Week of June 1

Oil shale…algae…zero emissions gas guzzlers

Obviously, interest in alternative fuels has risen in parallel with the ominous cresting of petroleum prices, and we see evidence of such interest everywhere in the press. Where before coverage was confined to specialized journals, now it is the preoccupation of the mainstream press, most of whose members, unfortunately, are sadly misinformed, and, in some cases, invincibly ignorant.

Most of the more visible activities of late involve biofuels rather than unconventional fossil fuels, and I was rather startled to see Petrobras, the Brazilian state oil company, announce an investigation into the feasibility of oil shale production within the state of Utah, this in conjunction with Mitsui and Oil Shale Exploration Company, a small American firm.

Petrobras has been operating a small commercial oil shale retorting facility in Brazil for decades, one of the few extant anywhere in the world, and the company has about as much relevant experience as anyone. Petrobras developed in its own retort, the Petrosix, incorporating numerous features from American experimental designs of the sixties and seventies in a sort of best of breed approach, and the company reports reasonably good economics for its process. Recently Petrobras has been attempting to sell its technology in Africa, and the assault on the potentially huge American market represents a strengthened commitment to the resource. Utah, it should be noted, has quite a bit of oil shale on private lands that could be developed without the say so of the Federal Bureau of Land Management which is refusing to release the much larger Mahogany deposits in California for commercial development. Should Petrobras succeed in its efforts to demonstrate feasibility, we might expect a revival of interest in oil shale, especially if conventional oil prices remain elevated.

Algae, Macro and Micro

Anyone who follows the energy press or even the general scientific press knows that an algae frenzy has begun. Boeing is the latest giant corporation to announce a commercialization project, following earlier announcements by Shell, General Atomic, Honeywell, and Chevron as well as more than two hundred startups.

We are in the process of compiling a comprehensive report on algae that will examine the various strains under consideration as well as the many techniques proposed for cultivating and processing these plants to produce liquid fuels. We hope to have the study completed within a couple of months.

Pending further research, I cannot write definitively on the subject. The failure of prior commercialization efforts must give one pause, but the endorsement of major corporations and financial institutions has to be considered encouraging. I cannot, however, avoid thinking back upon the inflated claims and expectations with respect to hydrogen fuel and ethanol, both of which sparked similar or even greater enthusiasm among investors. I fear that a similar hype cycle may be imminent here.

Whatever the ultimate value of this class of feedstocks, algae's current appeal is undeniable. A San Diego based startup named Sapphire Energy recently received a $50 million round of initial funding, by far the largest venture play ever to occur in the entire alternative energy space and entirely comparable to some of the larger deals that occurred in the telecom space prior to 2000.

Sapphire is claiming to be able to produce "green gasoline" directly from an algal feedstock, a remarkable accomplishment if it were true. In contrast, most algal biofuel manufacturers are focusing on the production of biodiesel, inasmuch as many species of algae have very high lipid contents, lipids being the principal constituent of biodiesel. A light hydrocarbon resembling gasoline would of course find a much larger market but would unquestionably involve a more complex and quite possibly energy intensive manufacturing process.

Incidentally, a number of startups not associated with the algae boom are now claiming to make such bio-based gasoline, and in fact considerable prior art is mentioned in the scientific literature. Thus far, however, the economics of producing gasoline analogs from biomass have been most unfavorable. It is not a question of can it be done, it is question of can it be done inexpensively.

Another company claiming to be able to produce gasoline from a fast growing water plant, though not algae, is Terrabon which has licensed the MixAlco process mentioned elsewhere on this Website. The process, which was pioneered in Australia and France in the nineteen sixties and improved upon by Texas A&M professor, Mark Holtzapple, uses a specialized form of anaerobic digester and a mixture of lime and biomass to produce a succession of progressively heavier alcohols. I've spoken with Holtzapple numerous times and have perused various technical papers on the subject, and I'll have to say that process certainly looks promising. Holtzapple himself favors an invasive acquatic pest plant known as water hyacinth which is second only to algae in its growth rate, and which already flourishes in many parts of the American South.

Holtzapple told me recently that he and his colleagues had embellished the process to produce light hydrocarbons rather than alcohols, and at cost of well under $2 per gallon. The company is proceeding slowly, however, and is only at the pilot stage. Full commercialization would presumably not occur before the next decade.

I've also been receiving bulletins regarding the cultivation of macro-algae (seaweed) for liquid biofuels. Already in Japan and Costa Rica seaweed is being harvested for fuel, but the norm today is simply to dry the plant and burn the solid biomass as a low heating value wood substitute. Producing liquid fuels would require pyrolysis, gasification, direct liquefaction, thermal pyrolysis, anaerobic digestion, or any of the other extant methods for obtaining high heating value fluids. Marine macro-algae produce little in the way of lipids so biodiesel production would not be an option.

On the surface, marine algal cultivation appears promising, perhaps more promising than the attempts at raising terrestrial micro-algae in bioreactors and open ponds that are garnering all of the attention today. But persuasive evidence is still lacking at present.

Origo Industries, Closing the Loop on Tailpipe Emissions

A UK based company calling itself Origo Industries claims to have developed a method for literally closing the loop on tailpipe emissions while simultaneously fueling the vehicle for pennies. The system captures CO2 from the vehicle's exhaust—never mind how because they haven't disclosed the technology—and the gas is subsequently fed to a home algae bioreactor which then spits out fuel which is burned in the vehicle to produce CO2 and so on indefinitely.

I've heard of other tailpipe carbon capture schemes, some emanating from academic research institutes of some renown, and I've never quite known what to make of them. Carbon capture from smokestack effluents is rather difficult. Nobody has demonstrated a cost effective technique for doing so in industrial settings though there are technology startups making such claims, and in a car you'd have a real storage problem due to the fact that consumption of each gallon of gasoline results in a couple of pounds CO2. You'd obviously have to compress the CO2 which requires energy and takes up space. It seems infeasible to me, but I'm willing to reserve judgment pending open trials.