Energy & Environment

Algae: Obama’s green crude

Last Friday, President Obama announced a new round of federal funding to further yet another green fancy: turning algae into fuel to power our cars, trucks, planes and trains.

Speaking to an audience at the University of Miami, Mr. Obama said, “We’re making new investments in the development of gasoline and diesel and jet fuel that’s actually made from a plant-like substance — algae.  You’ve got a bunch of algae out here, right?  If we can figure out how to make energy out of that, we’ll be doing all right.”
          
Here we go again.  The Department of Energy (DOE) is ready to hurl millions of taxpayer dollars at the wall of bleeding edge scientific ideas, hoping that someday, something will stick. 
           
The funds for this adventure will flow from the $36.7 billion issued to the DOE via the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (aka “stimulus bill”) for alternative energy projects — $85 million of which were specifically earmarked for the development of algae-based biofuels. While there is scientific merit to the idea that someday we may be able to fill’er up with a biofuel derived of the green crude, the technology required is nowhere near ready for primetime.  Throwing taxpayer dollars at this effort is beyond absurd.

However, according the DOE, “These programs will spur American innovation and encourage scientific breakthroughs that will help diversify the nation’s energy portfolio, grow American companies, and develop alternative vehicle technologies that do not rely on oil.”

The question is, if turning algae into fuel is so promising, why isn’t private capital covering all of the costs of research and development?  The answer is because the use of algae as a practical biofuel remains wholly theoretical. 

Algae are the simplest and oldest organisms on earth.  They are unicellular and, like all plants, grow through the process of photosynthesis.  Their simplicity allows them to convert solar energy to chemical energy efficiently.  Research has shown that algae can be utilized as an energy source to produce biodiesel, ethanol, jet fuel, methanol, methane and hydrogen.  However, neat as all that sounds, the cost of producing algae oil is prohibitively expensive. Because of inefficient production and harvesting methods many experts have projected prices of more than $50 per gallon.  The government subsidies required to make algae-based biofuel affordable to the consumer would be massive; dwarfing those provided to the solar and wind power industries.

In pursuing this latest green Holy Grail scientists must find an oil-rich algae strain and the right type of surface material to grow it on.  The key is growing it, not just fast, but really thick, so that it’s easy to collect — something that doesn’t occur in nature.  Though many dreamers talk about raising all of the necessary algae in ocean waters, there’s an obvious problem: weather.  Storms would totally wreck an algae farm.  If the algae were farmed in controlled environments, such farms would require enormous swaths of real estate.

Additionally, one aspect that has received little attention in the rush to develop algae-based fuels is the associated fuel properties.  Current research shows that algae biofuels do not flow well in an engine at lower temperatures, and they also degrade relatively quickly.  In other words, they are flat-out impractical.

Luiz Pereira Ramos, a renowned chemist at the Federal University of Parana, Brazil, says, “Most of the algae-derived biodiesel investigated to date are not suitable for fuel use.”

The principal hope for overcoming these problems is through genetic engineering of algae so they yield oils with more useful properties.  More bleeding edge.

So, once again we have the Obama administration using hard-earned taxpayer dollars to push an alternative energy source that is best suited for a utopian novel.  However, in the president’s world the money is certainly considered well spent, as it is “creating jobs” for scientists who might otherwise be unemployed.

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