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A Different Approach To Making Alternative Fuels Practical 90

Posted by samzenpus
from the step-by-step dept.
First time accepted submitter overmod writes "Browsing on a completely unrelated subject, I came across this New York Times description of Solazyme. From the article: '...in 2003, Mr. Wolfson packed up and moved from New York to Palo Alto, Calif., where Mr. Dillon lived. They started a company called Solazyme. In mythical Valley tradition, they worked in Mr. Dillon’s garage, growing algae in test tubes. And they found a small knot of investors attracted by the prospect of compressing a multimillion-year process into a matter of days. Now, a decade later, they have released into the marketplace their very first algae-derived oil produced at a commercial scale. Yet the destination for this oil — pale, odorless and dispensed from a small matte-gold bottle with an eyedropper — is not gas tanks, but the faces of women worried about their aging skin.' What I find interesting is the model they've adopted for short-term growth, which I would not have seen coming from a technology oriented toward biofuel production. Leads me to wonder what other nominally-green technologies that would otherwise be slow if not impossible to scale to workable businesses might have 'niche' applications, with high perceived marginal value, that could be used to boost capital, rather than relying on donations, grants, or nebulous save-the-planet goodwill."
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A Different Approach To Making Alternative Fuels Practical

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  • scale (Score:5, Interesting)

    by enricohale (1411063) on Sunday June 23, 2013 @03:18PM (#44087231)
    i have looked at about half a dozen biofuels investments. the companies never grasp the scale of the fuel industry. you'd think that a rational person would spend 15 minutes looking at the ethanol organized crime syndicate, in which our FedGov is a major co-conspirator, and would conclude that this is madness.
    • Re:scale (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward on Sunday June 23, 2013 @03:37PM (#44087347)

      No kidding. If you take *all* current global production of canola oil, peanut oil, palm oil, and every other vegetable oil you can think of, they amount to less than 10% of daily consumption of petroleum. And we are already using most of those vegetable oils for food, so it's not like we could divert that much to displace petroleum use anyway. Expand the production? Sure, great idea. If you think you can figure out a way to double the arable land used for vegetable oil production so that it doesn't cut into the production for food, then you've still managed to displace less than 10%, and goodness knows what you've done to the landscape to do it.

      Algae has some potential to change things a bit, because theoretically you can grow them in parts of the world that aren't otherwise agriculturally useful, such as desert environments. But you still need plenty of water and vast geographic areas covered with "algae farms" and processing facilities, and it is still in the experimental stages. Doing it at industrial scales is trickier than it seems (e.g., parasites and competing microbes getting into the monospecific algae ponds and killing them off). It's not surprising that these guys are resorting to niche markets first, because that's probably all it will ever be as a fuel.

      • Re:scale (Score:4, Insightful)

        by icebike (68054) on Sunday June 23, 2013 @04:13PM (#44087485)

        Expand the production? Sure, great idea. If you think you can figure out a way to double the arable land used for vegetable oil production so that it doesn't cut into the production for food, then you've still managed to displace less than 10%, and goodness knows what you've done to the landscape to do it.

        In spite of rising population, we use an ever smaller percentage of arable land for food production. We've reduced our use of marginally arable land, and we use an increasingly more stringent definition of what constitutes "arable". You need only drive thru the mid-west, south, and even the north east to see farmland reverting to forest, or prairie.

        Corn or seed-oil is not the most productive crop for bio fuels. Probably switch grass is, because it will grow almost anywhere and is widely adapted to different climates. In the long run, no single crop would be the best solution.

        Using marginally arable land for fuel crops still might not come close to half the need for commercial oil production, at least not in an economically viable way. But that speaks more to the cheapness of oil than to the sustainability of bio-fuels.

