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Predicting biodiesel production

July 24, 2009

I received an email today, with a ‘short’ question asking if I could give a method to predict growth of phytoplankton in reactors, for the purpose of biodiesel production….

I have received this question many times in the past, mostly from organizations who voice that they have a reactor technology and/or that they woould like to produce phytoplankton.  I wonder why they ask this question on productivity…

Phytoplankton are little plants, but many phytoplankton species grow much faster than plants living on land. To give an idea, all plant-biomass on land turns over in about 12-17 years; but all plant biomass in the ocean turns over in only about a week… While it is possible to predict, with more or less accuracy, the production of phytoplankton in a reactor, it requires a complex set of calculations to get reliable estimates, just as it requires specialist knowledge to model how much yeast can be made in a yeast reactor.

But I am endlessly more surprised that most questions and recent publications on the same topic find their origin in the wish to make biodiesel from phytoplankton. In itself, no doubt, a good idea; but as a goal for an innovation that is only at the start of its development, I tend to qualify such question as lack of insight in the real potential of phytoplankton. It is as if one would have been motivated to built a fully hybrid, GPS navigated car with F1 speed capability at a time when the first T-ford was sketched on the drawing board…

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