. As Robert's review says very gently, this book doesn't address the elementary obstacles that will rather obviously bar algae from running our insane transportation system. Wishful thinking/business promotion is being passed off as science.

    Have you heard the joke about the economist on the desert island? That's the point. Presuming the can-opener.


    This adds nothing to the discussion but I thought a little humor wouldn't hurt.

    Page 13: As a criticism of using food crops for fuel, he states that massive planting of corn leads to high humidity because the leaves transpire water. This leads to thunderstorms and potentially tornadoes.

    That large areas planted in corn can increase the risk of tornadoes is something I have never heard before.

    Back in the 70s IIRC during the first energy crisis, I suggested that we dig a canal (a big one) from the Sea of Cortez (gulf of california) up the Colorado river to the Salton Sea,(235' below sea level) and re-fill it with sea water, adding some low head turbines, to generate electricity.

    Along with this it would put a very large body of water right out in the middle of the desert, and evaporation in the summer time would increase rainfall in Arizona giving us a further benefit. YEAH RIGHT!!!!

    same kind of thinking. LOL


    I have seen lots of things happen that I once would have dismissed as "not in a million years!" for either practical or political reasons.

    Right now the environmentalists can put a stop to any such scheme before it is even out of the early planning stages,but ten or twenty years from now,a coalition of labor unions,big construction companies,the heavy equipment manufacturers,and a public thirsting for cheap electricity might get the ball rolling.

    There will always be a bunch of stimulus/bailout cheerleaders ready to jump on board in hard times.

    The local real estate people will see marinas,waterfront lots,and people waterskiing.

    The water might be so salty that no fish can live in it,so BASS might not bite,but hey,your kids won't drown in water so salty that they float like corks ,right?

    And furthermore it IS altogether reasonable to suppose tha rainfall will increase somewhat in the area.The so called lake effect sure does result in a lot of snow in Buffalo.

    I am neither advocating nor predicting the construction of such a canal,but I do think a number of such apparently-unlikely-to-be-built mega scale projects will come to be in the next few decades.If I could predict when and where,I could hire someboby to hoe my corn and tote my firewood.

    I've pondered the effects of such a canal from the Pacific coast into Death Valley.

    It could certainly be used to generate a lot of energy, and large quantities of water added to the Death Valley basin would probably have a beneficial effect on the local climate. Perhaps it would even reduce the fresh water needs of California agriculture by bringing in more rainfall.

    Of course, major geoengineering is frowned on these days, and it would be quite expensive.

    Farmers long ago devised workable solutions to invasive spieces in thier fields and pastures-hoes,plows,dogs,and insecticides to name a few.A prime strategy is to literally swamp the competition from weeds by simply planting so much crop seed that the weeds are shaded out.

    If an outdoor batch process can be developed,it might be possible to control invasive spieces the same way by maintaining a greenhouse grown supply of "seed" algae ready to flood the grow ponds each time they are drained.The big head start might do the trick.

    I speculate that if someone can establish viable outside algae farms based upon a combination of salable products that selective breeding and gradual improvements in the technique might eventually result in significant oil production as well as enough specialty products and livestock feed to make the whole process viable.

    In the hottest and sunniest places in the low latitudes with lowlying level coastal land land near large concentrations of people,sewage could be used as a primary input which would vastly expand gross dry wieght output,capture phosphorus,and avoid a lot of expense treating the waste water in a conventional plant.

    Direct coupled solar powered pumps(no storage,no inverters,no significant transmission losses)could do nearly all the pumping,and the sun can do the drying.Both technologies work exceptionally well in such environments.

    The biggest question is probably whether the salt, the feed concentrate,and the high value low volume specialty products can be seperated economically.

    Farmers long ago devised workable solutions to invasive spieces in thier fields and pastures-hoes,plows,dogs,and insecticides to name a few.A prime strategy is to literally swamp the competition from weeds by simply planting so much crop seed that the weeds are shaded out.

    If an outdoor batch process can be developed,it might be possible to control invasive spieces the same way by maintaining a greenhouse grown supply of "seed" algae ready to flood the grow ponds each time they are drained.The big head start might do the trick.

    Shell was doing that, called it "blitzing".

