Imagining 2020: Green Crude

The fourth contribution to the Imagining 2020 series of essays comes from Pete Fowler, who takes a look at producing biofuel from algae as a sustainable means of meeting our liquid fuel needs. If you’d like to contribute your vision of a low-carbon future for New Zealand, please get in touch — details at the end of the piece.

I was very pessimistic until last year about our prospects of weaning off fossil fuels before reaching an irreversible tipping point. Some positive feedback loop would kick in, like higher temperatures releasing trapped methane from arctic permafrost and seafloor sediments. Increased atmospheric methane, about 30 times as potent a greenhouse gas as CO2, would further raise temperatures. End result? Within a few decades Earth would be as hot as Venus. The whole of humanity would go the way of the civilisations described by Jared Diamond in Collapse, who could see they were on a track to self destruction but were unable to alter course.

In 2008 I read one of the most positive books ever written; The Singularity Is Near, by Ray Kurzweil. He points out that whichever way you measure the rate of technological change, it accelerates exponentially. Moore’s law for instance predicted in 1965 that artificial intelligence would double in complexity and halve in cost every two years. It’s held for the last 44 years, and if it continues to hold until 2020, we’ll then have machines approaching human intelligence.

Kurzweil maintains that right now, nanotechnology, genetic engineering and robotics are the main drivers of technological advance. The production of crude oil from atmospheric CO2 and water will be mostly a triumph of genetic engineering.

Nature took hundreds of millions of years to produce the crude oil which, in about 200 years, we’ll have exhausted. If we can speed up this process, and produce all our liquid fuels and chemical industry feedstocks, and some stock feed and human food from atmospheric CO2 and waste, by a process many times as efficient as farming, without diverting farmland or native bush, on the same timescale as the rate at which we deplete fossil fuel, we’ll have solved the problems of peak oil and global warming, and a few lesser problems.

Conventional biofuel production isn’t particularly efficient. It requires fuel inputs for farm vehicles, and it either diverts farmland away from food production or destroys native bush. Only an average 300 watts per square metre world wide of sunlight is available for photosynthesis, and natural photosynthesis isn’t a very efficient way to convert sunlight to chemical energy. The most efficient fuel crop is sugar cane, fermented to ethanol. It yields up to three harvests a year. But it’s labour and land intensive, requires fuel for farm machinery and transport, it increases the cost of food and only grows in the tropics. Because all conventional crops need further processing in different places before they reach the petrol pump or dinner table, their total number of carbon kilometres is typically several times the distance round the world.

What’s needed is a continuous process, not a batch process like conventional harvesting. The world is running out of land suitable for conversion to farming. An algae reactor can be set up on land which is unsuitable for farming or anything else, and can still produce more than 15 times as much fuel per hectare as canola or palms. Unlike natural crude, it can yield a product free of contaminants like nitrogen, sulphur or benzene. The first generation will use sunlight for their energy source, but later, as energy sources like pebble bed fission reactors and ultimately nuclear fusion become available, these will drastically increase yield.

Some natural cyanobacteria can double their mass every hour. With genetic engineering, high temperature varieties, and varieties which fix their own nitrogen from the atmosphere are possible. The obvious raw materials to use are untreated sewage and atmospheric CO2, helping to solve two environmental problems. Eventually, when energy sources other than sunlight are available, the demand for sewage will outstrip supply, and other sources of micronutrients will be needed. But as with conventional agriculture, micronutrients are in principle recyclable. All you need is a way to reclaim elements like phosphorus, sulphur, iron, molybdenum and the rest. This is feasible with a bioreactor producing algae, but not on a conventional farm, where they drain away, and not only are they wasted, but they cause problems like nitrate in drinking water and eutrophication in waterways.

The only high tech part of producing green crude is the final step; converting algae into oil. There’s no reason why bioreactors can’t be operated in the world’s poorest countries, as well as everywhere else where a demand for the products exists. Being a factory, rather than an outdoor farm operation, it can be conducted close to population centres, or anywhere else. CO2 is available everywhere, and low-grade water supplies unfit for human consumption, almost everywhere.

An obvious location for a bioreactor is right next to a thermal power station, where there’s waste CO2, waste heat and transmission loss free electricity, but in principle one can operate anywhere.

