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Diesel From Algae: The Future Of Fuel February 27, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Ecology.
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Okay so first thing first I lied a little bit in the title.  A company in Massachusetts is claiming to have genetically engineered a species of cyanobacteria (once called blue-green algae, so only a little lie) that produces hydrocarbons when exposed to sunlight, water and CO2.  In other words where most autotrophs use photosynthesis to produce sugars like glucose these little guys make gasoline.

Now the idea of growing fuel, so to speak, is certainly not a new one and in many ways has become indicative of everything that is wrong with the renewable energy industry.  The first big attempt was a heavily government sponsored effort to produce biofuel using corn ethanol.  Considering what an incredibly inefficient process that is it turned out to be little more than a massive giveaway to the big agribusiness companies.  Other efforts using algae have looked more promising but have run into to problems of logistics and whether or not they can produce enough to actually be profitable.  According to the article that’s what makes this species so exciting:

Joule says they’ve eliminated the middleman that’s makes producing biofuels on a large scale so costly.

That middleman is the “biomass,” such as the untold tons of corn or algae that must be grown, harvested and destroyed to extract a fuel that still must be treated and refined to be used. Joule says its organisms secrete a completed product, already identical to diesel fuel or ethanol, then live on to keep producing it at remarkable rates.

Joule claims, for instance, that its cyanobacterium can produce 15,000 gallons of diesel full per acre annually, over four times more than the most efficient algal process for making fuel. And they say they can do it at $30 a barrel.

Sounds great doesn’t it?  Frankly yes it does but like all new ideas it must pass the gauntlet of skeptics before it can find its place in the general marketplace.  Most have been pointing out that while this technique solves the problem of biomass is runs into problems of its own:

Pienkos said his calculations, based on information in Joule’s recent paper, indicate that though they eliminate biomass problems, their technology leaves relatively small amounts of fuel in relatively large amounts of water, producing a sort of “sheen.” They may not be dealing with biomass, but the company is facing complicated “engineering issues” in order to recover large amounts of its fuel efficiently, he said.

However I have a different problem with this sort of technology.  First of all I admit to not being an expert on the process but it would seem to me that while biofuels may solve one problem, removing us from the economic and political shackles of foreign oil, it does nothing to address the rather large elephant in the room of climate change.  If the cyanobacteria are truly producing hydrocarbons than how exactly will the end result be any different from what we have now.  The transportation sector is one of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases and any attempt to address global climate change without addressing that fact is doomed from the start.  The article mentions using the CO2 emissions from power plants as a potential benefit but if the carbon is simply being released back into the atmosphere through tailpipes then I question whether there is a benefit at all.

This is my least favorite kind of post to write because when it comes right down to it I’m supportive of this kind of technology.  Used correctly it has the potential to be a powerful force for the kind of change we need to see if we want to prevent some of the serious problems were facing, not just climate change but the aforementioned ball and chain of foreign oil strangling our economic and political climate.  However we cannot be so proud of our own ingenuity that we become blind to what effects our creations will actually have on the world.

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