Blue Petroleum: Bio-fuel From Algae March 31, 2011Posted by Metabiological in Ecology.
Tags: biofuel, climate change, ecology, oil, science
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.