Politics from the Palouse to Puget Sound

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Will Pond Scum Be Our Salvation?

Forget ethanol, hydrogen and wind power. The future lies in yellow-green goo.

I have come to wonder if we will have to move the nation’s first presidential polls out of Iowa before we have a sensible alternative energy program. There cannot be more than a handful of Americans out there who do not believe that the United States would be better off if it did not have to depend upon oil imported from enemies. That number probably falls to zero when we limit our sampling to the rational and informed. Even those who don’t give a rat’s fanny about the United States, but worship at the altar of renewable energy and reducing carbon emissions, would embrace an honest alternative energy program. Instead, we have corn ethanol.
Thanks to federal programs that link corn ethanol subsidies to crude oil prices, corn prices rose by 80% last year. Over the last five years, the percentage of corn diverted from the food chain to ethanol has risen from 3% to 20%, even as more acres of corn are planted to cash in on the gravy train. As a consequence, the price of just about everything we eat went up. Meat and milk cost more because corn is such a huge component of feed costs. Bread costs more because acreage that would have been planted in wheat is now planted to corn.
And all of that for a crop that only returns 1.3 BTU’s for every BTU invested into its production. If we planted every conceivable acre of farmland to corn and converted to ethanol, it would not make a significant dent in our oil consumption. It costs nearly twice as much to produce a gallon of ethanol as it does to produce a gallon of oil, which is why we don't use ethanol to produce ethanol - we burn oil.
The second great fraud is hydrogen. Hydrogen is promoted as the ideal fuel. It’s the most abundant element in the universe. We’ll never run out. When burned, hydrogen produces only pure water. Not even a greenie could complain about that.
The problem is that, hydrogen is not a fuel. There are no hydrogen fields for us to drill into. At its best, hydrogen is simply a system for power transmission, like an electrical power line. To get hydrogen to burn, you have to invest even more energy into it than it will ever return. It’s the second law of thermodynamics. The laws of physics are not optional.
But, that’s only the first problem. Making hydrogen is so costly that a kilogram of hydrogen, which contains about the same amount of energy as a gallon of gasoline, costs about $100. One reason is that compressing hydrogen so that it can be transported and dispensed consumes up to 40% of hydrogen’s energy content. Transporting hydrogen is costly and wasteful. The high pressures require massive tanks that require huge, energy consuming vehicle to move it from where it is made to where it is needed. You can’t send it in pipelines. The inconvenient fact is that most of the energy used to produce hydrogen is lost before it ever gets to your car.
If only we had enough pond scum farmers to attract Washington, DC’s attention.
Researchers at Utah State University are developing algae biodiesel generators that can produce between 10,000 and 15,000 gallons of fuel per acre. Our primary oilseed, soybeans, only yields about 48 gallons per acre. These single celled seaweeds are prodigious energy producers. At maturity, their body mass is about 50% or more vegetable oil. This vegetable oil contains about 95% of the energy of petroleum diesel and requires little processing before it can be used.
The algae generators that Utah State has designed can be put to use anywhere that the sun shines and do not have to displace food crops, as corn ethanol production does. I did a calculation using Utah State’s yields and estimated that dedicating a plot of non-arable land equal to about 182 miles on a side would more than replace all the oil we now import. I’ve lived in the West all my life and can report that there is a lot more dry and desolate land than that that we can use.
A researcher from the University of New Hampshire estimates that only 1/8 of my old stomping grounds, the Sonoran Desert, could produce enough algae biodiesel to replace all the transportation fuel we now burn.
Even without federal subsidies, the Utah State research team predicts that pond scum biodiesel could be economically competitive with oil by the end of this decade.
Unfortunately, we don’t have the early presidential primaries or caucuses out west of the Rocky Mountains. If the billions we’ve already wasted on corn ethanol and hydrogen had been spent on the basis of promise and merit, where would we be today?
But that’s not how government works. Which is why you shouldn’t trust it.


Barenjager said...

