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Researchers Pooh-Pooh Algae-Based Biofuel 238

Posted by timothy
from the feed-it-pooh-pooh-undies dept.
Julie188 writes "Researchers from the University of Virginia have found that current algae biofuel production methods consume more energy, have higher greenhouse gas emissions and use more water than other biofuel sources, such as switchgrass, canola and corn. The researchers suggest these problems can be overcome by situating algae production ponds behind wastewater treatment facilities to capture phosphorous and nitrogen — essential algae nutrients that otherwise need to come from petroleum."
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Researchers Pooh-Pooh Algae-Based Biofuel

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  • Reserachers? (Score:5, Informative)

    by azav (469988) on Thursday January 21, 2010 @04:59PM (#30851164) Homepage Journal

    Timothy, please spell check your title.

  • Poo-poo ? (Score:4, Funny)

    by polar red (215081) on Thursday January 21, 2010 @05:02PM (#30851234)

    Melchett: Is this true Blackadder? Did Capt. Darling poo-poo you?
    Blackadder: Well, perhaps a little.
    Melchett: Well then damn it all what more evidence do you need? The poo-pooing alone is a court martial offense!
    Blackadder: I can assure you, sir, that the poo-pooing was purely circumstantial.
    Melchett: Well I hope so, ...Blackadder, you know, if there's one thing I've learned from being in the army, it's never ignore a poo-poo. I knew a major, got poo-pood made the mistake of ignoring the poo-poo. He poo-pood it: Fatal error. Becuase it turned out all along that the soldier who poo-pood him had been poo-pooing alot of other officers who poo-pood their poo-poos. In the end we had to disband the regiment. Morale totally destroyed.....................by poo-poo.

    • by mackil (668039)
      I'm glad to know that I wasn't the only one who thought of the Blackadder [imdb.com] when I saw this headline.
    • "We need someone who doesn't immediately poo-poo everything he eats."

      "Well no, it usually takes a couple of hours."

  • Ok, but what about researchers?

  • Pooh vs Poo (Score:2, Funny)

    by igadget78 (1698420)
    At least they didn't poo-poo the algae.
  • by John Hasler (414242) on Thursday January 21, 2010 @05:07PM (#30851326) Homepage

    > ...phosphorous and nitrogen -- essential algae nutrients that otherwise need
    > to come from petroleum.

    Phosphorus and nitrogen from petroleum. Uh huh. Right.

    • by Red Flayer (890720) on Thursday January 21, 2010 @05:28PM (#30851768) Journal
      OK, so whoever wrote that wasn't thinking straight. But it is true that fertilizer (both phosphates and nitrogen) require a lot of fossil fuel to produce -- usually natural gas.

      Phosphate fertilizer (ortho- or poly-phosphates) is synthesized in an energy-intensive process. Organic phosphates, like those from manure (or waste treatment plant effluent), help solve this problem.

      For nitrate fertilizer, it's even more extreme. Please read about the Haber Process [wikipedia.org].

      Yes, John, most fertilizer does come from fossil fuels.

      So, yes, whoever wrote that made a mistake. However, it's no lie to say that fertilizer production uses a huge amount of fossil fuel.
    • by UnknowingFool (672806) on Thursday January 21, 2010 @05:28PM (#30851770)
      From the article:

      As an environmentally sustainable alternative to current algae production methods, the researchers propose situating algae production ponds behind wastewater treatment facilities to capture phosphorous and nitrogen -- essential nutrients for growing algae that would otherwise need to be produced from petroleum. Those same nutrients are discharged to local waterways, damaging the Chesapeake Bay and other water bodies, and current technology to remove them is prohibitively expensive.

