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Is Biofuel from Algae a Hype?

March 19, 2010

Without freshwater - no agriculture

Algae as a source for biofuel are now entering the stage of global visibility. However, another application might drive algal business, leading to biofuel (chances are low) in a far away future...


Not knowing how long I will have access to this site (see the topic on censoring), I wish to post  a short note on biofuel in general, and biofuel from algae in particular. So this will be a quick and fast, first and final draft:

Increasing levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide as a result of burning fossil fuels is a problem. Despite all discussions on the relationship between anthropogenic release of carbon dioxide and climate change, it is quite hard to imagine why one would doubt a global impact of the release of a greenhouse gas in a period of 150 years which, in volume, was stored over a period of 300 million years. And while I trust in science and engineering, I am convinced that the state of the art in science is far away from being able to understand the effects of manipulating one important domain of the global system.

The previous paragraph (and silent thoughts therein) serve to underscore the importance of sequestration of anthropogenic atmospheric carbon dioxide, or, the benefits of using a regenerative fuel source whose lifetime is compatible with existing biological and chemical processes: fuels made from photosynthate (which is a collective word for all organic carbon complexes based on photosynthesis). If lifetimes of compound fluxes match each other,it then follows that the concentration of the compound will reach some kind of dynamic steady state, and will prevent a severe built-up (or decrease) of that compound: hence, biofuel fits the most wanted characteristic as a solution to stop or even mitigate increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide.

However…..photosynthesis requires water..

If the photosynthate is made from land plants, the production thereof will (a) consume too much fresh water (and hence, worsen the dramatic consequence of lack of drinking water. Note that 70% of all available fresh water is already used in agriculture), (b) compete with the production of feed and food which can be used directly to support life, and (c) claim precious land.

Some, or all, of these arguments, while obvious for as long as the application of biofuel is being considered, have now contributed to critique of using plants for biofuel. A first sign that biofuel might not be the holy grail against climate change? I hope so.

I wish to add another aspect to this discussion.

We have a few problems on this earth: unbalanced economies leading to extreme poverty and wealth, shortage of drinking water, shortage (or badly distributed) feed/food, an an increasing global population – 6.8 billion now and 9 billion tomorrow in 2050.

??? Energy??? No, I do not list energy as one of our problems.

We have enough fossil resources for another 600 years or so (which leads to a climate problem, not to an energy problem), but let’s not rely on fossil reserves too much for too long.

Fact is that solar energy provides the entire yearly energy demand in about 4 minutes. Four minutes supply of solar energy cover a global energy need of an entire year. So, we have an available source of energy, where the supply potential exceeds the demand by about 131,000 times. Ah, yes, sure, but we can’t use it…Well, let’s make that not yet.

We still use technologies to capture and store energy based on principles which go back almost 200 years…..

Does anyone really think that our engineering capability will not find a solution to efficiently store the solar energy when the lack of energy will threaten our more or less convenient existence – or the stability of global societies? In fact, (part of) the solution is there, those who understand the principles of charge separation in a photosynthetic membrane know where to look; the basic science is known, and it will only take some time (minimized by existential or economic pressure) before these principles have been converted into technologies which will capture and save solar energy at >90% efficiencies. Nobody can predict the future, but it is not difficult to understand that existing knowledge will bear fruits in the not-so-far future. With 90% capture efficiency and 131 thousand over-supply it is plausible that most of the required energy can be captured on a fairly small area on the earth’s surface – e.g. in a desert.

Recognition of the non-exsiting energy problem will lessen the need and enthusiasm for biofuel. Will it dampen the interest in phytoplankton technologies? I am afraid it will, but I hope it will not.

Recognition of the fact that the lack of drinking water, feed and food will increase the suffering of humans should in fact dampen the enthusiasm for biofuel even more. Even if we can make biofuel from phytoplankton, hence without all the disadvantages mentioned above,  it would still be shameful (used here as a strong euphemism) to divert the created biomass away from making feed/food, and burn it in a fancy car or airplane, which move more on subventions than on the biofuel in its tanks.

Drinking water, feed and food, these are the materials that can support life. These are the materials that the sun can not deliver in 131 thousand fold excess. Marine phytoplankton, ‘fueled’ by the sun, can supply the feed and food without consuming drinking water. And, since its biomass is highly heterogeneous and amenable for almost all known refinery processes,  it can replace most of the derivatives currently being made from fossil fuel -so the value of the (marine plant’s) biomass should be understood  not only as a source for feed and food but also as source for other necessary industrial chemicals (other than fuel).

And with marine algal biomass as a basis for all kind of derived substances, phytoplankon has the potential to drive a new industrial development.  If such production units are created in a framework of a sustainable economic system (in another future post later more on this), the evolution of a phytoplankton industry will then also supply what societies need most to become successful (after nutritional needs are me): societal fair business.

Forget biofuel. Work on the survival of global societies – the only pathway to a future for everyone.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Effofanyperry permalink
    September 1, 2010 3:29 PM

    Hello. Very interesting site and you lead a very interesting discussion. There is a nice atmosphere here and I’m sure I will often read your posts.
    From time to time I will also try to write something interesting.

  2. March 19, 2010 3:04 PM

    Thanks for posting the article, was certainly a great read!


  1. BioFuel is a Hyperonym, are all Biofuels Sustainable? « Marine Agriculture

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