The algae is harvested continuously, 24/7. Currently four technologies exist to extract the oil:

  1. Dry the algae and press the oil out. This is the simplest method.
  2. Dissolve the oil in a supercritical fluid like CO2 at high pressure. When pressure is reduced the oil separates out and the CO2 is reused. This is the most promising method.
  3. Hexane solvent. Hexane, a hydrocarbon similar to petrol, dissolves the oil. The hexane is then separated from the oil and reused.
  4. Ultrasound breaks open the algae cells, and the oil is pressed out.

The remaining dry matter is a high protein stock feed.

A bioreactor producing algae which are processed into liquid fuels, foods and petrochemicals, is a machine for converting waste, including CO2, into essential commodities which are getting scarcer every year. The only input needed is energy. It’s a closed loop. There is no waste and no collateral damage to the environment.

The “Imagining 2020″ Series of articles is a creative commons discussion effort coordinated by , and Contributions are welcome from all comers. Please see the introduction for an explanation of the project and instructions for how to contribute.

23 thoughts on “Imagining 2020: Green Crude”

  1. People promoting algae farming always seem to overlook the issue of the cost per hectare of establishing the farming ponds, and where all this unproductive flat land with a good water supply can be found.

      1. After more thought and reading I think there may be a niche for algae biofuel production in the effluent disposal process, but not outside of this, and the volume of fuel produced would never be more than a tiny fraction of that which western soieties typical consume.

        1. Maybe, but according to Glen Kurtz of Valcent Vertigro, they estimate they can supply all of America’s current energy demand with an area 1/10th of New Mexico (31,000km2) from algal biofuel. Now that’s a lot of glasshouses, but I wonder what the current investment (including subsidies) in fossil fuel is?
          Clearly there are a lot of problems to be solved in converting algae mass into fuel, but the same applies to converting corn or switchgrass or any of the other candidates for the replacement of our rapidly depleting supplies of dino-juice.
          People get very sniffy about algae as a fuel, but forget that petrol is the end-product of 150 years of development and don’t forget that corn produces 18gal(US)/acre/year v’s palm oil’s 750gal/acre/yr v’s algae’s 20,000gal/acre/yr. Show me any other plant that can double it’s volume in less than a day!

  2. The cost of extracting anything from solid natural products using supercritical fluids is expensive – the vast majority of SFE facilities for solid feeds are batch processes, and are viable when the product is of significantly-higher value than alternative extraction techniques.

    In NZ ( at IRL ), we have one of the leading experts on SFE, but much of his team’s work is on extraction/creation of high value products. If you’ve seen a SFE plant working, you’ll know why value-added criteria apply for products.

    When you add entrainers ( to improve yields ), or use alternative supercritical fluids, you can run into different problems that quickly degrade the SFE advantage of products.

    An interesting potentially-viable application of supercritical pressures could be to replace other batch processes ( eg timber treatment ) , but it’s very difficult to implement a continuous process for any solid feedstock, especially for low value natural products.

    Supercritical has several advantages ( cell disruption, no toxic residues ) when feedstocks are reasonably dry, but when they are wet, the economics are very unlikely to stack up – perhaps to extract residual oil from pressed meal, or to simultaneously recover hexane and oil from solvent-extracted meal.

    Using ultrasonics on the scale required for fuel feeds are also problematic, as the sources are very energy-inefficient, and the process becomes quite complex – because separation techniques are also required.

    There are also other techniques for extracting lipids from intact cells ( osmotic shock, enzyme digestion) , but if they’re not economic for cooking oils and foods, they are extremely unlikely to be viable for a low cost fuels, even as byproducts from a high value product.

    I’m all for alternative fuels in NZ, but they have to provide good value for endusers, otherwise their competitiveness is compromised. Best to have the algae produce some high-value product, and perhaps use the process waste as fuel.

  3. Origin Oil claim to have a low-cost extraction process involving CO2 (gas) low voltage electric currents and magnetic fields. Here’s to their elbow if they can pull it off.
    See also Valcent’s Vertigro bioreactors. More complex and expensive than open ponds but they conserve water, optimise temperatures and retain the purity of selected strains of algae.
    What the world needs now is a Manhatten Project mindset of throwing the best brains and an open chequebook at the problems. The $700B + lashed out on saving the banks from their own foolishness would have gone a long way in helping saving the planet from our foolishness.

