Wired News has a piece on a new form of biodiesel refinery - a smaller and far more efficient device than previously available.
The device -- about the size of a credit card -- pumps vegetable oil and alcohol through tiny parallel channels, each smaller than a human hair, to convert the oil into biodiesel almost instantly.This is potentially very good news. Algae-based biodiesel promises much higher yields, while not competing for farmland with food production. It does require a regular supply of CO2 that is much higher than atmospheric concentrations, but this can be secured a number of ways - burning biomass, for example. Aside from that, the algae only need moderate sunlight and water - with certain breeds, saltwater will do.
By comparison, it takes more than a day to produce biodiesel with current technology.
The microreactor under development by the university and the Oregon Nanoscience and Microtechnologies Institute eliminates the mixing, the standing time and maybe even the need for a catalyst.
According to a survey by the DOE (PDF):
The high cost of algae production remains an obstacle. [...] The factors that most influence cost are biological, and not engineering-related... Even with aggressive assumptions about biological productivity, we project costs for biodiesel which are two times higher than current petroleum diesel fuel costs.That study was published in July, 1998. At the end of July, 1998, the retail price of diesel (excluding taxes) was $0.58/gallon. (Warning - Excel spreadsheet.) With taxes, it was $1.02. So double that price would be somewhere between $1.16-2.02/gallon.
The average US price of petrodiesel last week, after taxes, was $2.77/gallon. (Parenthetical: In eight years, the cost of diesel fuel has almost quintupled. Think about that for a moment.) And it's still headed up.
With new, efficient car designs and diesel-hybrid trucks, there's an obvious potential here - a renewable supply of biodiesel combined with much more efficient designs could potentially provide a much lower cost-per-mile than gasoline or diesel currently do. Just for some nerd fun, take the example of the VW Golf, which gets 46 MPG of diesel (highway.) At $3.00/gallon (a guess at near-term algae biodiesel prices) the cost per mile is about $0.07. If we can push that to 100mpg in a hybrid design, the cost goes down to $0.03. And if we get it to 157 mpg like one carmakers has (without a hybrid drivetrain) the price falls to $0.02 per mile, roughly what the Golf cost when diesel was $0.92/gallon.
I maintain, however, that the objective should be to replace liquid fuels to the extent possible with electric drivetrains. That means plug-in hybrids, as usual.