      So here's the logic: Algae requires nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen. Where does that come from? Normally in the wild, algae live off nutrients in water. In artificial environments, they are given these nutrients. The source of these nutrients is synthetic fertilizer. Ammonia based fertilizers are often created by the Haber process [wikipedia.org]. Artificial fertilizer requires petroleum to produce. Normally runoff is very high in these nutrients as they come from artificial fertilizers used on lawns and crops. Runoff enters wastewater and this high nutrient content creates all sorts of problems when discharged into the wild. Red Tide is caused by high nutrient runoff from the Mississippi. So kill two birds with one stone.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by cheesybagel (670288)
        No. The Haber ammonia synthesis process requires a source of hydrogen to run. It is just that currently the cheapest way to generate hydrogen is steam reforming of natural gas. Natural gas, not petroleum. Hydrogen can just as well be generated from electrolysis (if you have cheap electricity), sulfur-iodine cycle (if you have an available source of heat), or whatever from water.
        • Natural gas is often processed with petroleum as they are often in the same fields. Processing natural gas into hydrogen (steam forming) requires energy. The Haber Process requires energy. Most often electricity is required to run the machinery. The vast amount of electricity comes from fossils fuels.
          • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

            by khallow (566160)

            Natural gas is often processed with petroleum as they are often in the same fields. Processing natural gas into hydrogen (steam forming) requires energy. The Haber Process requires energy. Most often electricity is required to run the machinery. The vast amount of electricity comes from fossils fuels.

            Neither the hydrogen nor the electricity come from petroleum. Most fossil fuels and hydrogen sources are not petroleum. These distinctions matter in some areas like a consideration of the effects of radical oil supply drops (commonly called "peak oil").

        • by idontgno (624372)

          The Haber ammonia synthesis process requires a source of hydrogen to run. It is just that currently the cheapest way to generate hydrogen is steam reforming of natural gas.

          Which is to say, using the Haber process create fertilizer precursors will, in an economically realistic world, inevitably be based on reforming natural gas. So, fossil fuels will be extracted and processed in order to create biofuel. So much for carbon neutral.

          I do like the idea of poopooing the algae, as long as there's enough water-t

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by homer_ca (144738)

      Nitrogen fertilizer (ammonia) is made from natural gas through the Haber Bosch process. Phosphorus is produced in a relatively small number of huge mines and shipped around the world by a supply chain powered by oil

    • He's not the only one that failed chemistry. BP is now selling gasoline that is "fortified with the power of Nitrogen". Seriously. I hear it has what plants crave.
  • Also (Score:5, Funny)

    by killmenow (184444) on Thursday January 21, 2010 @05:09PM (#30851372)

    Christopher Robin was unavailable for comment.

  • Land values (Score:2, Insightful)

    by PetiePooo (606423)
    So, in other words, the algae ponds should be located close to the waste water treatment plants, which are located next to large population centers. And how much more does land cost in urban/suburban areas than in rural or even desert areas?

    I think there's a production flaw here somewhere; I just can't put my finger on it.
    • Because everyone wants to live right next to their local waste processing plant.

    • Re:Land values (Score:5, Interesting)

      by 2obvious4u (871996) on Thursday January 21, 2010 @05:24PM (#30851678)
      They could also put them downstream from chicken farms. I believe one of the biggest problems with the Chesapeake bay water shed is to much nitrogen in the water. If this could be used to produce fuel and clean up all the nitrogen run off from industrial agriculture it would be a double win.
      • Excess nitrogen comes from a wide variety of sources - here, the Hood Canal gets its excess nitrogen (IIRC) from failing septic systems and lawn fertilizer.

  • Well, that's one way to add nutrients back into the system.

  • by nweaver (113078) on Thursday January 21, 2010 @05:24PM (#30851668) Homepage

    Diesel, wholesale, is a couple bucks a gallon. Which means it is far FAR less than a dollar a pound.

    A good algae is worth far MORE than that per pound as animal feed, dietary suppliments, etc. So why turn something that you can sell for $2/lb into something you can only sell for less than $.5/lb?

    • by CannonballHead (842625) on Thursday January 21, 2010 @05:39PM (#30851998)
      Because it's "green." And we all want to be "green," even it's wasteful and actually uses more energy.
    • by ArsonSmith (13997)

      volume.

      • Nice. We'll give you change combinations you haven't even thought of. How do we make money? It's easy. Volume.
    • by martinbogo (468553) on Thursday January 21, 2010 @06:14PM (#30852646) Homepage Journal

      Actually .. there are both yeasts and algae that literally -output- diesel as a byproduct of their metabolic processes. The researchers in this article focused on the conversion of algae to biofuels using heat and industrial processes, but this is not the technique currently in favor amongst the algae biofuel startups. Most have strains of yeasts (and algae) that were discovered around the world that have low yields of diesel fuel byproduct, and are working via rapid natural selection and genetic engineering techniques to increase the yield to commercially viable levels.