  4. Just because Origin Oil call ultrasonication “Quantum Fracturing -patent pending” doesn’t mean:-
    1. It’s novel.
    2. It’s effective.
    3. It’s economic.

    Because people want solutions, it does mean:-
    1. Lots of cheerleaders.
    2. Positive publicity.
    3. Funding from venture capitalists.

    The Manhatten project explored countless cul-de-sacs, but had a clear theoretical basis and huge potential immediate benefits. They also had the added incentive that some German scientists also understood the theory. The obvious goal was to make the bomb first, win the war, and consequently save Allied lives.

    We just need to use energy efficiently, use available technology to reduce emissions ( let’s all fly to Copenhagen for planet-saving photo opportunities ! ), and modify agricultural practices. A bit of population control wouldn’t go amiss, either.

    1. Bruce: True, true, true and true, true, true. Especially the latter, we need all the positive encouragement we can get. But surely many of the challenges of algae biofuel production apply similarly to other biofuels without the orders-of-magnitude better growth rates?
      My Manhatten reference was to encourage the thought that we need more urgency, esp in NZ, where Our Glorious Leaders seem content to idle along until our front wheels are already over the cliff edge. I’d use the term Think Big if it wasn’t a dirty word.
      On the efficiency angle, there’s so many things we should be doing with more urgency. Start rethinking our cities would be a good start, the 4 main and several provincial centres are probably going to have to be moved inland in a decade or 3, less if the IPCC’s predictions undershoot the target as usual. We should be discouraging the imports of gas guzzlers and the prolifieration of belching machines esp on land unsuited for the purpose. We have globally significant potential for tidal electricity generation that is crying out for fast-track development, the list goes on and on.
      And on population control: true. They grumble about the carbon footprint of a labrador but no-one’s commenting on the impact of that third kid.

  5. “Luck is when preparation meets opportunity” Seneca.

    Gareth, meet opportunity. :-)

    I note that the new Boeing 787 allegedly offers fuel consumption per passenger ( cruising? fully seated? ) of 2.4L/100 km. We need 3 people in most of our cars to match that, or only one person – if we add an aircraft altitude factor, and multiply aircraft CO2 emissions by a factor of three when considering global warming potential of emissions.

    Yes, Kiwiiano,

    I agree other biofuels face the same issues ( fossil fuels are biofuels – just MUCH longer time frames ) , that’s why I’m not in favour of some other liquid fuel alternatives – at the moment. When reviewing claims of innovative fuel sources, take off those rose-tinted lenses first.

    In the 1970s, 1980s and even into the 1990s, some biofuel proponents bemoaned the low price of crude oil ( claiming it was subsidised ), and promising that when crude hit $30/bbl then biofuels would be feasible, and synthetic fuels would be feasible at $60/bbl.

    Fossil fuels and combustion engines have co-evolved over the last 150 years to match consumer “needs”, and the low fossil fuel price discouraged efficiency. In most cases,”needs” were perception based.

    When you “need” a loaf of bread, do you purchase 10 loaves and throw away 90% every time, or do you just buy what you require?.

    If we can show people the common sense of not wasting valuable fuels, and that energy conservation is sensible, we take a small step forward.

    I don’t believe we need to worry about being lucky, but let’s work harder on the preparation.

  6. I believe NZ is a net exporter of coal. It seems wise to develop replacement technology first before pledging to reduce CO2 emissions and thereby having to cut back on a fuel source in ready supply. Will NZ pledge to eliminate coal exports as well? There is a huge gap that exists between green-energy availability and replacing 60% of your countries energy needs currently supplied by fossil fuels.
    Regarding Moore’s Law and the development of artificial intelligence to the level of human intellect by 2020 – it is only possible because human intelligence has been declining exponentially since the discovery of global warming.

  7. Bruce: When you “need” a loaf of bread, do you purchase 10 loaves and throw away 90% every time, or do you just buy what you require?.
    I get grumpy watching the commuters (including myself) trudging across the city in 1-2-3-4 litres cars when the task could be achieved with 250cc easily. We have enormous capacity for savings.

