Hopes for Algae Biodiesel are Fading

For all of the hope surrounding algae biofuels, surrounding Craig Venter’s big algae project, and then, surrounding Sapphire – one of the last algae games left in town, we get news that Sapphire Energy’s CEO has been replaced. Some read this as a significant and negative sign.

It would seem that we’ve been putting a lot of false hope into algae as a “sustainable” savior for liquid fuels. The requirements to grow it and to get it to produce oil are not so little as it turns out. Nor can living cells be manipulated to produce a lot without requiring a lot in return.

A new emphasis may be emerging from fledgling algae start-ups, and that is to produce an Omega-3 oil human nutrient product instead of crude oil, something that might actually be a profitable venture.

I’ve had a post on the back burner for a very long time, and this seems like a good time to run it. Captain T. A. “Ike” Kiefer wrote a paper titled “Twenty-First Century Snake Oil: Why the United States Should Reject Biofuels as Part of a Rational National Security Energy Strategy” in January 2013. I liked all of it, but I especially liked the part about algae for biodiesel.

The remainder of this post is the excerpt on algae for biodiesel, written by Kiefer and republished with his permission.
—Kay M.

A third option, besides growing a plant for its starches or cellulose, is to grow it directly for oil. Species which yield some biomass as lipids include soy, camelina, rapeseed, oil palm, jatropha, peanut, sunflower, cottonseed, safflower, and microalgae. All of these crops, including a non-poisonous Mexican variant of jatropha, have provided human and animal food over the centuries. The natural lipids in these plants can be broken down by adding methanol (made from natural gas) to convert them into a soup of fatty-acid methyl esters (FAME) commonly known as “biodiesel.”

Lipid fractions of plants are generally small compared to starch fractions, and that is why soy biodiesel yields per acre are much smaller than corn ethanol yields (70 gal/acre v. 500 gal/acre) and consume so much more water per liter of fuel, as will be discussed later. Soy Biodiesel EROI calculated from rigorous, full commercial-scale lifecycle studies is slightly better than corn ethanol at 1.9:1, but still nowhere close the 6:1 threshold for minimal utility. The well- known oil fraction limitation of terrestrial plants is why there has been 80 years of research on fast-growing, higher lipid fraction micro-algae as a way to get a high- yield biodiesel crop.

Algae is the only biodiesel crop with high enough potential yields to replace US petroleum without consuming all US territory as cropland, so it is worth a detailed look. All plants, including algae, stubbornly want to produce carbohydrate structural biomass instead of lipids because that is how they grow and reproduce. Lipids are an intermediate synthesis product that are only accumulated in larger amounts when the plant is starved of some essential nutrient such as nitrogen or silicon essential to complete biosynthesis of new structural biomass.

Lipid yield in g/m2 of pond or bioreactor surface area is a function of the number of algae cells and their individual lipid fractions. Absolute yield is limited because one can either starve the algae to produce more oil or feed them to foster reproduction, but not both—another catch-22. In addition, lipid fraction controls buoyancy for algae. It cannot be increased beyond the point where the algae float to the surface, crowd out the sunlight, dry out, and die. These are physical and biological limits known from previous research under the Aquatic Species Program. It is not possible to change basic physical laws such as Archimedes’ principle of buoyancy with even the most sophisticated genetic engineering.

Additionally, attempts to move algae from the lab bench to commercialization continue to be crushed by poor EROI. A literature survey of reported algae EROIs performed by the National Research Council found values from 0.13:1 to 7:1, but in the higher cases, energy credits from co-products dwarfed the energy delivered as biodiesel—biodiesel was really the co-product and solid biomass the product.

If there is any benefit and profit to be made from algae, it appears to be more in producing soylent green than in producing green fuel. A critical look at the more optimistic studies that predict the higher EROIs reveals that they depend upon a host of unrealistic assumptions—massive supplies of free water and nutrients, a free pass on enormous environmental impact, and market economics that miraculously transform the huge burden of enormous accumulations of soggy byproduct biomass that has per-ton value less than the cost of transportation into a cash commodity crop. Proponents often claim that algae need only sunlight and CO2 to grow.

However, to make the high yields promised, fertilizer energy is typically supplied in the nitrogen, carbon, and hydrogen molecules of a solid form of ammonia called urea. Solazyme Inc., the US Navy’s choice for algae biofuel and recipient of a $21 million DoE biorefinery grant, actually grows their product in dark bioreactors, feeding it carbon and hydrogen energy in the form of sugar. This makes them unique in producing a biofuel 100% dependent upon a food crop and getting 0% of its energy from the sun via direct photosynthesis—a worst case scenario.

The most realistic, full-scale, full commercial lifecycle studies find a break- even 1:1 EROI if the algae biomass is simply sun-dried and shoveled directly into a furnace for heat. Any attempt to convert to liquid fuel results in a large negative energy balance. Hydrotreating further destroys EROI, as can be seen in prices paid by the US Navy for algae biofuels below. The simple but decisive math is that, even at commercial scale, with generous assumptions about cellular reproduction rate and lipid fraction and oil extraction, and ignoring the costs of facilities and water, Argonne National Laboratory calculated that it takes 12 times as much total energy and 2.6 times as much fossil fuel energy to put a gallon of non-hydrotreated biodiesel in a gas station pump instead of a gallon of petroleum diesel.


