Oil Watchdog on Fuel from Algae

I have gotten out of the habit of visiting Oil Watchdog whenever I want a bit of energy-themed comic relief. They are so ‘over the top’ and transparent that it really hasn’t been necessary to debunk them. As I have documented before, on the one hand they accuse oil companies of not supporting alternative energy or donating any of their profits. Yet where oil companies are funding alternative energy and donating to colleges, they are accused of ‘greenwashing’ and attempting to control university research. You can see some of the articles I have written documenting their intellectual dishonesty and inconsistent ‘reporting’ here. As you can see, they will even take a rumor (“I absolutely can’t vouch for the truth of this story…”) and attempt to spread it.

While it has been six months since I have been there, I thought I would check in to see what kind of negative spin they would put on falling gas prices. I was expecting “it’s an attempt to control the election”, which seems to be a common theme during election years (even though the price also falls in non-election years). Instead, Judy Dugan was again proudly putting her ignorance on display:

Show us your algae!

I was reading up today on research about turning pond scum into biodiesel. One promising thread is that algae can be fed the carbon dioxide emitted by power plants, multiplying their oil production on a waste greenhouse gas. Algae may also thrive on ground garbage. It’s a concept that needs intensive, expensive research to prove if algae are an energy savior, a false promise, or something in between. Then I came across a paragraph in a Science Daily article from a few days ago that stopped me cold:

This was ‘above the fold.’ Below the fold, I knew without even looking what kind of story it must have been to stop Dugan cold. She had obviously made the shocking discovery that oil companies are involved in this research!

“Some of these pragmatic issues may have been tackled already by the various private companies, including oil industry giants Chevron and Shell, which are already researching algae fuel, but a published scientific report on these fundamentals will be a major benefit to other researchers looking into algae biofuel.”

Uh-oh! Time to put on the ‘Big Oil is greenwashing and trying to control our energy supplies’ hat:

If Big Oil is doing this research and keeping even interim results to itself, we can’t trust oil companies with anything surrounding our desperate need for a better energy future.

It’s the same reason that universities shouldn’t be taking big bucks from oil companies in return for letting the companies shroud research results in delay, secrecy and proprietary rights.

So, Dugan wants 1). Oil companies taxed into submission (previous posts); 2). Oil companies to put some of their ‘ill-gotten gains’ into research on new energy supplies; 3). But if they do, she wants the results to be publicly available to all. Now, remind me again what the incentive would be for a publicly traded company to do this research if there was no profit to be gained? And wouldn’t other companies – and other countries for that matter – love to sit back and reap the rewards of Chevron’s research?

Here Dugan puts her ignorance up on a pedestal:

But if Chevron is funding the research, it will control the result and can just as easily bury it, calling the effort a disappointing failure.

I don’t guess Dugan is aware of the U.S. DOE Aquatic Species Program. You can read the 328 page close-out report here. You can also read a guest post from John Benemann, the man who co-authored that report:

Algal Biodiesel: Fact or Fiction?

You see Dugan, despite the ignorance that you seem to wear like a badge of honor, the oil companies don’t have a monopoly in this area. The US government studied it for many years, but concluded in their close-out report that costs were too high, and many technical challenges remain. So if Chevron does decide to shelve it, I am sure that you will conclude that they were ‘burying it’ (after all, you are programmed to put the negative spin on). And in my opinion, they will eventually shelve it, for the very reasons that were laid out in the close-out report.

Despite that, Greenfuel Technologies (not an oil company, Dugan) has been making some pretty big claims in this area (claims that violate thermodynamics, according to Krassen Dimitrov). And because there is so much misinformation around the subject of algal fuels, it isn’t surprising that a massive fraud has already been perpetrated on gullible investors. Sorry, Dugan, no oil companies to blame on that one. But if you know a little about the history of the algal biodiesel program, you could have smelled that fraud coming from a mile away.

5 thoughts on “Oil Watchdog on Fuel from Algae”

  1. Hi Robert,

    Completely off topic, but I came across this article this morning:

    Wireless power ‘eliminates chargers’

    The applications discussed in the article are mainly for wired electrical components, but what about transport applications? If battery technology is what is holding back the electric car, how about a battery free, wirelessly powered electric car?

    Substantial infrastructure developments would be necessary (obviously) but in my mind the idea excites me.

  2. I read the DOE report on algal biodiesel, and did some study on the issue.

    My opinion is that to do it cheaply requires open ponds. In that environment, the species that could produce high yields of fuel would compete (unsuccesfully) with native species. GM super algae or “franken algae” is probably unacceptable environmentally in an open pond.

    Unfortunately, some of my co-workers seem to be taken with the algae bug.

  3. On the point about making research completely open being not wanted by business, I should note that in other academic areas it is common for funded groups at university to have complete freedom to publish. The “motivation” for companies to support this when the researchers involved will not agree to closed research is that scientific papers commonly do not contain the “low-level working knowledge” to really re-implement stuff independently, which the company typically acquires through extensive interaction with the researchers. There’s a huge gulf between high-level ideas and grubby low-level details.

