Maggie A's Meanderings




 Jul 26, 2015

Pond Scum, Civilization's Savior?
The Potential of Algae Biofuel to Alter the World's Economy, Environment and Politics

The first time I ever got excited about an alternative fuel was when I first heard of algae biofuel. Algae, it turns out, can be turned into crude oil. And reading the words "crude oil" is what got me so excited.

You see, I've never seen where any other alternative energy fuel was going to be a workable solution for the world for one simple reason ---------------- there are too many gas/diesel vehicles in the world. Anyone who thought that (in the near term) all of those vehicles were going to be scrapped and everyone would buy a replacement which runs on hydrogen or electricity or anything other than what you can just pull up to a station and fill up the tank with is delusional. Our current world is designed for gas/diesel both in what we drive around in and in the infrastructure to distribute that fuel. Any alternative fuel would have to be invisible to the driver in order to be a worldwide success. With algae biofuel, though the source is different and the processing is different, you the driver don't see any of that. Since algae makes gas and diesel which will go in the same gas pumps we use and the same vehicles we use, it's invisible. We the driver-consumers will just keep on doing the same thing we've been doing. And, let's be blunt, that's how most of us like our environmental progress ---- at no hassle to us.

The other reason that I got so excited about algae is because it's not just fuel, it's crude oil. And even though most people don't realize it, crude oil is a hell of a lot more than the liquid stuff we burn. Crude oil is the basis of modern manufacturing. From the shoes on your feet to the shirt on your're wearing crude oil. It doesn't matter if your shirt happens to be all cotton, the thread it was sewn with is a cotton/poly blend, the buttons are plastic, the design on the t-shirt is from crude oil. That clothing will be washed in crude oil because crude oil makes detergents. The car you drive in doesn't just burn crude oil, about half its parts are made from crude oil. As is the asphalt on the road. The hygiene/beauty products you used this morning, that water bottle you drink out of, whatever device you're reading this on, the paint on the walls around you, that rug/carpet on the floor, the furniture you're sitting on (if it's wood furniture then it has glue, stain, paint) etc. etc. etc..........all from crude oil. Products made from materials derived from crude oil are all around you. Even if we never burned another drop of crude oil, we'd still have to drill for oil. Because without crude oil modern civilization collapses. (In the movie Alien, the ship was towing a giant oil refinery back to Earth. Because in that future world, they didn't need oil for fuel, but the author recognized that they'd still need oil for manufacturing.)

What we can do with crude oil is so varied, so valuable and so essential to modern civilization that an oil company executive once said "burning oil for energy is like burning Picassos for heat."

Though I haven't used it in a while, I have a degree in a branch of chemistry called polymers which is all about what we make from crude oil. I used to work in a manufacturing plant that made crude oil based products. So I'm well aware of the importance of crude oil. I never thought we'd have a renewable substitute for it. The news that algae was exactly that was the most exciting technological advance I've heard of this century. I feel so passionate about the impact it could have on the world, if I thought I had a chance, I'd love to work for an algae biofuel company.

Because algae can be turned into crude oil, that means that algae can be used to replace not just the fuel we burn (whether in engines or heaters), but to replace everything we make from crude oil. Algae is the only biosource that you can say that about. (Ethanol from corn or sugar cane is gasoline additive, not a gasoline replacement. Even in Brazil where ethanol is king, it's still only 27% ethanol in their fuel. You can't pump pure ethanol into your car. And I've never heard that corn or sugar cane produces all the other complex range of hydrocarbons that are in crude oil.) Instead of burning Picassos, 
once we can produce crude oil from algae we grow, burning oil for energy will be more like burning newspapers for heat because we'll just print more papers tomorrow.

That means if we grow and process enough algae, we'd never have to drill for another drop of oil again.

There are more reasons I got so excited when I found out that crude oil can be made from (of all things) algae.................

