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Oil Producing Bacteria: More Biofuel Hype April 1, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Ecology.
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Oh for crying out loud.  Another group is publicizing research about using microorganisms to make petroleum.  This time its out of the University of Minnesota and funded by the Department of Energy.  This time the twist is that the team is using a two step process involving two types of bacteria to make the fuel.

The U of M team is using Synechococcus, a bacterium that fixes carbon dioxide in sunlight and converts CO2 to sugars. Next, they feed the sugars to Shewanella, a bacterium that produces hydrocarbons. This turns CO2, a greenhouse gas produced by combustion of fossil fuel petroleum, into hydrocarbons.

Okay, this is the third bacterial biofuel story I’ve commented on in the last two weeks so let me take this opportunity to summarize my position.  I am supportive of this kind of technology.  It’s an elegant answer to some of our current energy problem and could provide a sustainable source of fuel well after fossil fuels become to difficult to extract.  It’s an attempt to look beyond petroleum and utilize technology to meet our growing needs and for that I applaud it.

That being said it is not, I repeat NOT, a final solution.  Oil usage is only going to increase in the future, especially if techniques like this can make it cheaply, and as such our addiction to oil will only be strengthened not broken by this technology.  More importantly though is the fact that no one involved with this research seems to understand its implications for climate change.

“There is enormous interest in using carbon dioxide to make hydrocarbon fuels,” Wackett says. “CO2 is the major greenhouse gas mediating global climate change, so removing it from the atmosphere is good for the environment. It’s also free. And we can use the same infrastructure to process and transport this new hydrocarbon fuel that we use for fossil fuels.”

Let me be blunt.  This does ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to remove CO2 from the atmosphere.  Every molecule taken up by these bacteria will be released right back as the fuel is burned.  At the very best if we managed to switch over all current oil use to this kind of production (not likely) we would stabilize atmospheric CO2 concentrations at a new, higher baseline.  The climate will continue to warm, the oceans will continue to acidify and we will continue having to adapt to a rapidly changing world.

What this technology is, and what people need to realize it is, is a stopgap measure.  It will buy us time to come up with a real solution to our problem but is not a solution itself.  That solution needs to involve two things: transitioning to a type of energy that is completely divorced from the carbon cycle like wind, solar or nuclear and finding a way to take up atmospheric CO2 and hold it in an inorganic form that will not cycle through the environment.  Without fulfilling those criteria we will not solve our problem, only delay it.


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.

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.