Under the heading “The Mineral Problem”, Captain T. A. “Ike” Kiefer has some more important comments about algae for biodiesel:

Exchanging a fuel dependent upon foreign oil imports for a fuel dependent upon foreign mineral import does not improve national security.

Potash and phosphate are critical plant macro-nutrient minerals which must be provided in large quantities for both food and biofuel cultivation. The United States currently imports 85% of its potash supply. In 2011 the global price of potash doubled, sending fertilizer prices skyrocketing. In 2010 America imported 13% of its phosphate, and 90% of this came from Morocco, an Islamic kingdom of the North African Maghreb region that is a growing stronghold of Al Qaeda. In 2011, phosphate prices jumped $60 per ton.

Replacing US transportation fuel with algae biodiesel would require about 88 million more tons of phosphate rock to be mined a year compared to current US production of 28.4 million tons and total global production of 191 million tons. While there is a loud chorus of pundits preaching doom about the price volatility of oil and US dependence upon unstable Persian Gulf nations (source of 13% of US crude in 2011), few are those who recognize how susceptible US agriculture is to foreign economic influences.

Basing our transportation energy supply on agriculture via biofuels only exacerbates this risk. It is critically important for energy strategists and policy makers to realize that exchanging a fuel dependent on foreign crude oil imports for a fuel dependent on foreign potash and phosphate imports does not improve national security. In fact, it puts both food and fuel in jeopardy of a single embargo.

There is much more of value in the paper…

Source: “Twenty-First Century Snake Oil: Why the United States Should Reject Biofuels as Part of a Rational National Security Energy Strategy” by Captain T. A. “Ike” Kiefer (JAN 2013):


Can one Taste Help You Lose Weight? Perhaps.

A new study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition is telling us the chemical glutamate in food is the taste that makes us feel “full”.

Foods which may satiate us better, then, include meat, parmesan cheese, shiitake mushrooms, and… you guessed it… Marmite.

This “fullness” flavor is named umami by the Japanese, and means deliciousness. Expect to hear that word a lot more as people reach for the next magical weight loss solution.

To learn more, read Scientists identify the flavour that helps us eat less.

What’s Going on with Nebraska Panhandle Farmland Prices?

As the rest of the Midwest’s farmland valuations are cooling off, the Panhandle of Nebraska is on fire.

Jessica Johnson, Extension Educator at the UNL Panhandle Research and Extension Center has provided the following assessment of the situation. (It’s mostly about irrigation and tilling potential of land.) Also, this year’s farmland prices data is showing pastureland to be doing well as compared to other categories.

Farmland values in the Nebraska Panhandle continue to climb, according to results of the annual Nebraska Farm Real Estate Survey released in June. The results reveal that in 2014, the average statewide value of farmland increased 9 percent to $3,315 per acre. In the Panhandle, the average farmland value increased 20 percent to $855 per acre.

Several factors have contributed to rising land values in recent years, including record high farm income, low interest rates, expanding operations, and limited land sales. Even though some of these factors are still in play, the downturn in commodity prices led to more modest increases in statewide cropland values in 2014.

The value of gravity-irrigated cropland in the Panhandle increased 6 percent, consistent with the statewide average for this land class. Center-pivot-irrigated cropland in the Panhandle increased 21 percent to $3,770 per acre. The Panhandle district reported the highest percentage increase for center-pivot-irrigated cropland.

Dryland cropland also showed significant increases from 2013. Dryland cropland with no irrigation potential increased 21 percent to $845 per acre. Dryland cropland with irrigation potential increased 28 percent to $935 per acre. The survey indicated that lingering effects of drought, the conversion of grazing land to cropland, and higher cattle prices could be factors driving up grazing and hayland values.

Non-tillable grazing land increased 9 percent in the Panhandle to $405 per acre. The Panhandle had the lowest reported increase of this land class in the state. Tillable grazing land had an increase of 29 percent to $550 per acre. Hay land had the largest increase of any land class in the Panhandle with a change of 31 percent from 2013 to 2014, resulting in an average hay land value of $1,025 per acre.

More Bad News About Ethanol. It Causes Corrosion and Leakage of Underground Fuel Storage Tanks.

Ethanol got its start as an MTBE replacement when MTBE was found to contaminate groundwater. Both are octane boosters. MTBE, as a gasoline additive, was intended to help curb air pollution but was later found to be a carcinogen contaminant of groundwater.

Fast forward to now. We all know that ethanol policy leads to nitrogen groundwater contamination in corn growing regions, but now we are learning that it may also be contributing to leakage in or around underground gasoline station fuel storage tanks. Furthermore, a São Paulo study suggests that using ethanol in vehicles increases ozone air pollution.

