Biodiesel is way better than fossil diesel: a 1998 life-cycle analysis

After 15 years of burning B100 in our 2003 VW Jetta TDI, it’s nice to have happened upon the helpful insights within this 1998 study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory:

Reductions in Petroleum and Fossil Energy Consumption

As one component of a strategy for reducing petroleum oil dependence and minimizing fossil fuel consumption, the use of biodiesel offers tremendous potential. Substituting 100% biodiesel (B100) for petroleum diesel in buses reduces the life cycle consumption of petroleum by 95%. This benefit is proportionate with the blend level of biodiesel used. When a 20% blend of biodiesel and petroleum diesel (B20) is used as a substitute for petroleum diesel in urban buses, the life cycle consumption of petroleum drops 19%.

In our study, we found that the production processes for biodiesel and petroleum diesel are almost identical in their efficiency of converting a raw energy source (in this case, petroleum and soybean oil) into a fuel product. The difference between these two fuels is in the ability of biodiesel to utilize a renewable energy source.

Biodiesel yields 3.2 units of fuel product energy for every unit of fossil energy consumed in its life cycle. The production of B20 yields 0.98 units of fuel product energy for every unit of fossil energy consumed. By contrast, petroleum diesel’s life cycle yields only 0.83 units of fuel product energy per unit of fossil energy consumed. Such measures confirm the “renewable” nature of biodiesel.

Reductions in CO2 Emissions

Given the low demand for fossil energy associated with biodiesel, it is not surprising that biodiesel’s life cycle emissions of CO2 are substantially lower than those of petroleum diesel. Biodiesel reduces net emissions of CO2 by 78.45% compared to petroleum diesel. For B20, CO2 emissions from urban buses drop 15.66%.

In addition, biodiesel provides modest reductions in total methane emissions, compared to petroleum diesel. Methane is another, even more potent, greenhouse gas. Thus, use of biodiesel to displace petroleum diesel in urban buses is an extremely effective strategy for reducing CO2 emissions.

It’s refreshing to see a clear flux diagram showing how soybean carbon cycles!

Other interesting bits:

  • A barrel of typical (1995) crude provides about 100 kg of liquid fuel. Upon combustion each kg of fuel generates 3.15 kg of CO2. (ref)
  • Union of Concerned Scientists: “Oil is Changing” site

Marine algal biodiesel in Bermuda

Marine algae paste

Marine algae paste

Just caught this April, 2010, video of Dr. Michael Lomas making biodiesel from marine algae of the Sargasso Sea.  He’s getting yield of “about 1/2 coffee cup or 4-6 oz” of concentrated (1/100th human hair mesh opening) paste from an 80 liter culture.

Still no mention of open-ocean culture.  It’s all about scaling closed incubators up by 1000x volume.

State of the algae industry

Notes from a meeting of the Northwest Biodiesel Network during which Dr. Margaret McCormick, COO of Targeted Growth Inc. (TGI), spoke about the “State of the Algae Biofuels industry”

My notes:

TGI buisiness model —

  • Increase yield w/genes
  • Camolina and algae (focus on Cyanobacteria because easier to engineer — just pour genes on!)
  • Sustainable fuels

During meeting, UW Professor Rose Anne Cattolico stood out as expert on algae
Her friend Brian had strong opinions and insights into Imperium and investment activity in the sector

Bioalgae is a local company which sent a couple reps to this meeting.

Algae Biodiesel Organization (ABO) is national organization that promotes the development of viable commercial markets for renewable and sustainable commodities derived from algae.  They have run 4 Annual Algae Biomass Summits.
Slide regarding theoretical (yet to be reached) yield of oil from algae vs other plants (in gallons/acre):

  • 2-3000 algae
  • 635 palm
  • 202 jatropha
  • 127 canola
  • 61 mustard
  • 48 soy
  • 35 cotton
  • 18 corn

Other corporations focusing on GMO:
Sapphire, algenol, solazyme

Pipeline of algae industry:

  • Biology (auto vs hetero)
  • Cultivation
  • Harvesting
  • Extraction (Cold press gets 33% of seed oil, rest w/solvents)
  • Conversion to products; examples:
    • Some corporations focusing on ethanol from algae
    • TGI jet fuel 10^5 gal production in Texas
    • Darpa funding of General Atomics to produce $2/gal jet fuel
  • Sales & distribution (likely to happen through existing infrastructure controlled by big petroleum companies)