    Bruce: If we can show people the common sense of not wasting valuable fuels, and that energy conservation is sensible, we take a small step forward.
    THAT is a major crux. Getting Jo Bloggs on side. I still find 90% of my friends & colleagues endlessly repeating the zombie questions, foaming at the mouth at the mention of Al Gore and cheering John Key’s limp response to looming disaster. It’s a worry.

    sbalch: Will NZ pledge to eliminate coal exports as well?
    Funny that everyone wants to nail our cockies and lumberjacks to the ground at source, but coal miners get away with murder.

    (Anyone figured out how to use these HTML tags & attributes?)

  8. ” I actually think coal for steel is valid use for coal – the problem is really in our cars. Short term, I would say a we need a lot more forest – about 1 million hectares – as stop gap while we electrify transport but the energy is available. ”

    Coal for iron blast furnaces is probably going to be required for decades, steel making may be able move to lower carbon options.

    Decades is also the timescale that pure EVs will take to be economically viable. The US NRC has just released a report on plug-in hybrids that, once again, reinforces that batteries remain the Achilles heel of electric vehicles. Models that can get 15 km before the ICE starts are expected be cost-effective before 2030, and 80 km versions after 2040, according to the NRC.

    100 years ago, EVs dominated the car market and, until we can fix the battery cost and mass problems, the plug-in hybrid will remain an expensive greenie “must have” toy.

    Far better to encourage downsized ICE cars ( 400-500kg enclosed vehicle for two people would be a good start – but please, not as ugly as the Smart For Two ), and segregate large vehicles from the small fry for safety reasons. Small mass meeting large mass equals occupant puree..

    Also, trying to make suburban rail viable for more commuters should be near the top of the ” To do “, rather than trying to blame the previous government, and treating Rail like a bag of steaming excrement to be sold ASAP.

  9. Quoting Bruce: Far better to encourage downsized ICE cars ( 400-500kg enclosed vehicle for two people would be a good start – but please, not as ugly as the Smart For Two )
    Go to
    Be sure to wear a bib in case you start to dribble.
    Fully crash tested in case you’re worried about people puree.

    Also, trying to make suburban rail viable for more commuters should be near the top of the ” To do “, rather than trying to blame the previous government, and treating Rail like a bag of steaming excrement to be sold ASAP.
    You got it. a Lot of people in ChCh are complaining ‘why don’t they have commuter rail from Rakaia/Rolleston, Darfield/Kirwee, Amberley/Rangiora and Lyttelton?” With linked buses of course. Or even buses that can hook onto the rail, then unhook and buzz off into the CBD or industrial areas. It’s not rocket science.

  10. The automobile. Almost purely a function of mass and velocity. Lighter and slower will be a tough sell, especially here in North America (NA) where the top selling vehicles weigh some 2,500 Kg and come with 4.9 litre (and larger) engines (Ford F-150, Chev Silverado, GMC Sierra, Dodge Ram). Technology to solve personal transportation already exists and you don’t need smart cars or other such toys. Drop 1,000 Kg from the average NA vehicle to (say) 1,500 Kg max and watch gas consumption drop rapidly.
    Rail and other forms of mass transportation will be a major problem to further implement in NA given the distribution of people into the suburbs over a wide area. Collection of people from their homes and dispersion into their offices is a complex problem not easily solved by mass transit. What works in Holland won’t necessarily catch on in Texas. So why not start with the easy stuff. Lighter cars and slower speed limits, special lanes for green cars, higher gas prices as a disincentive for inefficient vehicles.
    Kiwiiano: What are cockies in NZ? I know what they are in Canada and I wouldn’t use them to cut down trees – although that would impress some people.

  11. “Fully crash tested in case you’re worried about people puree.”

    Not sure if it has actually been crash tested ( didn’t read all the site ) – just simulated in software, but also in the US regulatory environment trikes are classed as bikes, so have different rules.

    Besides, it appears to be a plug in hybrid with supercapacitors, so you’ll probably be dancing puree or experiencing near-instant immolation. Plug-in hybrids, according to the NRC, will not be economic for decades..

    People puree is a significant concern, as vehicles get lighter their ability to safety move past big trucks at speed without being buffeted decreases. A 500 kg vehicle, even with expensive protective carbon tubs, will always come off worst when trying to drive through an oncoming 50 tonne truck.

    AFAIK, but could be wrong, our vehicle design rules haven’t added anti-intrusion design requirements to trucks and trailers, so going under the wheels will generate puree, bouncing off might be less traumatic.