      • by Shavano (2541114)
        Interestingly, some of the most attractive areas for production are subtropical deserts bordered by the sea. Plenty of nearby (ocean) water, access to shipping, lots of sun year-round...
        Places like Saudi Arabia, Northern Egypt and Libya, Southern Iraq, the western Sahara, Namibia, parts of South Africa and western Australia.
      • Whenever algae comes up I like to cite a noted expert from the area for 50 years:
        Benneman [google.com]
        Look the main problem with algae is that it is really a new form of agriculture. And everything people tout as an advantage cuts the other way. At best it is carbon neutral. Now tell me how many desert ponds are located by a source of CO2?
        Don't get me wrong, I think Solazyme has nailed it, there are a lot of great things we can do with algae. It can be a food for example; chemical feedstock.
        As a fuel...for the infrastr

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by im_thatoneguy (819432)

        Coincidentally algae already is about 10x as efficient at producing oil as corn. So hypothetically if we converted all of our agro-oil space into algae space, that 10% == 100% of our daily demand. Also you need to take into account that many of our plants for oil production are even less efficient than corn.

      • by phorm (591458)

        I've always liked the concept of the waste-based-biofuels, as it would scale with population.
        * More people = more consumption = more poop
        * More poop = more sewage = more fuel

        If they can ever get it working, it deals with both a fuel issue and a waste issue.

    • by Anonymous Coward
      So what you are really saying is that you have no fucking clue of where to look because you have neither a biological nor an engineering background.
      Obviously, you have not looked at Joules Unlimited. And yes, it is possible to produce all of the diesel fuel that America uses here. And cheaper than pumping it.
    • Ignoring political shenanigans for a moment, scale is less important than production cost per barrel. Of course scale may help in lowering that price per barrel, but if you can produce at competitive prices with a small company, why not?

      There is a German engineering company that develops another biofuel technology, and they target relatively small plant sizes (capacity for a few thousand tons per year): http://www.alphakat.de/temp/company.php [alphakat.de]

      This said, going for a niche market at first, while your productio

  • by etash (1907284) on Sunday June 23, 2013 @03:23PM (#44087251)
    because even if you burn ethanol ( clean burn ) you still need millions of hectares to grow corn, hectares which otherwise would go to food production. Plus, It's a bad sort of energy conversion: instead of using solar panels, you use corn to harness the energy of the sun.

    Having said that, it seems that what this company does is worse; it produces some sort of "oil" which i highly doubt would burn a clean fashion like ethanol or hydrogen.
    • by ColdWetDog (752185) on Sunday June 23, 2013 @03:40PM (#44087361) Homepage

      If you looked at TFA, you would notice that what the company has is a way of tailoring long chain hydrocarbon manufacturing through algae production. It can be longer chains like cooking oils, it can be shorter chains like fuel oil. The tech is interesting is that they can actually manipulate the algae well enough to change the final product without resorting to high pressure / high temperature methods like seen in an oil refinery.

      What they can't do yet is produce the products in oil refinery-like quantities. That's something they need to do in order to sell it as a fuel, but they've figured out there is potentially a market in smaller quantities of different oils.

      Whether or not that happens commercially remains to be seen, but it's a different play on building up to the next Exxon.

      I don't think they will ever get there, but who knows?

      • by etash (1907284)
        I did (vertically) read the article. Yes they can produce different kind of "oils" and that's exactly the problem: it's OIL. no kind of oil burns in a clean fashon. you need ethanol or hydrogen for that.
        • by wbr1 (2538558) on Sunday June 23, 2013 @05:19PM (#44087771)
          ethanol does not burn clean. It is carbon neutral in that the carbon released was adsorbed by the plant when growing (not counting inefficiencies in transport, refining, etc). Any -living- source of fuel (IE bio-fuel) is carbon neutral in this fashion. Fossil fuels are not because the carbon released in their use is carbon that was stored by organic matter of ginormous geological time-frames, in essence releasing -more- carbon than the earth currently adsorbs from the atmosphere.

          So, a pound of carbon released from burning regular gas, oil, coal etc, is a pound of carbon from who knows how many billions of years ago, it was trapped. A pound of carbon released from any bio fuel is a pound (mostly, lets say 75% of a pound), that was adsorbed very recently from the atmosphere by whatever biological process made the fuel, corn, switchgrass, sugar cane, my after burrito night methane fest.
          Hydrogen is clean in that it release no carbon when making energy, but it costs energy to make the hydrogen. If that energy comes from fossil fuels, there is still a net carbon increase, even if there is less due to hydrogen production being more efficient than an internal combustion engine.

