Algal Tidbits from the Pacific Rim Summit

My presentation is tomorrow, but I have sat through some very interesting presentations over the past couple of days here at the Pacific Rim Summit on Industrial Biotechnology and Bioenergy. They have five panels going at once, but I have been sitting in on the cellulosic ethanol, algal fuel, and biomass logistics sessions for the most part. They will have links up to the presentations at some point, but I have been taking a lot of notes (12 pages of notes so far!)

On algae, these were some of the more pessimistic comments from various presenters, some of whom are executives at algae companies:

“Algae carries a great deal of technical risk.”

Asked about expected cost of algal oil: “I don’t know, because we don’t have any plants.”

“Photobioreactors (PBRs) are not a smart way to make algal fuel.”

“To scrub the emissions from a coal-fired power plant would require 35,000 acres of PBRs at a cost of $5 million per acre. But we might be able to get that down to $1 million per acre.”

“I calculate that it will take 36,000 acres of PBRs to scrub a power plant. The bottom line for those who would propose to use algae in this way? Abandon all hope.” – comment from the next presenter

“ExxonMobil is investing in algae but they said it would take 10 years to figure out if it was going to work.”

“Based on the absolute maximum solar capture at the equator, the theoretical maximum production of algal oil at the equator is 17,486 gallons per acre per year. The reality in Honolulu is about 833 gallons per acre per year. The energy balance – even with very optimistic assumptions and not including all of the unit operations – is well below 1.7 units out per unit in.”

“25 gallons of water is consumed per gallon of algal oil produced.”

“Algal oils are not economically viable.”

Now in fairness, these were comments of various presenters and some of the audience members took exception to some of the comments. One person commented that the water usage from corn ethanol when the corn has to be irrigated is much higher. Someone else pointed out that these comments did not apply to the fermentation approaches.

Incidentally, as a science project my oldest son is growing Spirulina at home under different conditions. We are also attempting to extract oil from some Haematococcus samples that we have. As a science project, I think this is fine (although it is more difficult than you might imagine). But nobody here seems to be too optimistic about algal fuels in either open ponds or PBRs anytime soon. I think the jury is still out on the fermentation approaches such as what Solazyme is working on.

8 thoughts on “Algal Tidbits from the Pacific Rim Summit”

  1. "Algal oils are not economically viable."

    Actually, they are if one has millions of years to work with as Mother Nature did when she turned algae and other phytoplanktons into oil.

  2. You have to wonder if more energy will be used to attend the 'Pacific Rim Summit' than will ever result from new projects.

    Synergism Kit, synergism. Put that many smart, innovative, entrepreneurial people in the same room, and there is no telling what might result.

    Sure, conferences like this use energy, but one has to bet — that in the long run — the outcome will be favorable.

  3. The nuke-PHEV route is making more and more sense, plus a lot of CNG.
    The good news is we don;t really need algae to work. I hope it does, but I hope for a lot of things…..

  4. OT sorta, and I have no clue if this is real, but evidently this ran in a reputable academic magazine:

    Bio-Platinum Hybrid Catalyst for Solar Hydrogen Production Can Deliver Up to 25x Greater Energy Yield Than Current Biomass-to-Fuel Strategies
    11 November 2009

    Schematic of the electron flow in the photosystem I catalytic nanoparticle. Source: Iwuchukwu et al., Nature Nanotechnology. Click to enlarge.
    Researchers at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville have shown that a combination of photosystem I from a thermophilic bacterium and cytochrome-c6 can, in combination with a platinum catalyst, generate a stable supply of hydrogen in vitro upon illumination. A paper on their work was published online 8 November in the journal Nature Nanotechnology.

    The system produces hydrogen at temperatures up to 55 °C (131 °F) and is temporally stable for >85 days with no decrease in hydrogen yield when tested intermittently. The maximum yield is ~5.5 mmol H2 h-1 mg-1 chlorophyll and is estimated to be ~25-fold greater than current biomass-to-fuel strategies. If scaled linearly, a solar collector 1 acre in size with a solution depth of 10 cm operating at 55 °C would be capable of producing hydrogen with an energy yield equivalent to that of 300 litres of gasoline per hectare per day (gross yield, ignoring production separation and distribution energy costs).

    I will leave to RR to puzzle this one through.

  5. Algal biofuel: Three words: "Open ocean"; "gasification".

    Biodiesel is great for DIY. Not for industrial scale. Get your feedstock from MacDonalds.

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