Thursday, April 20, 2006

More good news about Biodiesel

I'm a newcomer to the whole algae biodiesel party. I had heard vaguely about it on and off, but by and large discounted it because relatively few people drive diesel cars or trucks in North America. (In Europe, it's something like 1/3, owing to diesel's higher fuel efficiency, and high fuel costs.) However, the good news keep on coming. A few months ago, Veridium announced an algae biodiesel concept that is fed CO2 from ethanol production, with very high efficiencies - orders of magnitude higher than the most efficient (but environmentally destructive) Palm biodiesel plantations springing up across the Pacific.

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.

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.
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.

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.


amazingdrx said...


"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."

Burning biomass?

No it does not require even more combustion, pumping air through the growing medium (waste water)will do just as well. It requires access to CO 2. There IS excess CO 2 in air and by providing extra air in the waste water the algae will grow faster just as it would with extra CO 2 from power plant smoke.

Bucky Fuller might not apreciate your blog name given this kind of basic misunderstanding.

The whole point of biodiesel from algae is to reduce CO 2 emissions.

john said...

Most of what I've read says that for the best yield, algae require much higher CO2 concentrations than the 350 ppm in the atmoshpere. I've read 10% or more CO2 is best.

Given that some of the biggest biodiesel proposals I've seen involve coal-burning, I was simply offering biomass as an alternative. If you say that's unnecessary, bring numbers.

Anonymous said...

Interesting article, and thanks indeed for such a good review of algae for biodiesel...

As you had quoted a scientist, the obstacles really appear to be more of a biological nature than of an engineering nature? And I guess one of the "biological problems" is how to get an increased amount of CO2 for algal growth? I read about somke from smokestacks of factories being fed to algae and in some cases sewage water being used for that etc...I am not sure if these can take care of all the yield another observer pointed out, biomass burning might not be an ideal solution either...

Of course, the thing indeed is that lots of CO2 are present in the atmosphere, but how does one get a 10% increase ( if that indeed is the correct estimate) within a specific location where the algae are nurtured...while I do not have the answer, I really don't think this will be very difficult for some top scientists to solve...let's hope they get a solution quickly enough

A page that provides some more inputs on algal biodiesel

Vic, Castor Oil