      • by pepty (1976012)
        I'm not sure about their cosmetics strategy. The people most likely to be interested in "green" cosmetics are the ones most likely to be put off by genetically modified sources.
        • by kwbauer (1677400)

          Of course, the ones who most want to be green are too Luddite-like to actually reach their professed goal.

          Maybe being green isn't really their goal after all.

    • by alexander_686 (957440) on Sunday June 23, 2013 @03:44PM (#44087369)

      Maybe, but not inherently so.

      Brazil, if I understand correctly, makes ethanol profitably for 2 reasons. First, equatorial cane makes a better feedstock then corn. Second, when the price of oil cratered Brazil did not yank the subsides from ethanol. This allowed long term research, development, and capital project to go forward during the slump. Normally I am against subsides but this might be the exception that proves the rule.

      I have seen interesting R&D plus novel ethanol plants that could make the whole thing viable, even factoring in food displacement.

      • by icebike (68054)

        Well if Brazil is still subsidizing it (I don't know that they are), then ethanol is still a net failure.

        • It currently competes with oil, even after you pick apart the affects of Brazil’s agriculture policy.

          IIRC the effect kicks in around $60 to $80 a barrel. These have only played a factor 3 times. The first was when the industry was getting off the ground in the 1970s. The other 2 times were short periods (3 to 5 years) when oil prices collapsed. If it were not for the subsides the infrastructure that supports ethanol.

          • by alexander_686 (957440) on Sunday June 23, 2013 @04:37PM (#44087603)

            I wish Slashdot had a edit feature.

            To clarify, the government subsides kick in when crude oil falls below the $60 to $80 dollar range.

          • by Anonymous Coward

            If it *WASN'T* profitable, would Big Oil be buying up all the Ethanol Farms and Refineries down in Brazil in order to export said ethanol elsewhere in the world?

            Slashdot had a piece on this a few years back. It's now being exported for use in fuel mixes elsewhere in the world, and the particular story it seems to me involved BP doing the purchasing.

            • by icebike (68054)

              If it *WASN'T* profitable, would Big Oil be buying up all the Ethanol Farms and Refineries down in Brazil

              As long as its subsidized with a government supported floor price, how could they lose in the long run?

              • Well, for 3 reasons.

                First, how much of a subsidy is the “Floor” worth? In America, where the floor is above the price of oil, quite a bit. In Brazil, where it is below the current price of oil, not as much.

                Second, the subsidy is slanted against large efficient corporate producers and slanted towards small, inefficient co-ops. While it is a political sop, less so for the corporations.

                Third, how long would such a subsidy last? If algae oil sold for $40 a barrel, how many years and how many dollars

                • by icebike (68054)

                  Third, how long would such a subsidy last? If algae oil sold for $40 a barrel, how many years and how many dollars would the government spend?

                  Given past track records, just about forever.

                  Especially if any part of it slips into the Department of Agriculture.
                  Their subsidies never die. [ewg.org]

            • by Tokolosh (1256448)

              Renewable Fuel Standard 2 FORCES the gasoline distributors to blend all the bio-ethanol produced, up to 10%. As a result of subsides, ethanol production has surged, while due to the poor economy, high prices and technology improvements, gasoline consumption has decreased.

              The situation has been reached where there is ethanol in excess of the 10% blend limit, which has no economic use. The limit exists for technical reasons inherent to the design of most cars. So the ethanol producers are resorting to thei

        • by jandrese (485)
          The Government subsidizes traditional oil as well, so I don't see why the ethanol subsidies should be seen as a market failure. Hell, we have entire wars to basically benefit a few big oil companies, I don't see what some very reasonable price floors on barrels of ethanol should be seen so negatively.
    • by SJHillman (1966756) on Sunday June 23, 2013 @03:49PM (#44087371)

      However, it's using algae to produce it rather than corn. Even if it doesn't burn as cleanly as ethanol, it has a number of potential advantages:

      1) Algae doesn't require chemical fertilizers, pesticides, etc to the scale that corn does. All of those chemicals have a HUGE environmental impact, comparable with burning fossil fuels
      2) Algae has the potential to be much more space efficient... much higher output per acre, so fuel/transport costs to harvest it is significantly lower
      3) Algae is much easier to produce closer to where the fuel will be consumers, such as near cities (related to #2), again lowering transport costs
      4) Algae can be produced in places that are otherwise undesirable and doesn't compete with food crops, such as deserts, oceans, salt flats, etc. Many of these undesirable locations might still be close to where it's needed, so this doesn't necessarily contradict the transport costs mentioned above.
      5) Less risk of a typo accidentally telling people that you need to go pick up porn for you mother.