Algae is incredibly easy to grow. It uses far less resources than growing corn or sugar cane. Algae doesn't even need fresh water. Algae grows in saltwater and polluted water. Given a water source, it can be grown just about anywhere. Here in Florida we could grow it year round. In Alaska, the summer months of long daylight would produce a bumper crop of algae. (That would mean jobs, jobs, jobs all here not in some other country.) The ease of growing algae opens up the possibility that every country in the world could have its own supply of crude oil. The sticking point would be if the poorer countries would be able to build their own plants to process the algae into crude oil and then refine that crude oil into the finished products. (Even today there are countries like Nigeria where much oil is drilled and little of it is refined. Most Nigerian oil is exported to be refined, then the finished products are imported back into Nigeria for domestic use.) But let your mind dwell on the possibility of a world where no country is dependent upon another country for oil. Let your mind dwell on the possibility of a world independent of the Mideast, Russia, Venezuela, etc where power mad dictators and corruption run rampant. Let your mind dwell on the possibility of a world where we here in the U.S. say to problems in the Mideast, "Too bad. So sad..........................But, hey, we wish you luck with that" (the same as we do with other countries that don't have any resources that are of vital interest to us). Because this is the world that algae could make for us.

Algae can also make a cleaner world for us. Because algae removes CO2 from the air as it grows. Now, when you burn the fuel from the algae, that CO2 is released back into the air, but at least it isn't adding additional CO2 the way burning today's fuels do. Carbon removed by growing algae, equal amounts of carbon released by burning algae, that's considered carbon neutral. And in the world that I envision, where we're using algae for manufacturing (and not just fuel), then that CO2 is not released back into the atmosphere........the CO2 will end up locked up in whatever object the algae was turned into. That makes algae not just carbon neutral, but carbon negative ---- permanently removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

As if I weren't already excited enough about the possibilities of algae crude oil, there's a project in a nearby city that makes me even more excited............

Most of the information I've seen on algae biofuel is not using your everyday, run-of-the-mill algae like what grows in your birdbath. They use designer algae. (One, they want higher oil yields. Two, they can patent their special algae.) But in Daphne, Alabama they did a pilot program of using regular algae to turn into biofuel. But they're not just using the normal, run-of-the-mill algae to make biofuel. First, they're using the algae to treat municipal waste water. If you recall, I mentioned earlier that algae grows in polluted water. Algae is one of the natural methods used to clean-up polluted water. On TV, I've seen a water treatment system where they take their waste water, send it to a pond with algae growing in it and the algae purifies it. So in this pilot program in Daphne, the only one of its kind, they're first using the natural algae from the bay to clean-up the water before it's discharged into the bay, then the algae is harvested and is turned into biofuel. By using this kind of system, the algae doesn't even require any extra water; it uses the water that being used anyway. It uses that water and it purifies that water.

Think on that. No irrigation. No added water. The polluted water that we already make and that we have to treat before we can discharge it.........................algae cleaning it naturally, then that algae being turned into everything that we use crude oil for.

"The U. S. Department of Energy estimates that to replace all the petroleum fuel in the country with home-grown algae fuel would require 40,000 square kilometres (15,000 square miles) of land, which is less than one-seventh of the area devoted to growing corn in the United States." About 75% of our petroleum usage is for fuel (50% for gas and 25% for heating oil, diesel fuel and jet fuel). The remaining 25% is for all the other items we manufacture from it. So to replace all the oil we use with algae based oil, it would require an additional 13,000 square kilometers (5,000 square miles). But the thing about algae as opposed to corn or sugar cane or soy beans is that algae is a water based crop, not a land based crop. That pilot project in Daphne, Alabama is growing the algae in the bay, not on land. (The algae is grown in long bags so it doesn't get out of control and cause a massive algae bloom in the bay. Then when they're ready to harvest, they just pull out the algae-filled bags.) Most of the world's population lives near the coast. So those coastal communities who normally discharge their treated waste water into whatever bay, sound, ocean, etc is nearby could use those same bays, sounds, oceans, etc to grow the algae to treat that waste water, then harvest the algae for oil production.

If you weren't excited already, are you getting excited now about the possibilities of algae?

Currently algae isn't an economically viable alternative for crude oil. The technology is too new; it's too expensive. Although a very small amount of fuel is being sold commercially, like anything new, it's got a lot more development prior to mass commercialization. (But it's got some major backers, like
Bill Gates, who can see the possibilities of algae.) But the technology will develop. As sales increase, production will get more efficient and costs will get cheaper and cheaper until the day it will become an economically viable alternative to oil drilled from the ground. And, in the world I envision, one day algae oil will surpass drilled oil and finally supplant it. I'd like to see a day where worldwide we don't drill for a drop of oil because we're growing it all.