    I have been wondering about the cost of operating a CCS plant that pumps the CO2 deep underground for storage vs. one that runs the effluent through algae ponds to "feed" the algae with no other objective but to capture the CO2. At a "green expo" I visited over the weekend in my little corner of the planet, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that my municipality is now using a large algae based facility to process sewage. Apparently there was some criticism that this kind of plant is more expensive to build than other sewage treatment plants and uses large amounts of land. It's advantages however seemed to have outweighed it's disadvantages in that it is a largely passive system and therefore has very low operating and maintenance costs.

    The local authorities have seen it fit to invest in this facility with the primary aim of sewage treatment but, the plant will also produce a sludge which can be used as fertilizer (O-NPK). Currently the plan is to harvest the sludge produced ever three years and sell the O-NPK. It got me to wondering about the feasibility of piping the CO2 produced by relatively close industrial and power plants for sequestration. Would this not accelerate the growth of the algae in the process? I also came upon a web site for a operation in New Zealand that is seeking to comericialze production of fuel from algae using open sewage ponds as the growth medium.

    The way I see it our civilization has a number of looming problems we need to solve

    We need to process large amounts of sewage produced by our growing population.
    We need to find an alternative to inorganic fertilizer as we face depletion of the inputs.
    We need to somehow limit the amount of CO2 we're releasing into the atmosphere.
    We need to ramp up the use of alternative energy sources as we face declining FF production, decreasing EROEI, and increasing prices.

    In my city, algae are already being used to tackle the first two problems. If CO2 producers had to start to pay for the CO2 they emit wouldn't the existing facilities be able to provide a CCS service as well? AFAIK the commercialization of the fuel extraction can be worked on while we use the algae to tackle the first three problems. How would the economics of the situation change if these problems were not approached in isolation? Why not take an integrated approach and use algae to treat sewage, capture CO2 and produce O-NPK/biomass/fuel in one facility?

    I read somewhere that algae reproduce faster than any other photosynthesizing organism on the planet and double their mass faster than any other plant as a result (a matter of hours IIRC). We should be using this ability to our advantage in any way we can. I guess my point is that algae can be very useful for other purposes than just producing fuel.

    Alan from the islands

    That type of sewage treatment facility is a Waste Stabilization Pond. They do take up more land than others but do a very good (and very low energy) job of treating sewage. There are 3 ponds in series- the first is anaerobic, the second aerobic above and anaerobic below, and the third is aerobic. The algae grow mainly in the last, and use some of the nutrients in the water. However, this pond should have access to oxygen so pumping CO2 into it wouldn't promote the growth of the right types of bacteria, which are the ones really doing the treatment by breaking down the waste. It would tend to make the pond smell bad, too. That's not to say that you couldn't come up with a combined wastewater-fuel plant (there are some designs like that), but adding CO2 to this one is probably not very useful.

    These types actually produce a very small amount of sludge compared to the more energy intensive sewage treatment plants. They also produce methane in the first pond, which can be captured.

    However, I would argue that we don't need to be treating all that sewage in the first place. Why do we put human waste into water? You'd get better fertilizer by composting it directly- much more, and with less heavy metal contamination. The disease issues can be overcome by careful handling.

    Algae that thrive in the dark

    Solazyme Snags $57M to Make Algal Oil for Cars and Salad .... June 8, 2009

    The Solazyme process is NOT photosynthetic. They are using biomass to grow algae, so this is not really much different from cellulosic. Limits to biomass will limit the scaling potential.

    I'm amazed that Gates put $100m into this company. Where are they going to get their biomass? Perhaps they are planning to be a small niche player using biomass from a 50 mile radius.

    Biomass from crops should be used to compost fields not burned in cars.

    "I'm amazed that Gates put $100m into this company."

    Remember that he also sank a lot of money into Pacific Ethanol, and they just declared bankruptcy. I wrote something about that a couple of years ago:

    As I have said before, I care about what computer guys think about computer issues. I don't use them as a guide for which biofuel sectors make good technical sense.

    yes, I had the same impression after dealing with a founder at Sun microsystems that is pushing cellulosic, Vinod Khosala. I think he is doing the pump and dump thing with biofuels.

    I posted that same link not long ago with a snarky comment that they could grow their algae on corn syrup. It seems that for the algae to produce oil it must be provided with a source of sugar.