      We might not be to that point yet, but we might have been past it by now if we put the same money into it that goes into corn.

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by icebike (68054)

        1) Algae doesn't require chemical fertilizers, pesticides, etc to the scale that corn does.

        So something from nothing then?

        Algae still requires a food source, and you still have to protect your crop, if not from grass hoppers, then from other forms of pests, perhaps other algae.

        2) Algae has the potential to be much more space efficient... much higher output per acre,

        I see not a shred of evidence for this. Unless you go vertical and introduce artificial sunlight at great expense, which you could also do with corn.

        We still have very little understanding of what the byproducts of massive algae production might be. We see green, and immediately think benign. But that might be more magica

        • I think you missed the second half of that first sentence. "to the scale that corn does". Which generally means "less"

          Corn requires space between rows and between plants, algae can be packed in tighter. Also, algae would be significantly easier to scale vertically in layers compared to corn which often grows six to ten feet tall.

          Other advantages of algae over traditional crops (IE: corn) that a quick Google provides:
          1) More tolerant of lower water quality or salt water (which we have in HUGE abundance but m

        • by im_thatoneguy (819432) on Sunday June 23, 2013 @09:43PM (#44088963)

          Now you're just being difficult for the sake of being difficult.

          It's not "something from nothing". Oil is pretty just just Hydrogen and Carbon + Energy. The algae in this instance takes in Air (CO2), Water (H2O) and Energy (Sunlight). Take a look at a corn plant though. How much of that corn plant is oil? A teeny tiny portion. It needs leaves and a stalk and then produces a tiny little fruit by comparison a couple times a year. Compare that to Algae which is a continuous growth process and is genetically engineered to invest almost all of its energy into producing oil and you can exponentially increase your yield every year.

          We've already improved the yield of corn by about 600% over the last 50 years. But we're still constrained by the biology of growing something and then extracting oil from it through an incredibly indirect route. Remove the intermediary steps and start with an organism whose sole purpose is oil production and not food and that 600% increase will look like child's play. Algae can quadruple in mass in a single day. Ever seen heads of corn do that?

          Algae already can produce more than 10x the amount of oil per acre than corn.

        • Actually I saw a documentary once about a company (might be this same one) that was doing research and growing algae in vertical, transparent plastic tubes, that sounds space efficient. About the food source, what about organic waste of human populations (food waste, crap, etc)?
        • by delt0r (999393)

          Algae still requires a food source..

          I think you missed biology 101 in high school. Plants that are photosynthetic make their own food from sunlight, water and carbon dioxide.

    • by mlts (1038732) *

      I understand going for another market because it is almost impossible to get into alternative energy in the US. In fact, were I a corporate officer, I would have just focused on having it be a facial lotion (anything that isn't related to burning the product), and not mention in public that the algae oil can be used as a fuel, so Big Oil with its elected official pets in tow doesn't pay the company a visit.

      Then from there, work quietly on things like biodiesel and get with fleet makers.

    • by Shavano (2541114)
      Millions of hectares? It would take over 100 million hectares (a million square km) to produce enough ethanol to replace US gasoline with corn-produced ethanol. Or to convert more than the entire farmable areas of the top corn-producing states (Iowa Illinois, Nebraska, Minnesota, Indiana, South Dakota and Kansas) to making corn for ethanol. Kiss those corn-fed steaks and sugary sodas goodbye! We need your food for fuel.
      • by AK Marc (707885)
        If it weren't for the corn subsidies, there wouldn't be corn in sugary drinks or confections. We could survive the loss of 100 million hectares.
        • by Shavano (2541114)
          No, it would still be one of the cheapest sugars to produce. Although where I live, it's easier to raise beets for sugar.
    • They will not be using the raw oil, but converting it to biodiesel [journeytoforever.org] through a process known as transesterification [journeytoforever.org]. Biodiesel burns much cleaner than Petrodiesel.

