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Heavenly Fuel from Garbage, Weeds, and Pond Scum

Algae-based fuel is a massive leap from corn ethanol, and could already be working within our existing transportation infrastructure-if only its...


Algae-based fuel is a massive leap from corn ethanol, and could already be working within our existing transportation infrastructure-if only its development hadn't been scrapped by the Clinton Administration.
In the first two editions of this series, we've talked about the shortcomings of petroleum as a transportation energy source, as well as the limitations of first generation biofuels, like ethanol and biodiesel, which suffer from the inescapable flaw of directly competing with our food supplies.

Although I believe that neither corn ethanol nor biodiesel have the capacity to ever wean us off our crack-like addiction to petroleum, credit should be given when credit is due. In the same way that we could not have Radiohead without Pink Floyd, we could never have an advanced biofuel industry without the lessons learned from first generation biofuels. Although corn ethanol is an easy target-it has been much maligned by others in the recent past-I chose to write about it to explain to you, the reader, that while first generation biofuels have significant shortcomings, there are also some extremely exciting new alternative biofuels on the brink of commercialization whose future success will come, in some ways, as a result of earlier biofuels' failures.

Known as second generation technology, these biofuels do not rely on food or cropland as sources, which makes them a marked improvement on first generation fuels (though, as you'll see below, they don't get us all the way there). Scientists and entrepreneurs have figured out how to literally turn the weeds growing in your backyard and the garbage destined for a landfill into fuel. Each form of biomass contains a percentage of carbohydrates called polysaccharides. These complex sugars can be broken down into simple sugars via "bio-chemical" or "thermo-chemical" processes and fermented into ethanol (some processes use catalysts). Note that while there are some companies creating "cellulosic diesel," the majority of the billions of dollars in government and venture capital money for second generation biofuels has gone to cellulosic ethanol.

Cellulosic ethanol is a wonderful upgrade to corn-based ethanol. Picture the stem or bark of a plant. That material is called lignin and it contains lots of energy. You can burn the lignin as fuel for the production process-eliminating the need for an external electricity source and reducing lifecycle greenhouse gases up to 80 percent compared to petroleum gasoline (on a BTU basis). Yay for cellulosic ethanol!

Not so fast. There are significant logistical questions about how to grow, harvest, store, transport, and transform various forms, shapes, and sizes of biomass into fuel on a massive scale. The investment bank Thomas Wiesel Partners estimates that a 50-million gallon ethanol plant would require a delivery of cellulosic biomass every six minutes, 24 hours per day, 365 days per year. Putting aside the fact that the Environmental Protection Agency's mandate for 16 billion gallons of cellulosic biofuel by 2022 will require the retooling of modern agriculture as we know it-the biggest problem with cellulosic ethanol is that … it is ethanol. And even under the aggressive and optimistic scenarios devised by the USDA for biomass availability, cellulosic ethanol would only displace a fraction of our entire gasoline demand, to say nothing of aviation and diesel fuel.

Wouldn't it be awesome if we could create a fuel that actually worked with our pre-existing infrastructure? Where you could use it regardless of whether you had a diesel tractor, private jet, speedboat, or 1967 Impala? Where it could be transported via traditional petroleum pipelines and used in current petrol stations in high blends? This is the Holy Grail of biofuels.

But hope is not lost. Human ingenuity has found a way to create a fuel that can work with any transportation engine from the most unlikely of places: the bottom of your swimming pool. It is nasty, it is algae, and it might just be fuel from the gods.

Although history will probably remember Bill Clinton for Monika Lewinsky, "don't ask, don't tell," and eight years of economic prosperity, I will remember him for his administration's decision to eliminate the "Aquatic Species Program."

What is the ASP and why do I still harbor a grudge for Slick Willy? The Aquatic Species Program began in 1978 by Jimmy Carter to explore revolutionary new types of energy. Originally concocted to produce hydrogen from algae, the program identified specific strains of algae that-when stressed-produced prolific amounts of oils that could be refined into a variety of petroleum-like fuels. The researchers found that algae could live on marginal land using sewage or salt water while consuming CO2 as a nutrient source. The program was killed in 1996 when oil prices were less than $20 per barrel and the estimated costs of producing a barrel of algae oil was estimated to be $40. The Department of Energy made the strategic decision to focus on bioethanol. As a result, algae investment and research went largely dormant for the ensuing 10 years.

Can 3rd Generation biofuels like algae catch up and leapfrog cellulosic ethanol? Are algae really the savior or one of those technologies that are always "20 years away" from commercialization? Why was Kermit the Frog right when we prophetically claimed "its not easy being green?" These questions will be explored in our last segment of this series, "Fuel from the Gods."

Guest writer Joshua Kagan is an analyst with Atlas Capital, a fellow with the Prometheus Institute for Sustainable Technologies, and an all-around expert in the world of clean technology. This is the third in a four-part series exploring a possible transition from fossil fuels to biofuels, and how algae might supplant oil as the dominant energy currency.

From Petroleum to Algae illustrations by Jennifer Daniel.

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