This article supported by curiosity stream, as many of you know, I drive an electric car these days. I may have mentioned at a time or two, but before I went electric I actually drove a diesel a diesel, Volkswagen Jetta because they’re.
So clean. Remember no controversy. Their thing was about that, though it got like 60 miles a gallon. I mean the efficiency was just off the charts granted when I read the engine had made a whole cloud of Sud, but it was very efficient suit.
Now I don’t know if the efficiency made up for the dirtiness of the diesel, but that’s, how I justified it at the time and besides there was another type of fuel that everybody was talking about at the time biodiesel.
I was kind of hearing about biodiesel everywhere at the time and how it was you know almost carbon neutral because it was making fuel from plants that were pulling co2 out of the sky. Willie Nelson even had his own brand of biofuel that he called bio willie and it was up on.
You know, billboards all around Texas and the stuff I was hearing about. It sounded like practically a miracle I mean it was made. You can make it from vegetable oil. It was, you know way. Cleaner than other types of diesel had worked on regular engines.
Didn’t require any modification. Some people actually claim that it would clean your engine for you and if you’re ambitious enough, you could actually make the fuel yourself at home from spent vegetable oil.
I heard stories about people who did that they would just go around to restaurants and collect vegetable oil and just make their own diesel at home free fuel. Basically, it’s kind of a hippie thing, but I dig it and actually I I had every intention of setting up a little diesel refinery in my backyard, where I could go around and use vegetable oil and just make my own fuel.
I was ready to go all at Bigley jr. on it. Take that global oil industrial complex, and I would show you my home refinery out there right now. Only as you probably already guessed, never really happened, but biodiesel in general never really happened.
You know there was so much hype about it at the time how it was gon na you know, promote farmers in the United States. Give us you know energy independence, not to mention the carbon neutral thing and for a brief shining moment it almost looked feasible.
You know the price of oil was high, the price of diesel was was higher like it was so high that it actually kind of made economic sense for me to try to build a home refinery in my backyard, but then the price dropped and biodiesel just kind Of became a niche hippie thing today, we’re hearing similar rumblings about algae microalgae.
Specifically, could this be different? Are we about to see history repeat itself, people here biofuels? They often think of it as a weird niche hippie alternative to real fuels, but really when it all comes down to it all fuels are biofuels.
Just some took millions of years to process pockets of oil usually occur in places that were once shallow lakes or coastlines year after year, giant Al Jarreau blooms would grow absorbing co2 and sunshine and then die and settle on the ocean floor.
Taking that carbon and energy with it over millions of years, this would pile up, get covered up by geological processes and compress tighter and tighter until it became hydrocarbons like oil, coal and gas.
As I learned in the shawshank redemption’geology. Is the study of pressure and time, given enough pressure in time, algae can turn into coal? Coal can turn into diamonds. So really the idea of biofuels is to turn that algae into fuel without the middleman of millions of years of geology.
When talking about biofuels, you often hear it described in terms of generations like first second and third generation. First generation biofuels are basically food crops like wheat, sugarcane and corn.
In fact, ethanol have been made from corn for decades and power a lot of machinery and transportation. This is what Willie Nelson was getting into the problem with first gen biofuels is it competes for space with food crops which can reduce crop yields and lead to higher food prices, and it often creates more emissions to harvest and refine it than the crops absorb second-generation Biofuels are made from non-food crops like wood, organic waste, food waste and specific biomass crops.
This is kind of like the idea that I had of using the vegetable oil. This doesn’t, compete with food crops and reduces waste by recycling previously used oil, which cuts down on the energy to produce it third generation.
Biofuels are based on algae, and this is the big one. At least we keep hearing. Algae grows really fast. They lock away a lot of carbon can be grown in places that don’t compete with existing food crops and are easily processed into fuel.
Now needs to be said that this is not carbon negative. Once this fuel is burned, you’re, basically replacing into the atmosphere or something that you took out of it, but it is carbon neutral. So it’s.
A step up. Algae is a fuel source at the mainstream consciousness in the early 2000s, with literally dozens of companies raising billions of dollars to iterate on their own versions of this technology.
A company called Solazyme got out of the gate, claiming it could make competitively priced fuel by 2012 and another called petrol Sun claimed they could produce 4.4 million gallons a year when the most aggressive forecast was written by Jim Lane of biofuels Digest.
Who said that Al Joe biofuel could reach 1 billion gallons by 2014, to which the company Algenol said, challenge accepted and claimed that they could make a hundred million gallons of fuel by 2009 and a billion by the end of 2012 spoiler alert that didn’t happen, in fact, the majority of these companies either went out of business or they had to pivot to selling algae byproducts like nutriceuticals and animal feed, additives, cosmetics and specialty oils.
So why did so much hype go so spectacularly wrong. It might be a better place to start as to why there was so much hype in the first place. So the thing that makes biofuels biofuels is the lipid content.
Lipids are fatty molecules found in cells that store energy and provide structural support, especially in plants. In simple terms, this is where they lock in the sun’s, energy, with the help of carbon dioxide and nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus and as photosynthetic plants go algae is the undisputed king, with 40 % of their volume being made up by these Lipids lipids that can be converted into diesel synthetic petroleum, butanol and other industrial chemicals, and some studies have suggested that an acre of algae can produce up to 5,000 to 10,000 gallons of fuel a year which is way higher than other biofuel alternatives.
