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Blue Petroleum: Bio-fuel From Algae March 31, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Ecology.
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Boy this technology seems to be getting a lot of news lately.  A Spanish firm is the latest company attempting to grow petroleum from phytoplankton.

At a time when companies are redoubling their efforts to find alternative energy sources, the idea is to reproduce and speed up a process which has taken millions of years and which has led to the production of fossil fuels.

“We are trying to simulate the conditions which existed millions of years ago, when the phytoplankton was transformed into oil,” said engineer Eloy Chapuli. “In this way, we obtain oil that is the same as oil today.”

Though similar to other stories I’ve commented on there are important difference in what these researchers are trying to do.  Rather than bioengineering a species of algae to naturally produce fuel through their own photosynthetic process these guys are trying to recreate the Devonian period and make this oil magic strike twice.  Honestly I’m not sure what to think of this method.  Though the article is a little hazy on the details from what I remember the original conditions that led to oil formation involved massive amounts of decaying plant matter with high pressure and temperature.  If these researchers are trying to recreate that then it seems like a far more difficult and intensive method than other ones I’ve seen.

More importantly though it doesn’t address the issue I mentioned with other methods of biofuel production; the fact that this does nothing to reduce atmospheric concentrations of CO2.  The article touts the fact that the carbon used in the process is taken from emissions from a nearby cement factory and therefore attempts to flout it’s green credentials.  However what it doesn’t mention, and what every example of this technology shares, is the fact that every bit of carbon taken up will be released back into the atmosphere when the fuel is burned.

At best this kind of technology is a stopgap measure, a way to buy us a little more time, not a solution.  Even if we switched all fuel use in the world over to petroleum grown in this method the best result we could achieve is to stabilize Co2 and therefore temperature at near future conditions.  Carbon present in the atmosphere will still be there and will remain for thousands of years.  The only real solutions are to adapt to a new baseline (considering our lack of foresight this is probably the path we will take) or to find a way to return the carbon to an inorganic form and take it out of the carbon cycle permanently.  To do so would require putting into a sedimentary form like calcium carbonate and sequestering it in a place (like the ocean floor) where the chance of it returning would be slim.

To those wondering about some of the other proposed solutions let me deal with them now.  Carbon capture technology is a load of crock.  Disregarding the fact that it’s being heavily pushed by the coal industry (perform a simple Bayesian analysis and tell me if there is a likely conflict of interest) the fact remains that carbon stored will still be in a gaseous form.  Given the right conditions it would easily return to the atmosphere.

Storing the carbon in plant biomass is a better option but still not a solution.  This line of thinking has been behind a whole lot of experiments ranging from planting trees in previously cut forests to saturating the ocean with iron to encourage phytoplankton blooms.  Obviously some of the methods work better than others with the important goals being to store the carbon in a form that is inedible to animals (if they eat it they’ll respire is back into the atmosphere) and relatively permanent (for obvious reasons).  Large woody trees with lots of bark satisfy both of these conditions well and would make them ideal candidates while short lived and easily eaten things like phytoplankton do not.  However even the best candidates are little more than a stop gap since the carbon is still present in the cycle, albeit in a relatively stable state, and will continue to cycle through the environment.  Like biofuels all this method would do is buy us time.

What we need is a technology that both powers our society at levels of current consumption (we’ll never reduce consumption to the degrees we need) and works to remove CO2 from the atmosphere.  The “artificial leaf” I talked about a little while ago would seem to be the holy grail in this regard and I hope it shows the ability to scale up.

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Comments»

1. bigdaddy0301 - April 5, 2011

It doesn’t seem likely that current consumption will stay stable as groups like the Chinese middle class continue to grow. If other energy technologies take a bigger role and we can assume that they won’t be as productive as oil, then it is certain that consumption will slow down because production will slow down. I believe we can control our consumption to what we need. In my mind if a certain number of people practiced responsible consumption methods, and enough attention was pointed to these groups of people, then this behavior could catch on to other groups, and we could eventually reach the levels we needed.

mbbrown - April 7, 2011

You’re far more optimistic then I am. I don’t see consumption decreasing for any reason other than necessity. The developed world is far too addicted to our modern, consumer driven lifestyle (and why not, its been great for us so far) to give it up even with disaster staring us in the face.

I’m not sure what you mean about other technologies not being as productive as oil. If you mean that other technologies won’t be able to produce energy at current demand levels and that we should see our production drop as we make the switch then I don’t see that happening for the reasons I stated above. Our society will not accept a prosperity level lower than what we have currently for any reason other than necessity. If production drops it will only be because oil has run out and we haven’t found a suitable replacement yet.

2. coleman100 - April 13, 2011

It is important to remember that no one technology can completely and permanently solve the problem. There is no silver bullet. It will take several technologies and a lot of work to solve the co2 problem.
For example, several companies have patented practical systems for removing co2 from the atmosphere. Check out:
http://www.prweb.com/releases/2007/04/prweb519808.htm.
One can imagine several co2 collectors positioned near a large metropolitan area (for obvious reasons) pipelining their co2 to a blue petroleum plant to be processed into petroleum. Then, part of the petroleum produced would be required by law to be sent to an old played-out oil field to be dumped into the ground. In this way we continue to remove co2 permanently from the atmosphere.
Obviously, this won’t happen overnight. In theory, though, if we only have the will, then we have the means to not only slow down but reverse global warming.

mbbrown - April 13, 2011

Obviously no one technology will solve either our energy problem or climate change and I did not mean to suggest otherwise. I do believe that biofuels such as those produced from algae have a part to play in our broader energy future. In the short term they could conceivably take over a large portion of our personal transportation (cars) and in the longer term I could see them playing a role in other, more commercial industries (shipping, airplanes).
My problem is that I don’t see them playing anything other than a stop gap role when it some to climate change. Suggesting that some of the oil produced can be pumped back into wells is a nice thought but would take a huge amount of both political and economic will. More damning though is that even if you could do it the amount we would need to pump back is equal or nearly so to the amount we have put in; in other words equal to all the fossil fuels burned since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. That, quite bluntly, is not going to happen.


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