The Speculist: The Algae Economy?


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The Algae Economy?

Highlight: we could grow all the fuel the United States needs using 1/10th of the land space of New Mexico.

And by doing this in the desert we wouldn't sacrifice farm land.

H/T Al Fin


22,000 gallons of oil per acre? Is this stuff edible? I'm starting to get an idea of how we could feed a moon (or Mars) colony.

Sure its edible, but I'd rather take that stuff and use it as feed stock for vat meat.


We regret to inform you that the part of New Mexico not currently privately owned (most of it) has been designated Stinking Desert National Monument and has been placed off limits for commercial energy development.

Nonukes of the North
Bureau of Land Management

Fortunately, I don't think it would all have to be in New Mexico -- or any one state -- or even in a state (maybe this could be set up in the ocean?)

But by way of comparison, I wonder what portion of the total area of the state of New Mexico is currently dedicated to growing corn for ethanol. 50%? 75%? 100%? More? And yet ethanol gives us only a small fraction of the fuel we need.


Nonukes of the North:

No problem, buddy. Texas was more than happy to spare a little land (we only needed 1/50th of Texas!) in exchange for transferring the 1,000s of employees from the oil rigs that were threatening to close shop. Enjoy your barren wilderness.

John Gault
Bureau of Economic Development, Austen TX

Nice tour. The well-known strong points of algal-oil production are touched upon -- yield/acre, low fresh water use.

But what we really need to hear is that someone has figured out how to bring the cost down from the stratosphere. Unfortunately, and perhaps tellingly, this video makes no mention of cost. Until the cost problem is solved (and no, it isn't just about scale), the bioreactor approach isn't going to fly.

Unlike every other biofuel, closed-algae bioreactors require man-made structures throughout the entire solar collection area. And 1/10th of New Mexico is a lot of man-made structures. That's about 12,000 square miles. To put that in perspective, consider that all of the commercial buildings in the entire U.S. -- built up over centuries -- add up to a little over 1,000 square miles.

If structures over the entire collection area are required, I think we're better off making those structures PV collectors instead, because PV is about 10 times as efficient as photosynthesis.

The open-pond vs. closed-bioreactor debate has gone on for decades. DOE chose open-pond because they concluded that the bioreactor approach could never be economical. Here's a study that concluded that the cost of algal oil from bioreactors -- even at large scale with the most optimistic assumptions -- would become competitive with petro-oil only when it hits $800/barrel.

My guess is that a lot of other alternative fuels will become competetive at a lot lower cost levels.

Hmmm. How difficult would it be to have a small algae farm to power a small relatively high tech compound in the middle of nowhere? How much refining and such is needed to extract high energy useable fuel for conversion to electricity? Can a reasonably self-contained small community unit be developed?

How about an algae tank/still built into your car?

For the record, their pilot facility in Texas cost $2.5 million for a 6 acre facility. The plan is to connect these guys to existing-and new-power plants and grow the algae off of the CO2 and NOx they produce. This test bed facility produced about 54,000 gallons of biodiesel in the space of 90 days (around 9,000 gallons per acre). At around $3/gallon for regular diesel, this alone would have earned them about $150,000. Multiply that by a calender year and you're looking at around $600,000. This means the system would be making you a profit in little more than 5 years.

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