This is reason enough to get excited about it, but on top of that, it grows incredibly fast, like you can harvest it daily and it grows in almost any environment really easily. I mean just ask anybody with a swimming pool.
Actually, it’s, interesting to think about how much money we spend every year just trying to keep algae from growing plus it can be fed with wastewater and it doesn’t compete with food crops. In fact, it can be made into food crops for livestock, so there’s, a couple of different ways that you can harvest algae there’s, the closed-loop system and the open pond system, starting with the open pond system.
First of all, it’s, the cheapest possible system that you can do to grow algae. The problem is it’s open to intrusive species like predators and pests and pathogens. There’s, a low surface-to-volume ratio because the cells that are underneath can get stuck in the shade and it reduces their growth and it’s, not that scalable.
It needs a lot of land. So if you want to really scale it up, it can take up a lot of land closed loop systems, on the other hand, use flat panels, tubes or plastic bags to kind of push the algae through and let it grow in these in these tubes.
Now this keeps out organisms and reduces evaporation, but it is more expensive and there’s, issues with co2 transfer and it can build up oxygen inside of it, which can actually kill the algae and as for how that algae gets turned into fuel.
The methods of conversion vary wildly, but here’s, my strained understanding of it algae is grown in the ponds or in the closed-loop system. Using water and nutrients in co2 waters evaporated way as much as possible, and then the algae is harvested through a series of processes, including flocculation, that settles the algae, air flotation and then finally, in a centrifuge water in nutrients or recycle back into the ponds to grow.
More algae for the most part, some is spent to prevent salt build-up. Then a solvent is added that separates out the oil in a process called transpiration. The Smit algae and water is then put through a fermentation process that creates methane, which is then used to power.
The system, the raw oil is then treated with hydrogen to create bio diesel and jet fuel. So all of this sounds kind of great right, so why did all these companies fail at this? It’s, the economy stupid like most burgeoning technologies.
We have the technical ability to do this. It’s, the economics of it that we’re, having trouble making work out currently, even with all the recycling involved in that process that I just described, and even with open pond system, which is way less expensive and way, less maintenance And all that it is still far more expensive than fossil fuel extraction.
Analysis of algae biofuels over the year has ranged everywhere from less than a dollar a gallon, which is wildly optimistic up to $ 40 a gallon, but more recent estimates have put it somewhere between 10 and 20 dollars, a gallon at the scale of around 10 million Gallons, a year for prospective regular diesel is averaging around $ 3, a gallon right now, and the United States burns about 117 million gallons of it a day.
Two of the main cost drivers that need to be perfected. For this, to be able to work are the growth rate and the lipid content and researchers are working on ways of improving that through selective breeding and genetic modification.
Now there are some sustainability issues around algae biofuels, namely the space need to make them the open. Pond systems take up a lot of land and they’re gon na take up even more land, as you scale it up, and that can start to compete with food crops and can lead to deforestation, and the fertilizers involved might start to compete with Food crops, especially phosphorus, and as that scales up, then the price of phosphorus and the price of food might go up, and some people argue that the co2 benefits of algae biofuels is actually pretty weak.
Once you’ve factored in the transportation of the fuels and the fertilizer and the production of all that, but perhaps the biggest nail in the coffin for biofuels right now anyway, is that currently it takes more energy to produce it than you get out Of it now, believers in algae biofuel believe that these are just challenges that we’ll, be able to solve over time.
We’ll, just chip away at it little by little until we figure it all out, and that may be true, and I hope that’s true, but it might honestly require, like a moonshot project, to get there something on the level Of getting to the moon or splitting the atom I don’t know for me personally, I think if we’re gon na spend hundreds of billions of dollars on a moonshot project.
That project should be fusion, but that’s just me, but that doesn’t mean I think biofuels have no place in our energy mix or that they’re, not important, in fact, looking long-term. I think they might actually be pretty critical because fossil fuels aren’t renewable.
You know it’s, not an inexhaustible source of energy. You know you can’t just grow more oil. Eventually, we will run out or get too expensive to extract to be useful. In a 2013 report, British Petroleum BP suggested that it currently of consumption the world is gon na completely run out of oil reserves in 53 years.
A grain of the oil industry is really good at finding new ways of getting oil out of the ground like oil shale extraction, so there may be some more out there, but our rate of consumption is accelerating as well.
You know we may find that alternative fuels like biofuels or maybe fuels derived from direct air capture or just sort of the natural progression of how we produce you know, combustible oil. It’s just that a necessity, and I think the energy companies know this, which is why, when you do a Google search for algae biofuels, which I did a lot of and researching this article, the very first link that comes up is a sponsored Ad from Exxon Mobil keep burning that gas.
Kids, we got this yeah, they don’t got this algae. Biofuels, unfortunately have a very long way to go, but there’s. A lot of clever people out there that are chipping away at this, and who knows, we may be hearing more about this in the coming years.
Now there’s, some people that say that the drop in prices for wind, solar and energy storage have accelerated to the point that biofuels will never be able to catch up. So are you one of those people? Do you think that biofuels are a pipe dream or is there something awesome about them that you know that I don’t it’s very possible discuss it down the comments below by the way.
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