    The Algebra of Algae … to Biodiesel

    "So to get a maximum limit of how much biodiesel could be produced per year under the carbon restriction of the ACES Act, we can assume that all CO2 emissions come from transportation only. The figure below plots a simplified trajectory of US CO2 emissions (left axis) under the ACES Act, along with emissions from the electricity and transportation sectors. On the right axis, I’ve plotted the amount of biodiesel from algae that can be produced assuming that 100% of power plant emissions are captured and used for growing algae to make biodiesel (clearly an over estimate). This inherently assumes that (1) there will be absolutely no net CO2 emissions from any other industrial process, industry, or combustion of any hydrocarbon aside from burning the biodiesel in vehicles and (2) that no technology will feasibly exist for re-capturing the CO2 from combustion of biodiesel in the vehicle itself.

    The plot shows that in 2050 50 Bgal/yr of biodiesel from algae would be the maximum amount allowed. Compare this to the 2008 US consumption of approximately 138 Bgal of gasoline and 61 Bgal of diesel. About half of the diesel was for freight trucks. Therefore, in 40 years, for the US to meet the ACES Act carbon reductions, we could produce 50 Bgal of biodiesel from algae, with 1,000 MtCO2 coming from fossil fueled power plants (assumed) if and only if no other fuel or economic sector had a net emission of CO2. Thus, if the CO2 supplied for algae came from coal power plants, then we would essentially be producing electricity from coal with CO2 capture, but not geologic or other storage systems, in the quantity of approximately 1,000 TWh or 50% of today’s coal powered generation. This does not mean that additional coal or natural gas power plants could not operate, but each would have to capture and sequester 100% of the CO2 emissions - a practical impossibility, but a sufficient assumption for this back-of-the-envelope analysis.

    So what are some implications or conclusions from this quick analysis?

    To drive as many miles as we do today (2.7 trillion/yr by cars and light trucks only) on 25%of current liquid fuels consumption, we need our transportation sector to be 400% more “liquid fuel” efficient in the range of 80 MPG of biodiesel to leave 16 Bgal for freight (about half the fuel for today’s freight)

    This is not entirely difficult to imagine for light duty vehicles that currently have a fleetwide average of approximately 21 MPG. By creating plug-in hybrids and making cars lighter, the capability of meeting this fuel economy has been demonstrated. Imagining the implications for freight trucks may be more difficult, as they would still have to get over twice as efficient as today, and increasing freight travel by rail could help get goods around the country with less fuel. There are other possibilities, but knowing what we have to work for in terms of a carbon balance can prevent a “algae to biodiesel” bubble while still moving us to a lower-carbon future.

    Were you intending to display this image?
    You can find the instructions in the FAQ for this site.
    ...include the appropriate HTML code in your comment. For example: (angle bracket)img src=""(close angle bracket).


    Forget oil.

    ooh yes controversial. Energy is fungible. If you heat your house using solar panels, you reduce your natural gas usage, which then frees up that gas for processes which might otherwise use electricity, or oil...

    Forget the oil. It's just energy.

    So... Install insulation. Install a Heat Bank, install a load of solar thermal panels on your roof. Install a wood burning oven, all attached to the Heat Bank.

    You want cooling? Evaporative cooling, not air conditioning.

    Good ideas, but there are many things that you cannot power with a heat bank:

    1) jets
    2) medical products made from plastic

    Has anyone done an analysis of the emissions associated with manufacture of plastic? It seems like it is a great way to sequester CO2. We may have an oversupply when we switch to electrified transport.

    The loss of cheap jet air travel would not be too serious except for some tourist island economies.

    The raw materials for plastic synthesis can be generated from calcium carbide via acetylene, or ethanol( reduction to ethylene) or various fermentation products.

    If we wait for peak oil to kill jet travel, it will be too late. $150 will curtail jet travel but I fear it will continue on a reduced scale. Certainly military usage will continue at any price. It makes sense to move toward some kind of fuel that will not reduce our children's ecosystem to a desert.

    Bioplastics are possible, but I still like the idea of coming up with a use for oil that does not involve burning it and sending all of the carbon into the atmosphere. Rest assured that we aren't going to leave it in the ground. Imagine how cheap plastic would become if we didn't use oil for fuel.

    "The loss of cheap jet air travel would not be too serious..."

    except for some tourist island economies.

    Which is precisely where I live. Over the years the technocrats have bought "the future is the service economy" hype, resulting in a reduced emphasis on agriculture and manufacturing, instead moving resources towards tourism and finance (banking, investment banking, insurance etc.). Now with the plunge in demand for aluminum, a number of bauxite mining and refining operations have had to close down putting relatively well paid workers out of work and sharply reducing export earnings. Another major source of hard currency is surprisingly remittances from nationals living and working abroad who send money back to support their families. As you can imagine remittances are down.That leaves tourism as one of the other main sources of revenue that is also not doing very well right now. You can tell by the silence of the officials who usually take pride in announcing increases in visitor arrivals and/or revenues.

