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Earth Science Technology

Researchers Pooh-Pooh Algae-Based Biofuel 238

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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  • by Nadaka ( 224565 ) on Thursday January 21, 2010 @05:04PM (#30851278)

    Hold on there, I for one do want to be next to a nuclear power plant.

  • Land values (Score:2, Insightful)

    by PetiePooo ( 606423 ) on Thursday January 21, 2010 @05:09PM (#30851380)
    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.
  • by Rhinobird ( 151521 ) on Thursday January 21, 2010 @05:14PM (#30851486) Homepage

    He's no longer the president. Time to move on.

  • by 2obvious4u ( 871996 ) on Thursday January 21, 2010 @05:22PM (#30851638)
    I don't mind living next to nuclear power plants. As a matter of fact I did. In fact it was the primary employer for my town.
  • Re:Hydroelectric (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Rix ( 54095 ) on Thursday January 21, 2010 @05:23PM (#30851664)

    Is that a functioning power plant, or a research device?

  • 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.
  • 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 []. 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.

  • by BigSlowTarget ( 325940 ) on Thursday January 21, 2010 @05:34PM (#30851882) Journal

    Some true some false there. Electrons aren't created during power generation, but they are moved around. They don't come from mass. There does have to be a power plant and saying 'use hydrogen and there won't be any pollution' is definitely missing the issue.

    Algae biofuel = solar power harvesting via photosynthesis. The algae contain more energy once grown, but it might not be worthwhile to do all the extra work to get that energy into a useful form. It is theoretically possible, but so are highly efficient solar cells. Only time will actually tell.

  • 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 Ephemeriis ( 315124 ) on Thursday January 21, 2010 @05:42PM (#30852058)

    I'm not worried about living next to a nuclear power plant. I grew up right near one... Just a mile or two outside of town. Of course I'm not the average American, so I can see your point...

    But the nice thing about power plants, as opposed to internal combustion engines in your cars, is that they're centralized. One big chimney, instead of hundreds or thousands of them. A single chimney to inspect, regulate, filter, clean, whatever.

    Sure, you've got to get the power to your cars... So there's transmission and storage losses to worry about... But I suspect we could cut down on emissions somewhat just by centralizing our power generation, even if we didn't move to a clean fuel source.

    And if we were to standardize on electric cars, we're no longer quite so reliant on fossil fuels. Sure, for now, a lot of our electricity comes from fossil fuels... But electricity is electricity. Your electric car really doesn't care where that electricity comes from. It could be wind power, or solar, or nuclear, or whatever... And your car will work just the same.

  • by homer_ca ( 144738 ) on Thursday January 21, 2010 @05:48PM (#30852162)

    You mean organic? Going vegan would probably let us double the world population considering the huge amount of grain and soy that's fed to animals.

    Oil and natural gas won't last forever. The most optimistic estimates says 30 years before peak production rate, and we hit shortages on a growing planet. What's the plan to feed ourselves after that? Grow bigger and crash harder?

  • by Nadaka ( 224565 ) on Thursday January 21, 2010 @06:06PM (#30852510)

    Did you know that water vapor is many times more effective as a greenhouse gas that CO2? You know what that endangers? Polar Bears, the other silent killer.

    This message was brought to you by Steven Colbert.

  • by Hatta ( 162192 ) on Thursday January 21, 2010 @06:17PM (#30852702) Journal

    Safer than living next to a coal plant, that's for sure.

  • 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.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday January 21, 2010 @06:31PM (#30852968)

    I'm sorry, but that little pipe dream of yours doesn't give the corn people any money, and is thus fatally flawed.

  • by benjamindees ( 441808 ) on Thursday January 21, 2010 @06:44PM (#30853182) Homepage

    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.

  • by hey! ( 33014 ) on Thursday January 21, 2010 @06:47PM (#30853250) Homepage Journal

    Sure, I'm all for it, provided that (a) we don't treat this as a miracle cure for our petroleum dependency (because then we'll be dealing with nuclear fuel dependency) and (b) the costs of decommissioning the plant and handling spent fuel are factored into the construction and operation costs.

  • by Nadaka ( 224565 ) on Thursday January 21, 2010 @07:07PM (#30853550)

    for b: the cost of decommissioning and cleanup have never been counted for when building a coal plant. While those costs have always been considered for nuclear plants. That is one of the reasons coal is perceived as cheaper.

    a: its not a miracle cure, buts more than just a few steps in the right direction. The US has one of the largest supplies of uranium, both mined and in the ground. With the more efficient feeder-breeder reactors, it can meet our needs for hundreds of years and that is if it was our only energy source.

    A strong mix of feeder-breeder nuclear reactors and efficient solar thermal plants, we would be well on our way to complete energy independence with very low pollution for the forseeable future.

  • Re:Population size (Score:3, Insightful)

    by rtb61 ( 674572 ) on Thursday January 21, 2010 @07:20PM (#30853766) Homepage

    Of course rather than burning algae we could eat it. Specially breed and genetically modified algae of the larger varieties, with stem, leaves and storage pods. Algae modified to imitate other food sources, fruit, vegetables, dairy, meat, carbohydrates and sugars, designed to be eaten raw or processed, and all designed with low allergen rates. It can all be done pretty closed cycle apart from nutrient and energy inputs, with the only output being safe, edible and low harm foods, all with the least possible environmental impact assuming the use of reusable "non-combustion" energy sources.