Biofuels road map

  • 200 M$ DOE
  • USDA loan to Sapphire
  • DOD jet fuel purchase from Solazyme
  • 52 M$ Solazyme (Branson)
  • 15 Aurora biofuels
  • 30 Joule
  • PetroAlgae filed IPO

Pilots (online in next 2y):

  • Sapphire
  • Algenol/Dow ethanol cyanobact
  • Phycal  24$M hawaii sequestratn
  • 300 M$ Synthetic Genomics/Exxon
  • 300 M$ Exxon marketing
  • Solazyme

Existing projects and other players —

  • Cyanotech 93 acres HI
  • MarTec omega3/6 for babies
  • Unilever
  • Dupont
  • Lindy
  • Solix
  • Solana

The future?

  • ABO forecast 2015 — 300,500 Mgal/yr prodctn/capacity
  • 2020 Sapphire 1 Bgal/yr
  • 2015 220 in/direct jobs

Co-products —

  • Fodder, fish  (livefuel biomass)
  • C capture
  • Fertilizer
  • Chemicals
  • Neutraceuticals
  • Fresh H2O remediation
  • Food ingredients
  • Health food
  • Pharmaceuticals

Meeting announcement:

Is Algae close to being a viable commercial feedstock for the biodiesel/biofuel industry? What is the reality and what is the hype? What can we expect to see in the near future? Where is the algae industry headed? What are the environmental implications of Algae?

The NW Biodiesel Network is pleased to present John Pierce, co-founder and Board member of the Algal Biomass Organization. This organizations mission is to promote the development of viable commercial markets for renewable and sustainable commodities derived from algae. Get your questions answered! 7:00 pm to 9:00 pm, Phinney Neighborhood Center, 6532 Phinney Ave. North, Seattle WA 98103 (click image to the left for a map to the PNA).

Update: About Our Speaker

John F. Pierce sends his regrets, but he was called away on business on very short notice.
But in his place will be Dr. Margaret McCormick of Targeted Growth Inc..  We are very pleased to have her come present to us, and are looking forward to getting her perspective on the state of the Algae Biofuels industry!  Thank you Ms McCormick, for filling in on such short notice!

Dr. McCormick is on the Board of the Algal Biomass Organization, and has been with TGI since 2008, managing the company’s Bio-Based Materials program as well as leading various company-wide efforts including legislative and intellectual property strategy.  Prior to joining TGI, Dr. McCormick was a partner with Integra Ventures where she led Integra’s biotechnology investment strategy and its investment in TGI.  Prior to joining Integra, she was the founding president and COO of Sapphire Therapeutics (formerly Rejuvenon Corp.). Earlier in her career she was a consultant with McKinsey & Company. Dr. McCormick earned a Ph.D. in Biology (with a focus on metabolic engineering) from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a BS degree from the University of Wisconsin – Madison.

NASA working on algae filtering

Interesting idea (from this article) to use a membrane suspended in water to isolate the crop, but it’s equivalent to a greenhouse in the ocean — a biofouling nightmare me thinks.

There has got to be a way to do it — sustainably farm the open HNLC expanses of ocean — with all the right analogs: organic fertilizer, crop rotation, natural biocontrols (“beneficial planktivores?”), windrows and combines, watermills and composting.

Excerpt from the Berkeley algae lab story:


AC: What are you doing for NASA?

AB: We’re developing large-scale systems that are combining biofuel and fertilizer production with wastewater treatment and production of fresh air and fresh water. We’re using large membrane enclosures floating in bodies of water. It’s a low-energy, low-resource way of growing algae.

One budding thing of NASA technology – we’re working on a clever way of removing algae from water.

We’re focused on the biofuel aspect at NASA. For biofuel, you want a species that produces a lot of oil. Many species of algae can produce huge amounts of oil — they can be more than 50 percent oil by weight, compared to normal plants that only produce a few percent.

Algae can produce about 100 times more than typical oil plants like soybeans, on a per acre basis. You can grow enough algae to replace all of the fossil fuel in an area that’s small enough to be manageable. You don’t need to use farmland, there’s not much remaining in the world ready to be used, and you don’t need fresh water. The nice thing about algae is while they cleans water and air, they can produce very valuable things like fuel, fertilizer and food. They’re precursers for bioplastics, cosmetics and medicines.