    • by AK Marc (707885)

      you still need millions of hectares to grow corn, hectares which otherwise would go to food production.

      No, you don't. Algae (some, but not necessarily this one) grows in the ocean. No human crops are currently grown there. So, any move to produce oil from ocean farms would make biofuel without a single hectare of food space used.

      Your lack of imagination isn't a proof against it.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    ...is that you can pretty much sell ANYTHING as a beauty product if you can say it has "unique properties" and not giggle while you do so.

  • by Chewbacon (797801) on Sunday June 23, 2013 @03:49PM (#44087373)
    Maybe it's because I'm sitting on the potty, but did anyone else read: "the feces of women worried about their aging skin?"
  • Where it made alternative fuels practical...
    • The idea is that they may be able to make enough to sell as a cosmetic (at a highly-inflated price) long before they could ramp production up enough to use it as a fuel.
      • isn't that similar to what Tesla is doing for electric cars? Building a niche product at first to fund development of more mainstream products.
  • Yes, indeed, you might speed up the conversion *time* but you're still not going to get any more *energy* than what is provided by sunlight and starter chemicals. Period. End of story. Physics wins. Investors lose, unless the end business is in skin care products, where it might be profitable.

    • by b4upoo (166390)

      Pythons may be the answer. We have too many humans being born. If we feed new born children to pythons they do not waste energy. Pythons sun bathe. They eat and every now and then they mate. Pythons are efficient. We get great looking boots and jackets from python skins. We can feed the meat and guts to hogs. Nice fat hogs produce great amounts of oil and hog poop can be used to make methane. We can also feed out convicts, drug addicts and alcoholics to the hogs in chunks. We can use many of

    • by rroman (2627559)
      That is not necessarily an issue. If you can produce cheap energy somewhere, but can not use it immediately, you can store it via this technology into something useful. The energy doesn't have to be from the sun.
    • by Jeremi (14640)

      Yes, indeed, you might speed up the conversion *time* but you're still not going to get any more *energy* than what is provided by sunlight and starter chemicals.

      Is there some kind of sunlight shortage that I'm unaware of?

      • There's only so much sunlight available for capture that doesn't interfere significantly with either current food production OR local ecologies. Biofuels, while fine for smaller projects simply don't scale up without disastrous consequences. You might run the local farm co-op with them, but not an industrial scale civilization.

        • by Jeremi (14640)

          That's a valid point for land-grown biofuels. Hence the appeal of algae, which can be grown in the ocean... which comprises 70% of the Earth's surface. Algae farms won't compete with human farm production (and if located thoughtfully, won't compete with seafood production either).

      • by cellocgw (617879)

        Is there some kind of sunlight shortage that I'm unaware of?

        Well, not yet,but soon. The Unvarnished Truth Is: remember that post-red-pill bit about how "someone" made things permanently cloudy during the first phase of the Matrix Wars? The machines did that, 'cause what looks like clouds from below is actually a massive solar PV system from above, providing more than enough electricity for the machines to keep running. All that stuff about harvesting human spirit was hokum to throw Morpheus off the track.

    • huh?

      You've described the whole point of every solar energy scheme ever.

      • The issue is quantity. There's only so much area, materials and sunlight available for capture that doesn't interfere significantly with either current food production OR local ecologies. Biofuels, while fine for smaller projects simply don't scale up without disastrous consequences. You might run the local farm co-op with them, but not an industrial scale civilization.

  • Leads me to wonder something else... whether the product is yet another con fake "miracle" for women, so they can get enough money to keep their con fake environmental biofuel dream alive.

  • by NEDHead (1651195) on Sunday June 23, 2013 @04:15PM (#44087501)

    " Leads me to wonder what other nominally-green technologies that would otherwise be slow if not impossible to scale to workable businesses might have 'niche' applications, with high perceived marginal value, that could be used to boost capital, rather than relying on donations, grants, or nebulous save-the-planet goodwill.""

