Thursday, July 31, 2008

Harvest the Bounty

Last year, a group of well heeled investors gathered at a private setting to look at the future of energy. I was one of the featured speakers and I gave my vision of a capacitance heavy photonic energy web which is unified with the transportation sector via the large scale adoption of plug in hybrids, electric mass transit, and ultimately, a whole new generation of electrical powered personal transportation devices, be they Segways or back pack scooters, or Dick Tracy levitators.

One of the members of the investment group was very hot on the idea of using algae to produce fuels. I mentioned at the time, that such a biological approach held some promise, and that blue green algae could be cultured in our deserts to produce hydrogen as well as oil.

Now, using our deserts to grow algae is beginning to get the attention of the larger investment community. Here's the story from the Guardian:

'Oil from algae' promises climate friendly fuel
The Guardian
by Alok Jha
Thursday July 31 2008

A liquid fuel made from plants that is chemically identical to crude oil but which does not contribute to climate change when it is burned or, unlike other biofuels, need agricultural land to produce sounds too good to be true. But a company in San Diego claims to have developed exactly that – a sustainable version of oil it calls "green crude".

Sapphire Energy uses single-celled organisms such as algae to produce a chemical mixture from which it is possible to extract fuels for cars or airplanes. When it is burned, the fuel only releases into the air the carbon dioxide absorbed by the algae during its growth, making the whole process carbon neutral.

Major investors are already opening their cheque books: Sapphire has raised a total of $50m (£25m) in venture capital in recent weeks, the highest amount ever for an algae biotech company, including a significant investment from the UK's Wellcome Trust.

Algae are seen by many experts as promising a source of green fuel in the future: ranging from single-celled organisms to large seaweeds, they are the world's most abundant form of plant life and, via photosynthesis, are extremely efficient at using sunlight and carbon dioxide from the air to make organic material such as sugars, proteins and, under the right conditions, oils. clip

Many biotech companies around the world are working on using algae to produce ethanol or biodiesels that could replace traditional transport fuels while avoiding the problems raised by traditional crop-based biofuels, such as displacing food crops. A Sapphire spokesperson said that, with algae, there was no need to use valuable farmland to grow the basic resource. "In fact the process uses non-arable land and non-potable water and delivers 10 to 100 times more energy per acre than cropland biofuels."

Where Sapphire departs from other algae companies is that their aim is not to produce standard biofuels such as ethanol or biodiesel. Instead, they take their inspiration from the way crude oil was created in the first place, millions of years ago.

"Way back when, when the algae were responsible for creating the long-chain hydrocarbons like diesels and heavy oils, the biomass just got buried and compressed and formed crude oil," said Steven Skill, a researcher in how algae can be used to make organic chemicals at Plymouth Marine Laboratory and who is familiar with Sapphire's work. "Algae synthesise these long-chain hydrocarbons within the cells."

Sapphire would not reveal details of the type of algae they are using but Skill thinks it is probably using genetically-modified cyanobacteria, which used to be called blue-green algae. These organisms can grow quickly (some blooms can double their mass in just an hour), operate in high temperatures and some strains can even fix nitrogen from the air to make their own fertilisers. "

The story finishes with this quote:

"Doug Parr, chief scientist at Greenpeace UK, said: "We urgently need to find ways of consigning the fossil fuel economy to history. Algae could offer promise, but to get a real grip on what this technology could offer we need far more information at our fingertips. "

I've seen some of the technology for this process in presentations at my utility and I see real difficulties with their current strategies.

Still, newer, more cost effective strategies probably can be developed.

But on the other hand,

why not just move away from fuel altogether?

We have limited resources and limited time.

And a unified photonic energy web with solid state capacitance

is within our reach.

But first we must focus.

then we must act.

then we harvest the bounty.


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