It’s a new kind of farming, potentially very low impact and sustainable.

U Mich makes algal crude in minutes

A Wired article (thanks Mike!) that got me thinking about how much of crude oil’s energy is geologic, rather than photosynthetic.  Upon deposition of biogenic sediments, there is tectonic transport, geothermal heating, and compression in subduction zones or beneath additional deposits.  How to account for these energetic contributions?

Also, the researchers’ general approach seems sort of sloppy.  A good terrestrial farmer would harvest a crop (of plants), mechanically process it into products, and compost/recycle the “waste.”  Here the crop of algae appears to be simply cooked en mass (including with water) into crude with little analysis of how distillation or cracking would generate products from the resultant soup.  Given that we have the option of processing the crop before cooking it (which was long-missed for fossil fuels), is it more efficient to process before attempting thermo-baro-chemical transformations, or to crack apart the goo once cooked? 

Robin Kodner: Bringing genomics to geobiology

Fate of the organic molecules generated by primary productivity in the surface ocean:

  • carbohydrates, proteins, and nucleic acids (biological pump acts on these)
  • lipids and structural polymers (diagenesis turns these into organic fossils, kerogen, & bitumen (oil)

Organismal part of talk (examples of sterols used as biomarkers)

  1. diversity of sterols and steranes (branches can indicate phylogeny)
  2. C_30 isopropylcholesterol likely associated with sponges

Population level (metagenomics)

  1. C_29 steranes (dominant [relative to C28} in Paleozoic)
  2. One explanation is that C29 may be typical of green algae, while C28 indicate modern phytoplankton (that arose ~200 Mya)
  3. But C29 sterols are made by MANY eukaryotes.  Green algae (Charophyceae) are implicated because they have a good fossil record back into the Paleozoic).
  4. Ternary diagram shows that Prasinophytes (likely modern analog of the Paleozoic green algae) have lower C29/C28 ratio than groups of green algae [Kodner, Geobiology, 2008]
  • Advantage of studying modern orgs is that nucleic acids are available for taxonomic survey, in addition to lipids.
  • Sequence a aggregated sample, compare with sequence database, use search alignment tool (BLAST), and compare with reference sequences to get reference phylogeny

My Qs:

Where does all the sulfur come from in crude oil?

Is it clear that diagenesis does not degrade sterol structure?  If so, what organisms generated the fossil molecules we call fuel?

Liquid fuels from algae start-ups

Blue Marble Energy of Seattle

AXI of Seattle (Allied Minds investors from MA supporting UW algae researcher Rose Cattolico)

Bionavitas Inc., of Redmond

Inventure Chemical Inc. of Seattle

Sapphire Energy of San Diego, CA

  1. formed in May 2007, Chief Executive Jason Pyle
  2. “green crude” 91 octane gasoline from algae microorganisms
  3. doesn’t absorb water like ethanol and biodiesel, so can be transported in existing pipeline infrastructure
  4. goal is 10k barrel/day from desert ponds
  5. “Almost every other [alternative fuel company] out there is a refiner,” says Robert Nelsen, managing director at ARCH Venture Partners. “They are taking something and refining it. We are producing something.”
  6. “We wanted to find something that you could scale infinitely.”
  7. “We’ve talked to people in the oil industry who’ve said, ‘This is the first thing I’ve seen that can change the game,'” says Nelsen.

I think their web site is (intentionally?) confusing.  Are they producing the equivalent of fossil crude oil from microalgae and then refining it to gasoline (and presumably other products), or are producing gasoline directly from microalgae?  I *think* they’re doing the latter.  But the former is the much better idea — producing crude oil from phytoplankton grown today, rather than digging up primary production from 300 million years ago — for it could go straight into the existing refinery infrastructure and generate all of the current cracked products (and by-products): tar, plastics, diesel, gas, butane, methane, hydrogen; sulfur.

Solazyme of South San Francisco, CA

biodiesel from algae

Amyris Biotechnologies of Emeryville, CA

developing renewable fuels chemically identical to gasoline, jet fuel and diesel. Amyris announced in April that it will develop diesel fuel in Brazil from sugarcane, with a production target date of 2010.


Forbes, May 2008 article

UW News article, August 27, 2008