    The answer is yes, there are many. I am willing to consult on this subject, at my usual substantial but eminently reasonable rates.

    • by necro81 (917438)
      The example that comes to my mind is Tesla. The electrification of transportation is a green technology. It won't save the world, but it'll be a damn sight better than the internal combustion engine and its associated petroleum infrastructure. Tesla didn't start out trying to make a million electric vehicles per year: their tech wasn't ready for that scale, their production ability definitely wasn't ready, and the consumers weren't. So, instead, they aimed at a niche, high-margin place to develop and pr
  • Ahh yes... if you have trouble selling something for it's intended purpose for an economic price, put it in a bottle and say it makes you look younger. This idea isn't new. Maybe we should call the algae-oil salesmen now....
    • by Quirkz (1206400)

      If you want to be a little less cynical, you could call this the Tesla Motors method. Start with something high-end and let that subsidize your way to mass production.

  • by K. S. Kyosuke (729550) on Sunday June 23, 2013 @05:27PM (#44087809)

    Yet the destination for this oil — pale, odorless and dispensed from a small matte-gold bottle with an eyedropper — is not gas tanks, but the faces of women worried about their aging skin.

    How is that supposed to be a road to "practical alternative fuels", unless you first use the oil on the skin of aging women...and then shove them into a furnace? That's the most fuely scenario that would make sense. At least around Salem, that is.

  • use as a fuel additive finds its way into vodka bottles.

  • Leads me to wonder what other nominally-green technologies that would otherwise be slow if not impossible to scale to workable businesses might have 'niche' applications, with high perceived marginal value, that could be used to boost capital,

    The day they figure out how to make cars run on boner pills will be the day oil subsidies stop and fucking subsidies start!

  • The problem is not all in the extraction, the problem is in the growth. I had a buddy that worked on a algae oil business project, and they found that it is not economical because of the costs in building\maintaining the ponds and water ect. They found it was barely economical if you could find an existing pond, like cooling ponds found in many industries. Like all bio tech stuff, even if we could make it economical, we would have to destroy other ecologies (and farmland) to make room for biofuels and conve

  • What more do you need?
  • Solar panels started as very expensive niche products about 50 years ago with satellite power, then for calculators, then for no-wire yard lights, then for off-grid homes and things like supplementing generator power for portable traffic lights for road construction. Now solar panels have dropped so far in price they are going mainstream with "grid parity" in various places including India (and maybe in a few years almost everywhere including the northern USA).

    In the 1980s, people were talking about exactly this sort of progression for solar panels, and it has played out pretty much as outlined.

    So, yes, this strategy can make a lot of sense for other things like biofuels, especially in a society that otherwise has become very risk adverse or incapable of making long-term investments. But even in a society willing to take risks, an incremental path can still make a lot of sense.

    With renewables, the first most cost effective step was almost always to become more energy efficient (like insulating a home and replacing low-effeciency appliances). Then, renewables have an easier time handling the remaining load, and the money saved by the energy efficiency improvements could be used to fund that conversion. So, another incremental approach.

    Still, what the solar industry wanted more than anything was a "level playing field" where coal, oil, natural gas, and nuclear would pay their true costs up front. Those "externality" costs include pollution, health damage, defending long supply lines militarily, meltdown risk, and even the politically corrosive effect of large centralized power systems on a democracy. If those costs had to be paid up front for those other technologies, renewables (as well as energy conservation like passive solar homes) would have probably been cost effective since the 1970s. See the book "Brittle Power" and similar writings by the Lovins for more on that:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brittle_Power [wikipedia.org]

    Unfortunately, the renewable industry lost hope for that in the 1980s Reagan years especially, with the push there to allow companies to privatize gains but socialize costs. So, the renewable industry was forced to turn to this incremental strategy even though they should have won in a fair market decades ago.

  • Generally, the problem is a lack of appreciation by the developers of the scale needed.

    It seems to be that it's only such 'boutique' oil uses that can support the sort of futzy little edgy-concept developments and their costs. To become at all interesting to the petro-industry, you're talking a scale-up of perhaps a half-dozen orders of magnitude (they're probably not even interested in LOOKING at your idea until you're credibly within at least three orders of magnitude of their operations).

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