The Speculist: Algae Economy, Part 2

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Algae Economy, Part 2

For the last couple of days the Drudge Report has had a red link at the top of the page to this news story:

'Squawk Box' Guest Warns of $12-15-a-Gallon Gas

In a television interview (which you can watch at that article) energy expert Robert Hirsch stated that a $12 gallon of gas is “inevitable.” I think he's wrong.

It's true that oil production has remained flat, but Hirsch is only counting oil that we can pump out of the ground. Biofuels are not part of his thinking.

I think $5 and $6 per gallon gas may be inevitable. But as the pain increases, the money flowing toward alternatives will increase. And we have some very promising alternatives. Plug-in hybrids will be hitting the market in the next couple of years. At $5 per gallon for gas those hybrids will sell much faster than the automotive industry will be able to make them. The energy consumption patterns will change overnight in this country. Perhaps we should be a little more concerned about the electricity infrastructure. Nuclear energy has to be part of our thinking.

But we'll still need liquid fuel. And here's the most promising new source:

Important statistics from this story:

  • 100,000 gallons of biofuel per year per acre for algae crops. This compares to 20 to 30 gallons of biofuel per acre for corn crops.

  • If we used 1/10th of the state of New Mexico for this Vertigro system, it could supply all the transportation fuel this country needs.

  • The most ideal place to grow algae is in the desert. No farm land is sacrificed, no food crops are sacrificed.

In the last video I posted on this guy, he explained that different algae species could be used to make different fuels. You'd could develop a jet fuel algae, a diesel algae, and a gasoline algae.

UPDATE: For convenience, here's that first video:

Comments

"If we used 1/10th of the state of New Mexico for this Vertigro system, it could supply all the transportation fuel this country needs."

Actually, he said all the energy needs. Transportation is only around 20% of energy usage.

Still, these numbers should set off alarm bells. New Mexico is HUGE. 12K square miles!
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_mexico

I wonder if they could easily build into multiple "floors". They'd just need to build taller sheets.

I'd like to hear their current $/gallon, and how that increases towards scale. Quoting a price for full scale isn't as useful, because it might be low but unattainable because of higher prices before that.

I agree that this is a very cool concept, but it is worth considering that there is significant infrastructure needed to make this viable.

'Planting' an acre for algae isn't quite as simple as throwing some seeds in the ground. Nonetheless, hopefully the difference in yield will convince people to invest in this technology.

The beauty of this kind of fuel production is that it could be distributed. Fuel could be 'grown' where it is needed, rather than shipped around the planet.

I agree that this is a very cool concept, but it is worth considering that there is significant infrastructure needed to make this viable.

'Planting' an acre for algae isn't quite as simple as throwing some seeds in the ground. Nonetheless, hopefully the difference in yield will convince people to invest in this technology.

The beauty of this kind of fuel production is that it could be distributed. Fuel could be 'grown' where it is needed, rather than shipped around the planet.

"Still, these numbers should set off alarm bells. New Mexico is HUGE. 12K square miles!"

I agree that it will be a huge undertaking, but its doable. A journey of a a thousand miles... And with gas prices pushing through the roof, the project is self-financing.

Also, when the US mobilizes to do something - really mobilizes like on an all-out wartime footing - don't bet against it.

At some point - maybe its $5/gallon, maybe more, our very civilization will be threatened. At that point of desperation we'll get busy.

At that point all sorts of unthinkable things become politically possible. Federal land in the southwest could be leased free to oil companies to run algae farms.

We have enough public land in the southwest for the whole project.

I can imagine a new acronym...

instead of NIMBY, we will now have the NAIMBY's

No
Algae
In
My
Back
Yard


Wouldn't the desert be a really horrible place to raise algae for fuel. After a really huge quantities of water will be required (that will be where the hydrogen comes from) to generate really huge quantities of hydrocarbons. Ideal would be an algae that could use salt water directly otherwise you will have to use existing fresh water or desalinate sea water. Transportation costs, even by pipelines, would be an important siting consideration.

Also, I doubt there's any need for all algae production and refinement to be concentrated in one place. A tenth the size of NM could be distributed pretty nicely amongst the lower 48 states. The southwest may have the deserts, but I would venture to guess that every state has some land that isn't really suitable for farming.

Good comments.

The cost/gallon is a number you won't find in any article on this subject written by an enthusiast, because if they new that number, they wouldn't be a enthusiasts.

What you should look for in any article about closed-system algae farms is COST. Because that's what will make or break it. Thats's where the attention and focus of R&D must be. Withot solving that problem, none of the several advantages of algae matter.

There's no question that it's scalable in terms of land and water use. That's the good news. But that isn't the problem.

Current biofuels are rapacious users of land and fresh water per gallon of fuel, but they don't require man-made structures on such an unprecedented scale. 12k square miles may look modest on a U.S. map, but that's many times more area than all the buildings in the entire country. It's relatively cheap to scatter seeds on millions of acres. It's many, many times more expensive to cover the same area with man-made structures.

Building upward won't help, because the limiting problem isn't the cost of land. It's the capital cost of the structures on that land.

The most thorough study I've seen concluded that algal fuel from closed systems like Greenfuel's won't be competitive with petro-oil until the latter hits $800/barrel. And that's including generous allowances for economies of scale and improvements in yield.

I'm curious to know which permutations of Murphy's Law would interfere with the algae scenario. It sounds like a win-win situation.

The southwest has the sunshine. See, e.g., this map.

This stuff was science fiction a decade ago.

Actually, the southwest's general lack of water is a problem if handled badly.... but still, there's a lot of land not doing an awful lot, b/c it's been split into parcels too small to be meaningful for ranching. This might relieve that if handled well.

There's no reason that all our algae production has to be situated in the US. Mexico has lots of sun and land. Once the algae economy takes off, we won't need to worry about a few nations cornering the market and extorting money from the rest of us, like OPEC is doing today.

Australia has abundant sunshine and idle land as well. The production base will be diverse enough to create a truly competitive market. We won't need to worry so much about energy independence as we do today.

To put it in oil patch terms - 100,000 gallons per year per acre diesel production equal about 2381 bbl/yr/ac, which would equal about 6.52 bbl/day/ac - not a bad 'stripper well', lots of operators would like that.
To see about replacing petroleum - we use about 22 million bbl/day, so it would take about 3.4 million acres of algae farms to replace the US petroleum usage. At 640 ac/sq mile, that would be about 5272 sq mi of algae farms - or a plot about 73 miles on a side.
Doable perhaps. I could see many 'family farm' type operations of a few square miles each supplying the raw material for biodiesel. I guess it just depends on what the cost of production could be driven down to. Besides the infrastructure - there would be the cost of water (and water recycling) and nutritional/anti-pathogen supplements, among many other things, that would be needed for a commercial scale operation.

Boxing:

The ground water that's available in deserts of the southwest is often brackish.

Fortunately many algae species prefer brackish water.

A few basic facts on the "how big" issue.
1 sq mile = 640 acres.
12,000 square miles = 7,680,000 acres
US lower 48 states has ~ 1.9 billion acres.

That works out 0.4% of the lower 48 states being devoted to this algae. That's doable and would gain the added benefit of reducing energy losses due to the need to transport.

Now combine it with this. Gas from algae, electricity form the neighborhood solar power farm.

And the algae could be used in waste water treatment. An additional bennie.

"Algae biofuel"? What the hell do people think crude oil IS? An evil toxin developed by the Bush-Cheney axis to further their multi-orifice violation of sweet Mother Gaia?



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