After NIST held a two day workshop here in Boulder a year ago to study how the combination of certain microbes with ethanol may be accelerating the corrosion of steel underground storage tanks of gasoline containing 10 percent ethanol, they have released a new report based on their findings. It focused on sump pumps, among other storage and pumping components. The industry is studying whether certain diesel tanks are now leaking because they previously held gasoline mixed with ethanol.

The ethanol people will probably tell you this is yet another conspiracy by big oil against them. The gas station owners and petroleum distributors, on the other hand, will tell you how expensive it is to replace tanks and pipes and fittings and replace them with fiberglass ones to accommodate this product that is government mandated.

In my view this is an important story. There are good options other than ethanol to be used as octane boosters in our gasoline and it is time to consider them.

Here is the July 29, 2014 article authored by Laura Ost for NIST:

NIST Corrosion Lab Tests Suggest Need for Underground Gas Tank Retrofits

A hidden hazard lurks beneath many of the roughly 156,000 gas stations across the United States.

gas tank sump pump
A NIST study found that corrosion may pose a hazard at underground gas storage tanks at filling stations. The study focused on sump pump components, especially the pump casings (labelled #3 in graphic), which are typically made of steel or cast iron.
Credit: Environmental Protection Agency
View hi-resolution image
Gas Tank Corrosion
Optical micrographs of severe corrosion on steel alloy samples exposed to ethanol and acetic acid vapors — conditions typical of underground gas storage tanks — after 355 hours, 643 hours, and 932 hours.
Credit: NIST
View hi-resolution image

The hazard is corrosion in parts of underground gas storage tanks—corrosion that could result in failures, leaks and contamination of groundwater, a source of drinking water. In recent years, field inspectors in nine states have reported many rapidly corroding gas storage tank components such as sump pumps. These incidents are generally associated with use of gasoline-ethanol blends and the presence of bacteria, Acetobacter aceti, which convert ethanol to acetic acid, a component of vinegar.

Following up on the inspectors’ findings, a National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) laboratory study* has demonstrated severe corrosion—rapidly eating through 1 millimeter of wall thickness per year—on steel alloy samples exposed to ethanol and acetic acid vapors. Based on this finding, NIST researchers suggest gas stations may need to replace submersible pump casings, typically made of steel or cast iron, sooner than expected. Such retrofits could cost an estimated $1,500 to $2,500 each, and there are more than 500,000 underground gas storage tanks around the country.

The NIST study focused only on sump pump components, located directly below access covers at filling stations, just above and connected to underground gas storage tanks. The sump pumps move fuel from underground tanks to the fuel dispensers that pump gas into cars. These underground tanks and pipes also may be made of steel and could be vulnerable, too. “We know there are corrosion issues associated with the inside of some tanks. We’re not sure, at this point, if that type of corrosion is caused by the bacteria,” NIST co-author Jeffrey Sowards says.

Much of the U.S. fuel infrastructure was designed for unblended gasoline. Ethanol, an alcohol that can be made from corn, is now widely used as a gasoline additive due to its oxygen content and octane rating, or antiknock index. A previous NIST study found that ethanol-loving bacteria accelerated pipeline cracking.**

For the latest study, NIST researchers developed new test methods and equipment to study copper and steel alloy samples either immersed in ethanol-water solutions inoculated with bacteria, or exposed to the vapors above the medium—conditions mimicking those around sump pumps. Corrosion rates were measured over about 30 days.

The NIST study confirmed damage similar to that seen on sump pumps by field inspectors. The worst damage, with flaky iron oxide products covering corrosion, was found on steel exposed to the vapors. Copper in both the liquid and vapor environments also sustained damage, but corrosion rates were slower. Steel corroded very slowly while immersed in the liquid mixture; the NIST paper suggests bacteria may have created a biofilm that was protective in this case.

Although copper corroded slowly—it would take about 15 years for 1.2-millimeter-thick copper tube walls to develop holes—localized corrosion was observed on cold-worked copper, the material used in sump pump tubing, NIST co-author Elisabeth Mansfield notes. Therefore, stress-corrosion cracking is a concern for bent copper tubing because it would greatly reduce tube lifetime and result in leaks.

The NIST test equipment developed for the study could be used in future investigations of special coatings and biocides or other ways to prevent sump pump failures and leaks.

NIST held a workshop in July 2013 on biocorrosion associated with alternative fuels. Presentations and information from this workshop can be found atwww.nist.gov/mml/acmd/biocorrosion.cfm.

*J.W. Sowards and E. Mansfield. Corrosion of copper and steel alloys in a simulated underground storage tank sump environment containing acid producing bacteria. Corrosion Science. July, 2014. In press, corrected proof available online. DOI: 10.1016/j.corsci.2014.07.009.
**See 2011 NIST Tech Beat article, “NIST Finds That Ethanol-Loving Bacteria Accelerate Cracking of Pipeline Steels,” at www.nist.gov/mml/acmd/201108_ethanol_pipelines.cfm.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is an agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

UPDATE: I have made a correction, since contacted by the author of the NIST article that the NIST conference was actually held in 2013, not a few weeks ago (here in Boulder). I have also added the post from NIST.