    That’s why I say we have to segregate traffic of different sizes, and move heavy freight to dedicated times or roads, but preferably onto an optimised national rail + local road delivery system .

  12. Bruce, reports like the NRC’s necessarily make assumptions, two of which they may be out on are the future cost of batteries and the cost of fuel. I was looking a site claiming the price of batteries is likely to drop from $600 to $200 over the next few years as the technology develops and production increases, and I’m betting on fuel prices to again increase as demand grows over the next year or two.

  13. Andrew
    ” Bruce, reports like the NRC’s necessarily make assumptions, two of which they may be out on are the future cost of batteries and the cost of fuel.”

    If faced with the choice of selecting a future scenario about personal transport in the USA, the sources I would give most credit to are the NRC, GAO, and SAE publications.

    I wouldn’t trust anything on a website ( and that obviously includes my own opinions here and elsewhere ), unless it fully cited published, peer-reviewed sources that I could check. YMMV.

    I’d be concerned if policy was made because somebody on a website was good at English composition when expressing their views, but bereft of common sense.

    You can read the NRC report chapter-by- chapter free on the NRC site, or pay about US$30 to purchase the pdf of the full report – but a better use of your money would be a present for a loved one.

  14. Check out greenfuel, a US company developing algae oil. It seems the main problem is how to separate out the water from the algae as the ratio is about 1,000 to 1 (in favour of water). Anything that water intensive is going to require a lot of power to extract. Thankfully there is a power plant nearby (the one supplying the CO2). For every extra barrel of traditional oil burned, I wonder if you could generate half a barrel of algae oil? Better than corn for fuel at least.

  15. Yeah, I strongly agree that something like the Manhattan Project or the race to the Moon would probably do the trick. For the cost of the Vietnam War, inflation adjusted, we’d probably have commercially viable nuclear fusion in about the same time as the JFK inspired Moon race put a man on the Moon. Let’s do it. All developed countries, working together, that is, not just the US. Pete Fowler.

  16. I disagree that we need to electrify transportation and move away from liquid fuels.

    An electric car needs to get electricity from somewhere, and much of the world (outside NZ) burns coal and crude oil to generate that electricity. Countries that use nuclear to generate electricity are burning a hell of lot of fuel to dig big holes in the Aussie outback and Northern Canada to mine and convert ore to fuel rods, a carbon footprint often not mentioned by nuclear energy proponents.

    I believe that electric cars will exacerbate the global warming problem. We will be using fuel to build new infrastructure to plug our cars into, burn more fuel to make electricity that we will then turn around and inefficiently try and store in a chemical battery. Not to mention the amount of fuel we will burn trying to replace the worlds fleet of cars and installing electrified rail.

    Before we take the electric car step, we need to begin generating a large proportion of our global electricity from renewable resources. NZ and Iceland already do this, but they constitute a tiny fraction of the world population.

    A major step in improving fuel efficieny is in lengthening the life span of cars. A significant portion of the energy used by a vehicle is in its manufacture, assembly, and distribution. The parts in a typical car have been around the world several times before miles are put on the odometer. Consider the fuel used in the following chain, and the impact to global carbon emissions if we suddenly replaced the global car fleet with electric cars: – the source of the ore to make the metal, the location to smelt the ore, the various countries that parts are made in, until they are assembled in yet another country, and finally shipped to the destination country.

    If we could develop a carbon neutral liquid fuel ( like algae oil) and run it in existing vehicles, we would save the world a hell of a lot more energy than replacing the global car fleet. We should buy one car and retrofit it. Never replace it.

    1. Can I strongly suggest you look at David MacKay’s “Sustainable Energy without the hot air”?

      Even you generated all the electricity with fossil fuel, you STILL end up winning big time because of the efficiency of the motors. If you are looking at 25- 35kWh/person/day being spent on the fuel cost, the 1-2kWh/person/day that is the embodied energy cost of a vehicle is small by comparison. It all helps but using less fuel is more important. Algal needs CO2 enrichment to produce a lot of fuel and photosynthesis is inefficient compared to even photovoltaic and especially concentrated solar. You would less land area for the same no. of cars if you had solar generation and electric cars than you would with algal.

      Again, all the figures explained in detail in MacKay’s book.

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