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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.

The Coal Question: An Old Problem For Our Time February 4, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Ecology.
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I just finished reading an amazing book that clearly and articulately examines one of the most pressing issues facing the world today: the unsustainable use of fossil fuels as an energy source and how technological innovation may not be our savior after all.  Oh, did I mention the book was written in 1865?

“The Coal Question” by British economist William Jevons was at the time a topical examination of Britain’s dominant position in the world and how the might of the British Empire was in many ways tied to its easy access to high quality coal.  In the 19th century the British coal fields helped to drive the wave of industrialization that swept across the Western world, making Britain quite wealthy in the process.  Jevons breaks down both Britain’s reliance on coal and the implications that come with its exponential usage and eventual exhaustion.

Much of what Jevons writes would be immediately recognizable to anyone today who keeps up with the debates going on in the world of climate change and energy policy.  He noted that the exponential growth of coal usage in the UK could not be sustained indefinitely and that then current estimates of how long the supply would last were grossly wrong due to their plotting the increase in usage in additive terms rather than exponential.  He also pointed out that it wasn’t simply a lack of coal that threatened Britain’s superiority but a lack of cheap, high quality coal.  This is an important idea to keep in mind today when discussing peak oil because as anyone who works in the oil industry would tell you there is still a lot of oil left in the world.  The problem is that said deposits are either poor quality or in incredibly inaccessible places, either of which makes the mining and refining uneconomical.  It’s not just oil that drives our economy but cheap oil.  Take that away, without a substitute waiting in the wings, and our society grinds to a halt.

Oddly enough Jevons actually did examine alternative energy methods, though he does so in order to show their unsuitability.  Wind and wave energy he criticized for there intermitency and there lack of energy storage ability, essentially the same problems that plague those technologies today.  Hydroelectric power he was more favorable towards but ultimately rejected due to the need fow an appropriate site for the factories.  Oil was also rejected due to the limitations it possessed in his day.

It may be easy to criticize Jevons as just another Malthus for all the things he didn’t get right.  Though he was correct that Britain would eventually lose its status as the global superpower due in part to the end of its supply of cheap coal he was incorrect in predicting the end of prosperity.  He didn’t (and couldn’t have) foreseen the rise of oil and the development of nuclear energy.  However for all he got wrong it’s what he got right that makes him so applicable to this day and age and one idea in particular stands out: Jevon’s Paradox.

A common response both then and now to arguments like Jevon’s is that as technology advances it will allow us to use resources like coal more efficiently, using less of the resource to achieve the same result.  In short, technological progress with save us from our consumption.  What Jevon noticed is that while technological innovation does result in greater efficiency it does not result in a decrease in the products consumption but rather increases it.  The reason for this is simple: as technology makes it easier to extract and utilize a resource the price of said resource drops and as the price drops more people tend to use it.  More importantly though as the price drops people tend to find new uses for the product that had previously been prevented by cost limitations.  Thus even with increases in efficiency the use of something like coal can continue to grow exponentially.

This is the problem facing today’s world.  Even with the large amount of oil still out there (and as I mentioned there is a lot) technological progress that allows us to extract it economically and use it more efficiently will not save us.  With demand continuing to rise due to the growth of new economies it can at best maintain our usage, never decrease it.

Fossil fuels will run out and sooner than many people think but the major threat to our civilization is not the end of oil but the end of cheap oil.  Will another power source rise to take its place?  Honestly I don’t know.  Nuclear power has the potential but is very expensive to build and comes with its own set of problems.  Will wind, wave and solar overcome their intermittent nature and power storage issues?  Will anyone actually develop fusion power?

Right now no other option is ready to take over for oil and though a mixture of different methods (solar, wind, biofuels) will definitely go a long way towards doing so we must be prudent in the use of our most important resource.  Cutting back on personal demand by doing all the things experts keep telling us to do (drive as little as possible, buy local foods to reduce travel time, recycle, etc.) is a good place to start but unlikely to make much of a dent in global consumption.  Partly this is due to the relatively small percentage of oil use taken up by residential areas, with industry and agriculture making up the vast majority.  More importantly though is that  cutting back on personal usage would require a large segment of the population in order to be effective, something unlikely to happen in the numbers needed.

To truly reduce the amount of oil we use will require a two-pronged approach: technological advances that allow us to use less oil to achieve the same effect and social policy that keeps that keeps the price higher enough to discourage mass consumption.  Is this a great solution? No, frankly it’s not but it may buy us the time we need to create a better energy future.