New Biofuel Options

There were two stories in The Times of London this week about organisms that secrete a chemical almost identical to crude oil. As is to be expected, these are not exactly going to drop the price of oil tomorrow. They are more promising than diverting food supplies to our gas tanks, and lack some of the incompatibles that ethanol has with gasoline engines but unless technology makes massive leaps forward, they still won’t do the job.

One of these stories is about modified E. Coli bacteria that can be used to metabolize agricultural waste into a crude oil substitute that could then be refined and consumed normally. The other is about a type of algae plant that secretes a substance similar to crude oil. Both of these are tremendously exciting. After all, part of the charm of biofuels such as ethanol is that they are renewable and, since they come from plants, help to deplete some of the CO2 that their usage puts into the atmosphere.

Ethanol, however, has some obvious flaws most notably that it is often produced from food crops, that it absorbs water from the air, corroding vital engine parts, and that in some cases it produces a very low or even negative energy returns. First of all, these new innovations do not arise directly from food, so they are an improvement, but algae will likely utilize fertilizer too, so large scale algae farming could still raise food costs. Obviously, this secreted oil is preferable to plain old ethanol in terms of water absorption. The question is whether or not these will ever be viable energy sources, because they clearly are not there yet. There is no relevant cost information provided, although LS9, the company developing the oil-producing bacteria did indulge us with a totally irrelevant, pie-in-the-sky estimate:

“…if LS9 used Brazilian sugar cane as its feedstock, its fuel would probably cost about $50 a barrel.”

At this point, it may be helpful to recall that the whole advantage of LS9’s technology, the feature that they were touting, is that they do not use food crops, they just use left over plant matter. The difficult part all along has been metabolizing cellulose, cost estimates based on simple sugars are a little irrelevant. LS9 even claims that the product would be “carbon negative”, a nonsensical suggestion considering they plan to use agricultural waste and not new crops. The article goes on to explain how scalable the technology is:

“However, to substitute America’s weekly oil consumption of 143 million barrels, you would need a facility that covered about 205 square miles, an area roughly the size of Chicago.

“That is the main problem: although LS9 can produce its bug fuel in laboratory beakers, it has no idea whether it will be able produce the same results on a nationwide or even global scale.”

That’s right, the oil-secreting E. coli would take a factory the size of Chicago just to replace current United States oil consumption. Unfortunately, the picture is even worse for the “oil-sweating” algae. Leo Lewis writes, “to meet Japan’s current oil needs would require an algae-filled paddyfield the size of Yorkshire”. It seems that algae oil is many technological leaps away from being practical, provided that it could ever be practical:

“Although field tests have proved that there is little technical difficulty in breeding or harvesting the algae, the sums do not add up. A prospective algae-breeding oil concern would either have to invest billions of dollars in expensive breeder tanks – at a cost of around three times what the oil would sell for on the international market over the lifetime of the tanks – or find an enormous expanse of well-irrigated land in a country where labour can be bought very cheaply.”

It seems that for the time being, both of these technologies are simply wishful thinking. It is possible that some day technology will be sophisticated enough to make them work, but it is a risky assumption. One simply cannot say for sure whether technology growth will continue to accelerate ad infinitum or not. There is one lesson to be had, and that is that even these faint hopes are better than corn ethanol:

” But – in laboratory conditions at least – the powers of Botryococcus braunii are astonishing. A field of corn, when converted into biofuel ethanol, may produce about 0.2 tonnes of oil equivalent per hectare. Rapeseed may generate around 1.2 tonnes. Micro algae can theoretically produce between 50 and 140 tonnes using the same plot of land.”

In all likelihood, we will never reap the benefits of algae oil or E. Coli petroleum, but anything is more promising than corn ethanol, or to an extent any ethanol derived from food. Either way, it is important that we not interpret these  stories about  still underdeveloped ideas as miracle cures that are only a couple of years  from reality.

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7 Responses

  1. Much like current ethanol, these options are probably going to make up some portion of our energy mix in the coming future with all the of the capital now going into renewable energies. Any of the “carbon negative” claims don’t take into account distribution and refining, so you always have to look a little closer to those very important factors.

  2. Dear sir,

    I am working on production of biodiesel from algae. I am from Rajkot, Gujarat, India.

    kindly suggest me, which algae is most suitable for biodiesel production. I want to purchase the algal culture (500 ml) intially for subculture and then go for photobioreactor and open pond technology. please guide me in right direction, send me also your address and contact number, so that I can talk with you and then go for culture.

    Thanking you,

    Rupesh Agrawal,

    Cell: +91-9904924099

  3. Ah Rob, you stole my article! My fault for not finishing up “There Will Be ‘Bugs’?”

    The article itself about LS9 is really awful. The reporter keeps referring to E coli as a “bug,” and even suggests that the crude oil-like stuff that comes out of the GM E coli could be poured right into a Lexus’s gas tank.

  4. I’m also not sure that the idea that you’d need a factory the size of Chicago (205 square miles) to meet America’s oil needs is that unreasonable. Compare with the amount of square mileage of solar power plants, wind farms, etc. you’d need to meet American consumption. I’ll also bet that you need somewhere close to 200 square mileage of drilling operations to get the oil that the U.S. uses already anyhow.

    I don’t see how the fact that the oil-like stuff comes from food waste refutes the possibility that LS9’s project is “carbon-negative.” I’m skeptical as well, but if the plant took in more CO2 from the atmosphere than the fuel obtained from it puts out when it’s combusted, why does it matter if the plant is directly turned into fuel or if the food waste is used? I’d also like to see some sources on how distribution and refining aren’t taken into their “carbon negative” claim.

    Admittedly, private research is hard to criticize well and it’s easy to just be “skeptical” of it, because it’s not as publicly accessible as academic research.

  5. You’re probably right that I was excessively hard on LS9’s technology. Really my skepticism was kind of driven by frustration at the lack of any information, positive or negative about expected cost. My guess is that the current cost (not using sugar cane as they do in the article) is probably very high, and they are counting on it being much lower once they industrialize their process.

    The “bug” thing is a very strange choice on the part of Chris Ayres. I don’t know if it was meant to dumb the article down or what, but the phrasing conjures up images of dung beetles and not single-celled organisms.

    Sorry that I took your article, I didn’t even notice until after it had been published for a while.

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