Thursday, February 23, 2012

Obama Finds Gas Price Solution: Algae

President Obama admitted today that he does not have a "silver bullet" solution for skyrocketing gas prices, but he proposed alternative energy sources such as "a plant-like substance, algae" as a way of cutting dependence on oil by 17 percent.

"We’re making new investments in the development of gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel that’s actually made from a plant-like substance, algae -- you've got a bunch of algae out here," Obama said at the University of Miami today. "If we can figure out how to make energy out of that, we'll be doing alright. Believe it or not, we could replace up to 17 percent of the oil we import for transportation with this fuel that we can grow right here in America."

The Department of Energy (DOE) currently spends about $85 million on 30 research projects "to develop algal biofuels," according to the White House, which announced that Obama is committing another $14 million to the idea.

Obama did not say when he expected algae-based fuel to reach that level, but the federal government has a dodgy track record with respect to developing alternative vehicle fuels. Biodiesel, for example, accounted for less than 1 percent of the diesel fuel market as of 2008, according to the Energy Information Administration. And of course there's ethanol -- after four decades, tens of billions of dollars in subsidies, and draconian mandates that force it on unwilling consumers, ethanol was five percent of vehicle consumption (by volume) as of 2008. Although algae-to-gas is a very different idea, it is still in its early stages.
If we had started to 'Drill Now' 10 years ago, when democrats were says "Even if you start drilling now, the new oil is 10 years away", we'd have the oil now, and we'd have have been self sufficient.  Instead, they relied on unreliable foreign to make up our own unused resources.

By those rule, algae is way more than 10 years away.  Growing algae is simple.  Give them sunlight and nutrients and algae do all the hard work themselves (Chesapeake Bay presents a fine example of that).  But turning that into a reasonable fuel source is much more difficult.  While algae reproduce rapidly, the business of an organism is to reproduce itself, not to produce oil for export.  While algae can be "tricked" into producing high concentrations of lipids by manipulating light and nutrients fairly easily in small cultures, the scale up involves significant problems.  Only a few species produce the lipids desired, and for best production, the culture must remain pure and bacteria free.  Troublesome on a small scale (trust me) it's nearly impossible on a massive scale.

Algae are basically solar cells, converting sunlight to biomass. The First and Second Laws (you can't even break even) makes it impractical to use artificial light. Theoretically, algae can utilize light with a 20% efficiency.  In practice, it's difficult to get much above 5%.  Thus, to produce enough biomass to fill millions of gas tanks with fuel, massive areas of would need to be dedicated to growing extremely pure and finicky cultures of algae.

Then, having grown the algae, one has to turn it into usable fuel.  Alga grow in water.  The algae (or at least the lipids), must be removed from the water.  There are a number of approaches, filtration, extraction, distillation, all of which requires a substantial input of energy.  It's doubtful that even the most obliging algae will produce high test gasoline or diesel fuel directly, so further refining will be necessary.

Finally, the water, and non-lipid parts of the algae remaining after processing must be handled.  Will it become waste?  The solids extracted, the unwanted products removed (remember, an algae cells "job" is to reproduce itself, and than means DNA and protein), and recycled back to grow more?, and the water recycled?  More energy cost, more wastes.

Basically, by relying on algae, Obama promises to put off solving the problem of high gas prices not only beyond his theoretical second term, but beyond the following President's term as well, assuming that he "stays the course".

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