But before that day comes, there will be difficult times. (And if our government were run by people with the best interests of the country overall instead of the best interest of their [and their friends'] pockets, it would have been putting landing-on-the-moon level resources into algae biofuel to smooth over those difficulties and make the day of algae biofuel come as soon as possible. Because algae biofuel would have a bigger impact on our economy and national security than a moon landing ever did.) Though the major difficulties are technological ---- cost-efficient oil from algae has a long, long way to go ---- the difficulties with algae biofuel are not just about developing the technology until it's economically viable. We're talking about something that can potentially reshape the economy of the world, and, when anything can have that much impact, there's going to be problems. There's the politics which are controlled in this country by the big corporations, their owners and their money. The current oil companies are either going to want to own this technology or bury it. (If the railroads could have envisioned the effect of cars and air travel, they'd have done something about it. As it was, they did not and the economic juggernaut of the 19th century faltered in the 20th.) Today's oil companies know a threat to their stranglehold of wealth when they see one. So some oil companies are exploring algae themselves, and if they develop an economically viable process, they'll be behind it. If someone else develops it, those same oil companies are going to be less than pleased, especially if they can't buy the process.

And you know if it looks like algae based crude oil will start to become cost efficient, will start to become big, the traditional oil producing countries are going to drop their prices for crude oil to rock bottom in an in a last ditch attempt to undercut the algae market because they're going to be desperate. Drilled oil is the only hold they have on the world and it's the basis of their economies. They're not going to lie down and accept every country (or at least every region) in the world potentially being able to produce their own oil. I hope when that happens, when those countries deliberately try to undercut and destroy an algae industry that actually is critical to our long term national security, that we'll keep the long term goal in mind. That long term goal is energy independence in a practical, environmentally sound way. And unlike the drilled crude oil they'd be trying to sell us, algae crude oil is the only source of crude oil that doesn't require us dealing with highly unstable regions of the world, the only source of crude oil that won't require military intervention and sending our soldiers off to die, the only source of crude oil that can clean our air and our water while providing jobs here and keeping our money here. All with no environmental disasters like the Exxon Valdez or BP's Deepwater Horizon or causing earthquakes like fracking. Achieving that goal to me would be worth temporarily paying a little more at the pump. Because a little more at the pump is still going to be cheaper than the trillions of dollars we've spent and will continue to spend outside the gas pump trying to stabilize an intensely troubled part of the world, not just stabilize but make them "friendly" to our interests all so we can have access to their oil. So I'll take the option of not needing their oil. I'll take the option of growing our own.

Who's going to be all over this technology is the Chinese. China has plenty of corruption. But they have plenty of smarts too. Like they jumped on wind power, they'll recognize the economic boom and the environmental benefits of the oil from algae process. So if any corrupt politician or even a billionaire tries to block this, they'll find their past misdeeds will no longer be overlooked. Instead they'll be arrested, charged, convicted in a show trial and gotten out of the way. In China, you don't stand in the way of something that the government believes is going to be to the benefit of China. And wouldn't it be a disgrace if a technology developed in the United States ended up benefiting China while we continued to import oil?

Now algae based crude oil isn't going to turn this world into a utopia. I expect as we get into large-scale algae farming, we'll discover it comes with its own set of problems, but problems more minor than the problems of our current drilled crude oil world. The inarguable reality is that our modern civilization is based on crude oil. And algae is the only viable alternative I've ever heard to drilling it out of the ground. 

Yet, the irony here is that people think calling someone pond scum is an insult. It turns out that pond scum is wonderful, amazing stuff. It's the stuff that can change the world we live in. By getting us off drilled oil, it may even be the technological salvation of modern civilization.

going from drilled crude oil to crude oil made from algae

Note: As this piece was written to introduce a layperson to the benefits and potential impact of this renewable source of crude oil, in this piece I've deliberately avoided getting into any of the technical aspects of the algae biofuel process. If you'd like to read more about it check out the following:

In addition to all the benefits I've already mentioned about algae, here's another benefit for drought stricken areas like California where sustainable water usage is going to have to mean something more than taking water from far-off rivers or draining aquifers faster than they can be replenished and then letting waste water go down the sewer for disposal. A sustainable water cycle is going to have to include DESALINATION (as the biggest local source of water is the ocean) and RECYCLING...........and, as a renewable energy source and water treatment method, algae can be a vital element of both desalination and recycling:

Algae Model - A Sustainable Cycle of Integrated Fuel and Water Usage for arid coastal communities

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