    Of course, chemistry may be different and completely closed research projects may be the norm there.


    University of Hawai’i Professor Pengchen “Patrick” Fu developed an innovative technology, to produce high amounts of ethanol with modified cyanobacterias, as a new feedstock for ethanol, without entering in conflict with the food and feed-production .

    Fu has developed strains of cyanobacteria — one of the components of pond scum — that feed on atmospheric carbon dioxide, and produce ethanol as a waste product.

    He has done it both in his laboratory under fluorescent light and with sunlight on the roof of his building. Sunlight works better, he said.

    It has a lot of appeal and potential. Turning waste into something useful is a good thing. And the blue-green-algae needs only sun and wast- recycled from the sugar-cane-industry, to grow and to produce directly more and more ethanol. With this solution, the sugarcane-based ethanol-industry in Brazil and other tropical regions will get a second way, to produce more biocombustible for the worldmarket.

    The technique may need adjusting to increase how much ethanol it yields, but it may be a new technology-challenge in the near future.

    The process was patented by Fu and UH in January, but there’s still plenty of work to do to bring it to a commercial level. The team of Fu foundet just the start-up LA WAHIE BIOTECH INC. with headquarter in Hawaii and branch-office in Brazil.


    Fu figures his team is two to three years from being able to build a full-scale
    ethanol plant, and they are looking for investors or industry-partners (jointventure).

    He is fine-tuning his research to find different strains of blue-green algae that will produce even more ethanol, and that are more tolerant of high levels of ethanol. The system permits, to “harvest” continuously ethanol – using a membrane-system- and to pump than the blue-green-algae-solution in the Photo-Bio-Reactor again.

    Fu started out in chemical engineering, and then began the study of biology. He has studied in China, Australia, Japan and the United States, and came to UH in 2002 after a stint as scientist for a private company in California.

    He is working also with NASA on the potential of cyanobacteria in future lunar and Mars colonization, and is also proceeding to take his ethanol technology into the marketplace. A business plan using his system, under the name La Wahie Biotech, won third place — and a $5,000 award — in the Business Plan Competition at UH’s Shidler College of Business.
    Daniel Dean and Donavan Kealoha, both UH law and business students, are Fu’s partners. So they are in the process of turning the business plan into an operating business.

    The production of ethanol for fuel is one of the nation’s and the world’s major initiatives, partly because its production takes as much carbon out of the atmosphere as it dumps into the atmosphere. That’s different from fossil fuels such as oil and coal, which take stored carbon out of the ground and release it into the atmosphere, for a net increase in greenhouse gas.
    Most current and planned ethanol production methods depend on farming, and in the case of corn and sugar, take food crops and divert them into energy.

    Fu said crop-based ethanol production is slow and resource-costly. He decided to work with cyanobacteria, some of which convert sunlight and carbon dioxide into their own food and release oxygen as a waste product.

    Other scientists also are researching using cyanobacteria to make ethanol, using different strains, but Fu’s technique is unique, he said. He inserted genetic material into one type of freshwater cyanobacterium, causing it to produce ethanol as its waste product. It works, and is an amazingly efficient system.

    The technology is fairly simple. It involves a photobioreactor, which is a
    fancy term for a clear glass or plastic container full of something alive, in which light promotes a biological reaction. Carbon dioxide gas is bubbled through the green mixture of water and cyanobacteria. The liquid is then passed through a specialized membrane that removes the
    ethanol, allowing the water, nutrients and cyanobacteria to return to the

    Solar energy drives the conversion of the carbon dioxide into ethanol. The partner of Prof. Fu in Brazil in the branch-office of La Wahie Biotech Inc. in Aracaju – Prof. Hans-Jürgen Franke – is developing a low-cost photo-bio-reactor-system. Prof. Franke want´s soon creat a pilot-project with Prof. Fu in Brazil.

    The benefit over other techniques of producing ethanol is that this is simple and quick—taking days rather than the months required to grow crops that can be converted to ethanol.

    La Wahie Biotech Inc. believes it can be done for significantly less than the cost of gasoline and also less than the cost of ethanol produced through conventional methods.

    Also, this system is not a net producer of carbon dioxide: Carbon dioxide released into the environment when ethanol is burned has been withdrawn from the environment during ethanol production. To get the carbon dioxide it needs, the system could even pull the gas out of the emissions of power plants or other carbon dioxide producers. That would prevent carbon dioxide release into the atmosphere, where it has been implicated as a
    major cause of global warming.
    Honolulo – Hawaii/USA and Aracaju – Sergipe/Brasil – 15/09/2008

    Prof. Pengcheng Fu – E-Mail: pengchen2008@gmail.com
    Prof. Hans-Jürgen Franke – E-Mail: lawahiebiotech.brasil@gmail.com

Comments are closed.