Big Oil… Big Solar… Big Algae?

Researchers J. Emmett Duffy and Elizabeth Canuel look over the algae flowway on the VIMS Gloucester Point campus. Photo credit: VIMS.

President Obama may rue the day when he touted algae-based biofuels as a long-term solution for rising energy costs. Conservatives from Newt Gingrich to Charles Krauthammer have subjected the idea to endless mockery. Google “Obama algae for fuel” and you’ll hit a treasure trove of ridicule and satire. Lucky thing for Obama that the late night comedians are in his pocket, or we’d see endless japes about the devolution of green fuels into green slime.

There are legitimate reasons to be skeptical. According to a Gingrich newsletter, fuel from algae costs anywhere from $140 to $900 per barrel to produce today. On the other hand, it was only a few years ago that oil was selling for $140 per barrel. Furthermore, research into algae production and conversion into useful forms of energy is a recent phenomenon. Scientists are still wrapping their arms around the challenge. While I vociferously oppose government picking technology winners and losers for commercialization — witness Solyndra and the other solar-technology debacles — I do believe it is a legitimate role of government to sponsor basic R&D.

It happens that one of the more interesting experiments in algae R&D is taking place at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. VIMS differs from other research initiatives by focusing on wild strains of algae that grow naturally in the Chesapeake Bay.  One of Virginia’s biggest environmental problems is the algae blooms that sink, decompose, soak up oxygen and kill the fish. Figuring out a way to harvest the algae blooms early in their life cycle could save the lives of a lot of underwater critters.

While other algae growers have to fertilize their crop, Chesapeake Bay algae gets its  fertilizer — phosphorous and nitrogen from farms and household yards upstream — for free. Researchers suggest harvesting algae at points along the Bay where phosphorous and nitrogen inputs are concentrated, according to a 2010 VIMS article. “We want it to be like a factory,” said William Cooke, a William and Mary physics professor.

“I see the nutrient-reduction and the fuel production as going hand in hand,” said J. Emmett Duffy, a VIMS marine science professor. “We like to think of it as turning pollution into fuel.

Will harvesting algae blooms become an economically viable activity? I have no idea. But I will say this. The Chesapeake Algae Project, of which VIMS is a part, was supported by a $3 million grant from Norwegian oil company Statoil. Meanwhile, Exxon Mobil has invested $600 million into algae-based biofuels in partnership with Craig Venter, the guy who first cracked the human genome. I have a lot more faith in the likes of Exxon, Statoil and Venter to pick the best technologies than I do in the federal government. If nothing else, capitalists aren’t swayed by campaign donations. But the idea of algae-based fuels may not be as hare-brained as Obama’s critics think.

– JAB

5 Responses to Big Oil… Big Solar… Big Algae?

  1. DOD thinks it’s worth looking into:

    Air Force Scientists Test, Develop Bio Jet Fuels
    http://www.defense.gov/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=58528

    but what you miss -from the party that supported ethanol – is the almost unanimous and widespread political view that mocks anything that is not fossil fuels.

    It’s almost a Luddite vision. I can imagine the folks who used Whale Oil way back when …poo pooing other sources of lamp oil.

    Sometimes these days, it’s hard to separate what the GOP really believes or not and their tendency to take loud opposing positions to WHATEVER Obama supports.

    Whether it’s energy, or stimulus, or tarp, or bank regulation or contraceptives, health care, Medicare – it’s the same story – over and over – which is to twist and turn that issue into yet another wedge issue in hopes of pandering more to their base and peeling off more of the independents.

    You can’t have a healthy governance when one side takes a position to oppose everything the opposing party President is for – even things that Republican Presidents before him were for.

    At some point, Jim Bacon will have to make a break with the GOP.

    The GOP has left him and moved far, far right and all we’re waiting for now is Bacon’s Mea Culpa.

  2. Whatever small shreds of credibility Newt Gingrich once possessed have been lost in this primary. There is no reason to listen to him. The only good question is what Mitt Romney thinks. Romney has become one of the very few sane voices in the national Republican Party. Much like McDonnell in Virginia – the Republicans’ best is better than the Democrats’ best. However, the average Republican falls far short of the Democratic average, especially at the state level in Virginia where it’s McDonnell and not much else behind him. The only real wild card at the state level in Virginia is Bill Bolling. I suspect that he is being under-estimated. I also suspect he will be a huge disappointment to the hard core core conservatives in Virginia’s Republican Party. I think Bolling is a lot more of centrist than people think.

  3. I’ve been watching an algae oil producer for a while now. The Navy bought a bunch of their jet fuel, and is also testing ship fuel through Maersk. Their idea is a bit different from the natural algae. They custom design their product.

  4. It’s likely to be a while before we find reasonable non-fossil fuels and we ought to start from the realization that in terms of energy density – fossil fuels will always rule.

    Fossil Fuels are ..ounce for ounce – the most energy dense materials on earth.

    anything else that is “young” or not something compressed under tremendous pressure for millions of years – is just not going to be as energy dense.

    Used to be – we talked about peak oil and when we would start to run out of fossil fuels.

    That idea has proven to be not exactly a sure thing as we are finding out that the earth has many, many more reserves than previously thought.

    Now the problem is .. can we really afford to continue to burn fossil fuels?

    We’ve been told that wind/solar are not useful because they are not “on demand” energy.

    Algae production alter that paradigm.

    It’s been speculated that even wind/solar could become like algae if instead of using it when it is generated, we, instead, convert it to hydrogen (or perhaps algae), when then can be used later, when needed, to power gas-type turbines on a dispatch basis.

    what I’m sure of is that technology will proceed and evolve and if the same thing happens to energy that happened to the internet or cell phones or GPS units – we may have a wild future ahead of us when fossil fuels become stranded investments – suddenly obsoleted by a game-changer energy breakthrough – at which point, I’m also convinced..the GOP will blather on about how the private sector made it happen.. and all that fire and brimstone about Solyndra will subside into “we told you it would work” or some other incredible hypocritical historical revision.

  5. Bunch of algae slimeballs sucking up federal grant dollars.

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