Go Aggies!
Note the WSU connection.

Sridhar Viamajala joined the USU Biofuels team
in January 2007 to assist with developing
commercially viable biofuel technologies.

Viamajala worked at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, National
Bioenergy Center in Golden, Colo., where he researched conversion of
biomass to ethanol and the production of biodiesel.
After earning an undergraduate degree in chemical engineering at the Indian
Institute of Technology in Kharagphur, India, Viamajala moved to the United
States to complete a doctorate at Washington State University in chemical
The USU biodiesel team includes Brett Barney, chemistry and biochemistry;
Jeff Broadbent, nutrition and food sciences; Scott Ensign, chemistry and
biochemistry; Carl Hansen, nutrition and food sciences; Conly Hansen,
nutrition and food sciences and biological and irrigation engineering; Lance
Seefeldt, chemistry and biochemistry; Ron Sims, biological and irrigation
engineering; Byard Wood, mechanical and aerospace engineering; and Henry
Nowak from the USU Technology Commercialization office. Viamajala’s
experience in feedstock technologies will be crucial to the other goals of the
biofuels program.
“Dr. Viamajala’s experience at the National Renewable Energy Lab adds to
the strength of our research team because it brings connections to the
biofuels community that we didn’t have before,” said Wood. “We are very
pleased he has decided to join our team.”
Lefevre will start at USU Sept. 1, and be based in the biology department in
the College of Science. Viamajala joined the university in January as part of
the biological irrigation engineering department in the College of
Passed in the 2006 state legislative session, USTAR is designed to help Utah
keep pace in scientific research and technological advancement — directly
translating to a stronger economy, high-paying jobs, increased tax revenue
and better quality of life, said USU Vice President for Research Brent Miller.
The USTAR Economic Development Initiative leverages the proven success
of Utah’s research universities in creating and commercializing innovative
USTAR provides funding for research personnel and facilities at USU and
the University of Utah. To maximize USTAR’s benefit, researchers are being
hired in areas most likely to create the largest return on investment. These
industry “clusters,” defined by the governor’s Office of Economic
Development, reflect the state’s current strengths and competitive
USTAR-funded researchers are expected to grow their sponsored research
funding and promote technology commercialization by filing invention
disclosures, patent applications and applying for business-related grants
and programs.
Miller said one aspect of the cost effectiveness of the USTAR proposal is its
focus on core areas of technology where Utah has a competitive advantage
and billion-dollar industries are going to emerge: personalized and
regenerative medicine, genetically linked cancer and neurological
treatments, biotechnology applications for bio-defense and microbial

Bruce Heimbigner said...

Great article. But something doesn’t seem right with these numbers: 5000 gals oil / acre for algae vs 48 for Soybean. Factor in that it takes an entire year of solar energy to produce a crop of soybeans and much of that time not much energy is being collected. So ok let’s say the algae can do 10 x better that is 500 gals/year which is about what palm oil production is. Where is the other 10 x algae produced energy coming from? The answer is waste CO2 from coal fired plants (something Utah has a lot of.) The most limiting factor (nutrient) for plant growth is CO2. Add CO2 to any crop and you’ll get huge increase in yield maybe even 10 times more crop for a crop that grows year around. The affect is much greater than for adding Nitrogen fertilizer.

This might actually work. As long as we keep burning coal (or other petroleum fuel)

If I were an environmentalist alarmist I’d point out this would have a huge affect on the temperature of the desert. Plus tapping in to the aquifer for water will be knocked out because some judge will find a molecule of stream water in there then rule the water for the algae is killing the fish and pow! Fagetaboutit!

And ah… hydrogen (that is molecular H2) is a fuel. It just isn’t a source of energy. It takes energy to make hydrogen. That energy can come from any source, hydro dams, nuclear, solar, doesn’t matter, any energy source can make molecular hydrogen from water. Gasoline also requires energy to make it’s just that the energy source is petroleum. So in a way gasoline is both an energy source and a fuel.