      So, you get the valuable algae .. AND .. you get the diesel byproducts. It costs sunlight, and fertilizer plus some post processing and captures more carbon than is emitted by burning the fuel. Sounds pretty good to me.

    • by rev_sanchez (691443) on Thursday January 21, 2010 @06:19PM (#30852768)
      Right now farm runoff containing nutrients is creating vast dead zones in places like the gulf of Mexico. If we could channel farm runoff through algae growing operations we might be able to help with the dead zone thing which would help the fishing industry.

      Reducing corn subsidies for biofuel, which we should do anyway, could drop the value of feed algae because we wouldn't be be turning so much corn into ethanol (assuming you could replace algae-based feed with corn).

      The cost of petroleum is not just the wholesale price + taxes + mark ups. The cost also comes in the form of dependence on foreign oil and the security problems that causes, maintaining a military that can help ensure our access that oil, and the environmental impact of burning fossil fuels.

      If ultimately they can't make the economics of algae growing work then clearly they shouldn't do it but there are other factors than the wholesale price of these commodities.
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by benjamindees (441808)

      This is America. We already produce more food than we could ever need. You're right, we should probably continue to do so, and to export that food to the rest of the world in exchange for their energy resources. But at any point that becomes unprofitable, we need large-scale, clean, renewable primary energy sources to fall back on. Luckily the same infrastructure can be used for both.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by hey! (33014)

      At the current production level.

      That's the problem with simplistic cost analyses; they ignore the fact that if a lot of something is produced, it tends to get cheaper. On the other hand the demand for algae for biodiesel would tend to drive costs up.

      The secret is that competition tends to drive costs down to "normal profit" levels. If you could sell algae cheap enough to replace diesel, sooner or later somebody will undercut the algae as feed prices, unless one company has the exclusive rights to the mag

  • by Dirty Fool (1611901) on Thursday January 21, 2010 @05:25PM (#30851708)
    Algae has great potential and should not be ignored; the process just needs to be refined. It has much greater yield than other biofuels crops, and can be more easily turned into fuel oil of various types than other sources. Ethanol should be avoided; because it is plain inefficient no matter how well you develop the process. Ethanol when burned produces 30% energy by weight than petroleum, and requires at least as much petroleum to produce as it displaces. Furthermore, it cannot be transported like petroleum-based fuels due to it propensity to mix with water. That means even more petroleum transporting this crap around in tanker trucks. Algae on waste water ponds and treatment systems not only produce fuel, but naturally help clean the water. Growth tanks can also be setup at industrial sites with CO2 emissions being piped into the tanks. There is a lot to do with these wondrous little plants; we just need to give them a chance. ..and John Hasler, look up the Haber Bosch Process. It’s called nitrogen fixing that requires lots of fossil fuels.
  • That's interesting (Score:4, Informative)

    by Useful Wheat (1488675) on Thursday January 21, 2010 @05:27PM (#30851746)

    The company that I worked for commissioned a few studies on algae based biofuels. It turns out that the most efficient way of handling the material was to collect the algae in cakes and burn it in a reactor to make synthesis gas. Synthesis gas is a mixture of CO and Hydrogen. If you add steam, you could then perform a shift reaction to get methane or methanol. The main value of the process was not in producing fuel, or generating electricity. The main thing you could use it for was as a chemical feedstock. Methanol is a good starting point for many plastics.

    (final comment, my spell checker wants to change biofuels to befouled)

  • Because it’s taking the space that is needed for OUR own food, the food for our animals, and the food for other animals.
    It just takes away too much space for what it delivers.

    We should primarily pursue direct sunlight/energy-storage conversions. Electrochemical (batteries), or chemical (fuel), or in another way. But based on the sun. Because that resource is, at least for a looong time, virtually endless. We could use more solar panels than there is space on earth. Simply by putting them on satellites

    • Because that resource is, at least for a looong time, virtually endless.