    I have always had a deep dislike for tourism as an industry since every time our major markets sneeze, we catch a terrible cold. I just don't like the idea of depending on people having discretionary income to spare and being persuaded to spend it in a particular destination. As a result, I have tried to stay as far far away from it as possible. Others of my countrymen have embraced it and one or two have even done extremely well for themselves. For them, "The loss of cheap jet air travel would not be too serious...", is an extremely flippant statement. I do not think many of the workers in the tourist industry relish the idea of going back to work on farms for low wages. Reminds us too much of slavery.

    Alan from the islands


    Some friends of mine tried out a big evaporative cooler in thier commercial garage.They work like a charm on days when the humidity is low,but they are useless in a hugh humidity environment.

    They sent it back as it worked only about one day out of three here in Va when it was hot enough to need it.

    They are probably bargains in any semidesert area-if you have clean water to feed them.

    I have this idea if a new product is going to work it will be developed quickly; example the Digital Video Disc that was conceived in 1991 then commercialised in 1996
    In such cases the bugs are quickly solved and the product makes it to market in a few years. Conversely the bugs just don't seem to go away in some other much needed energy ideas like nuclear fusion, wave power, carbon capture and dry rock geothermal. A reasonable hunch suggests that algal fuel should be added to that list.

    I'd gladly spend $500 on my own backyard geothermal power plant. Home fusion, ehh, not so sure, although plenty out there would readily bite, like those wackos who are eager to test out internal RFID implants so they can be cutting edge. Comparing macroscale projects like these with personal consumer purchases like DVD players doesn't quite equate, although I like back of the envelope WAGs like you're describing too. Perhaps someone has compared the funding schema for these different types of tech development, to see if each has been given a fighting chance.

    Hmmm... maybe.

    The DVD had some pretty direct predecessors: the LaserDisc, the video tape, and the compact disc.

    The LaserDisc was a technology prototype. Videotape showed how *not* to handle the marketing (VHS vs. Betamax) and the CD provided an industrial and distribution model.

    So the technological and business problems had been solved. (Personally, I am amazed that it took a whole decade for blu-ray to appear commercially.) The problems of new forms of energy supply have not been solved by their predecessors, unfortunately.

    In addition, the DVD is an end-user luxury item, not a core energy supply technology. There isn't much that depends on DVDs in the same way as things depend on oil extraction, refining, and distribution.

    I have a hunch that the more "fundamental" a technology is to our civilization, the longer it takes to get it up and running. Coal was mined commercially in England from before 1540, but the first 'commercial' coal-powered steam engine was produced in 1712. (Ramping an energy technology up takes a long time too. Steam engines didn't take over from water-mills for industrial power until the 19th century.) Wind, wave, solar, and fusion have had to overcome their own problems that are at least as difficult as those faced by steam in the 1690s.

    So if you want to Get Rich Quick, focus on inventing things like iPods, DVDs, cars, or perfumes, not new forms of energy supply.

    Hope I haven't ruined your plans, Boof. ;-)

    I still think methane from algae has a better chance of producing usable gains than liquids from algae.

    Gas or liquids is probably irrelevant. What realist is researching (above) is probably the only shot algae has on a large scale, and it's a large maybe. Land-based has all the disadvantages of regular agriculture plus a bunch more from using bioreactors. It may still be done, assuming we have a military in the future that still can afford to pay any price for its desires.

    Thank you for this book review, Robert. It's fascinating how many people have a "magical" view of technology. Sometimes it seems like everyone thinks like this, except the people whose job it is to create the new technologies.

    I'd like to reiterate a point made by George Monbiot in his book "Heat": If we (the world) decide we want biodiesel, the market will decide the least-cost way to supply it. Currently, that is by bulldozing tropical rainforest and planting oil palms on the cleared soil.

    To me, the biodiversity loss and potential for accelerated desertification far outweigh the (unknown, but minor) advantages of converting from fossil diesel to biodiesel.

    Until and unless algal (or any other) biodiesel is clearly and definitely so cheap that oil palm plantations will never make money, biodiesel is A Bad Idea. It'd be far better to stay with electric vehicles and biomass gasification.