Sunday, January 25, 2009

Biofuel skepticism within Waltz's "Biotech’s Green Gold"

Tobias Thornblad at intangitopia wrote: In the latest issue of Nature Biotech there is an interesting article written by Emily Waltz called Biotech’s Green Gold. The article starts by the interesting observation that more than a 100 third generation biofuel companies (so-called algae-to-fuel companies) have popped up during the last few years worldwide, but not a single commercial facility has been built. [The cite for the Waltz article is Nature Biotechnology 27, 15 - 18 (2009)]

As Bill Clinton might say, that depends on what you mean by "commercial facility."

Within the Waltz article:

Near-term technologies may allow algae to produce up to 6,000 gallons of oil per acre per year (gal/ac/yr). "If you really push the limits, then maybe 10,000 gallons per acre," says Ron Pate, a researcher at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico. This figure could improve with advances in cultivation, species selection, breeding and genetic modification, but only to a certain extent. The laws of thermodynamics and the limits of photosynthetic efficiencies just won't allow it. "When you see 20,000 or beyond—that's total bologna," says Pate. "It isn't going to happen."


Valcent Products, a public company located in Vancouver, is experimenting with a range of algal species in enclosed bioreactors. Valcent CEO Glen Kertz says he can sell a barrel of algal oil for less than a barrel of crude oil and that his system has the potential to produce 100,000 gal/ac/yr.

"I said to him [Kertz], 'You are not doing anyone any favors by making absurd claims'," says Scripps' Mayfield. "That is five times the theoretical maximum energy from sunlight landing on an acre. It's physically impossible to do that." No outside experts have been allowed to validate the system yet, according to Kertz.

Of GreenFuel Technologies:

De Beers Fuel based its claims, in part, on an obsolete bioreactor it had bought from Cambridge, Massachusetts-based GreenFuel Technologies. "We were not careful about our prospective buyers," says Bob Metcalf, a partner at Polaris Venture Partners in Waltham and an investor in GreenFuel. "The South African company said they wanted to buy it for $300,000 and use it for demonstration. We stupidly agreed."

GreenFuel designs closed bioreactors that feed off industrial flue emissions and, in 2007, faced some setbacks. A pilot project failed, its bioreactors turned out to be twice as expensive as expected and the company had to fire nearly half its staff, according to Metcalf. For the failed pilot, the company had made the mistake of trying to scale-up a small test system by a factor of 100 all in one step, and it didn't work, he says. Some experts have also expressed skepticism about the oil yields GreenFuel has projected in the past, which have since been lowered, according to people familiar with the matter. GreenFuel spokespersons could not confirm the old projections.

GreenFuel faces the same challenges that most closed system operators face. Photobioreactors are more complex and more expensive than open ponds, and it's tough to make the economics work (Box 1). "Anyone working on closed photobioreactors has got a problem," says Benemann. "And there are dozens of these companies out there," he says. "Just like in agriculture, you have to keep it as simple as possible and as cheap as possible. You can't grow commodities in greenhouses and you can't grow algae in bioreactors."

See also Biofuels: The New Alchemy by Bryan Walsh.


Note previous IPBIz posts:

Note material about GreenShift, as distinct from GreenFuel-->
GreenShift Receives Grant for Algae Bioreactor Technology




Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs), particularly patents, will be a catalyst,
not a barrier, to creating and deploying low-carbon technologies.

including text:

Whether you wish to give away a technology free of charge or to license it, you cannot
do so unless you can identify what it is that you want to transfer. You are not entitled to
give away something that you do not own. IPRs provide that legal clarity and certainty.
Whether that IPR bears a price is a subsequent decision. IPRs provide the framework
around which legal agreements for technology transfer can be structured. Without IPRs,
agreements cannot be properly defined.


Ian Harvey
The Climate Group

***On John Coleman and global warming

Note the Bio-Fuel Digest at GThread


Of an article in TIME [ The Next Big Biofuel?], the following letter was sent:

Of Tim Padgett's mention of "negligible greenhouse gases," the carbon-containing molecules of the jatropha, on combustion, will yield carbon dioxide, just like other carbon-containing fuels. Also, the fuel yield per acre of various algaes is well-above that of the jatropha.


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