    We are never going to clean up the environment if we continue to believe it is OK to burn enough stuff to support a population of billions.

  • 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 DMUTPeregrine ( 612791 ) on Thursday January 21, 2010 @07:38PM (#30854032) Journal
    Cows eat a lot more food than humans do. Going vegan would actually decrease the amount of land needed, since it's more efficient to just make wheat/corn, instead of making wheat/corn and then (inefficiently) converting it to steak.
  • by Dirty Fool ( 1611901 ) on Thursday January 21, 2010 @08:05PM (#30854336)
    Algae is grown in margianl places too, such as in waste water treament plants/pools./ Also, places like the desert are ideal for algae production because of the generous amounts of sunlight and heat. Water is not a big issue because algae is best grown in closed tanks and the water can be reused.
  • by joocemann ( 1273720 ) on Thursday January 21, 2010 @08:25PM (#30854542)

    Seriously, look up Haber Bosch as well as inorganic fertilizers. They are made by consuming huge amounts of fossil fuels.

    So you're saying this is the *only* way. I disagree.

    Rather I will argue that a symbiotic environment that includes nitrogen fixing microbes may suffice for nitrogen requirements.

    Going a step further, assuming production of the ferts requires ENERGY (not necessarily that of fossil fuels), we could source the energy from renewable resources such as wind, hydro, solar.... And ideally we would just use the elecriticty produced, but since we may also need oil-fuels for a stretch into the future, we could use clean energy to run the chemistry.

    Don't limit your view as to what we have; matter of fact, don't limit your view. Imagine what is possible with the current technologies and sciences we already have. Slashdot is great, but physorg is much more powerful at keeping you up to date on what we are capable of. Hell, anyone with an eye in the pubs knows that solar has been viable for 15 years now and is *still* contested only by perpetuation of false memes.

    I like the Algae-lipid process, but I really like the biocatalyst process better. Two years ago several scientists developed a number of specific catalysts that convert CO2 back into 3-carbon chain pieces. This is a major development in utilizing biological (protein) tools for harnessing energy. And before you ask how they get their energy, note that any temperature above 0 Kelvin is an energetic system. If I recall, the proteins operate just above standard temp (about 25 deg C).

    We are (and have been) ready for renewable energy in the science-area for quite a while now. It's just a matter of getting people to listen and understand --- and to also speak louder than the popular false memetics that old-tech businesses spread to maintain their investment.

  • by davidbofinger ( 703269 ) on Thursday January 21, 2010 @09:55PM (#30855324) Homepage

    If the entire population of the world went vegan, we'd survive for about a decade.

    If we all went vegan, and were very careless about securing a supply of B12, we might survive for only a few years.

  • by tuxidriver ( 1472049 ) on Friday January 22, 2010 @12:16AM (#30856238)

    Unless your long time vegetarian or vegan, then steak truly is just disgusting.

    Vegetarian for 8+ years - never once felt the desire to go back to eating warmed dead rotting animal carcass. The point is that what tastes and looks good is largely dependent on what you consider food.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 22, 2010 @01:14AM (#30856552)

    Because at some point in the next 50 years we may very well need viable non-petroleum sources of liquid fuels, and Algae-based biofuels have the promise to someday meet that need. Even if they don't do it today.

    Or maybe the dirty hippies are doing it just to hurt you. Like they did when they touched you all those years ago.

  • by Gordonjcp ( 186804 ) on Friday January 22, 2010 @03:59AM (#30857280) Homepage

    Going vegan would actually decrease the amount of land needed, since it's more efficient to just make wheat/corn, instead of making wheat/corn and then (inefficiently) converting it to steak.

    You're really not getting this. Cows don't eat corn, they eat grass. This is why in most of the world, cows are fed on grass or grass-like feed (hay, silage etc) with relatively small amounts of things like oats and wheat. Over here, we make a lot of use of "draff" which is spent distillery mash - malt that's been boiled up for the sugar to be used in brewing. The other important thing that you're missing is that a lot of the "undesirable" stuff that your cow food gets turned into is actually cow *shit*. You let this compost for a while (it helps to mix it with straw and burn it, but that smells awful) and yay, free fertiliser *without* petrochemicals. All this stuff about livestock farming "using up all the water" is just nonsense - cows don't magically make mass disappear. They are not nuclear reactors. They drink water - quite a lot of water - and either pee it out (yay, nitrogen compounds, just what nitrate-poor grassland needs) or sweat it out (okay, water vapour is the most significant greenhouse gas, I'll give you that). Either way nothing is lost for the water cycle. Eventually more fresh water just falls from the sky. Oh, here comes some now!

    Even better than cows are sheep, which can eat tough heathery plants and tough grasses that not much else can eat. We hardly have to feed sheep at all over the winter (maybe a little bit of draff mixed with shredded sugar beet - yes, technically something you could feed humans. You get enough sugar already, fatso). The good bit about that is you can make use of farmland that isn't really suitable for arable farming. Go and have a look at pretty much any country that has hills (ie. not rolling cornfields like the middle states of the US), and work out how you're going to plant it.

Machines that have broken down will work perfectly when the repairman arrives.