      Another way to put it:
      Solar energy will literally last until the end of the Earth (and then some).

  • now I can replace my bio-diesel processing plant in my garage with a bunch of algae eating researchers?

  • How about reusing the N and P from the harvested algae? We only want the C-H chains for fuel, so it might be possible to separate the P and N from the harvested algea, and reuse it for algae fertilizer.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Diss Champ (934796)

      To make fertilizer, you want fixed N (that is, N that is connected to carbon). Doing that is a big part of the energy cost in the fertilizer.
      (this doesn't mean you can't come up with an algae good at fixing N; but there's plenty of N around anyway, N2 is most of our atmosphere. Such would be a good starting point for using algae to make fertilizer. My point is what we're really trying to get out of the algae is energy, which making fertilizer also requires).

  • Pond vs Bioreactor (Score:5, Interesting)

    by geek2k5 (882748) on Thursday January 21, 2010 @06:02PM (#30852430)

    The article seems to be focusing on pond based algae biofuels as opposed to the bioreactor based ones that have been getting recent media attention.

    They do mention the bioreactor based algae biofuels, but claim that the photo bioreactors are unlikely to scale efficiently and that unlined ponds are the most reasonable configuration. Of course, the paper they are using for this claim dates back to 1996. They really need to update their economic analysis reference.

  • It's not that the researchers didn't like the idea of algae biofuel, they were just preoccupied with their plan for a helium lifter system to help them get hunny for their rumbly tummies...

  • Salt Water Biofuel (Score:5, Informative)

    by EEPROMS (889169) on Thursday January 21, 2010 @06:26PM (#30852886)
    I notice a few people commenting on using fresh water. Well according to CSIRO (Australia) you can happily use salt water [biofuelsdigest.com] There is even a prototype plant that has been commissioned [abc.net.au] to look at making this more cost effective.
  • Rehash (Score:2, Informative)

    by tngaijin (997389)
    This sounds like the University of Virgina is just regurgitating information published by Michael Briggs of the University of New Hampshire. http://www.energybulletin.net/node/2364 [energybulletin.net] This isn't really a new idea nor a new recommendation. It is sad that it is at least 6 years old and it is being treated as new information though.
  • by rickb928 (945187)

    "essential algae nutrients.... come from petroleum."

    FAIL

    This should be tagged 'dontgetit'

  • Financial pressure would inevitably produce a nice robust algae that produced biofuel that needed minimal or no refinement. In other words, you'd have an organic self-replicating oil producing machine.

    Take this, accidentally let samples escape into ocean. See ocean die. Die. Die. Die.

    All through the miracle of capitalism!

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by scottv67 (731709)
      >Financial pressure would inevitably produce a nice robust algae that produced biofuel that needed minimal or no refinement. In other words, you'd have an organic self-replicating oil producing machine.

      Take this, accidentally let samples escape into ocean. See ocean die. Die. Die. Die.

      I have a simple solution that involves algae-eating lizards, Chinese needle snakes and gorillas.
  • At the UW in Seattle we've had a number of patents (available via UW Tech) for biofuel from switchgrass, as well as biofilm approaches.

    The algae methods have proven less promising, unless you're looking for specific oils that are otherwise derived from petroleum distillation.

  • by Vitriol+Angst (458300) on Thursday January 21, 2010 @07:34PM (#30853972)

    I'd heard a coworker describe an Algae plant his dad was developing round Texas. I uses waste water from some factory, and warm water off of a nuclear plant.

    To conserve space and optimize for algae, it's all in clear vertical tubes -- so light gets to the top layer where the algae grows.

    The water doesn't get used up because it's a closed system -- but it's waste water anyway.

    Air bubbles up into it.

    I would figure it would be pretty carbon neutral, except that you would avoid NEW carbon being introduced from burning fossil fuels. Any ORGANIC process is merely going to be recycling existing carbon for the most part.

    And scientists "poo-pooing" organic energy is kind of an ironic statement -- I'm sure I'm not the first to notice.

  • by joocemann (1273720) on Thursday January 21, 2010 @07:38PM (#30854018)

    ... do NOT come from petroleum.

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