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? 

Ocean pumping of DOC

With a voice like Sean Connery, Professor Emeritus. Dr. Calvin of the UW School of Medicine (new book at http://williamcalvin.org )  talked about his ideas for how to mitigate rising CO2 levels.  His concerns arise in part from the 2-3x increase in the global drought index during the 20th century (Das et al., 2004; updated 2006).  He also noticed that around 1976 El Nino conditions began to predominate, though La Nina conditions were dominant beforehand.

In addition to more prevalent abrupt climate shifts, there were some near misses (like heart attacks?) since 1976:

  1. 1998 El Nino lasting longer
  2. 2005 Amazonia drought
  3. Antarctic flushing failure
  4. Labrador sea flushing failure

We need to sequester about 600 Gt of carbon over next 20 years to get back to pre-industrial levels.  Freeman Dyson’s favorite fix is doubling global forests, but climate conditions are getting worse for trees generally.  Photosynthesis already removes 210 GtC/yr, though it is mostly returned through respiration and decomposition.  This means we need new production that is sequestered for long time periods (probably best done in the voluminous oceans).

Much of the anthropogenic CO2 that has already been sunk is in the N Atlantic.  Major inputs are 2GtC/yr from deforestation and 8 from fossil fuels and cement.  92 are absorbed into ocean, and 90 are released.  In ocean 48 are photosynthesized, 37 are respired, and 11 settle through thermocline, and 0.01 are deposited on bottom.  So the big reservoir is dissolved organic carbon; it is 100x larger than the living biomass.

In the cold depths, about 1/2 of new DOC from upper ocean is soon converted into total CO2.  The rest has a 6kyr residence time (maybe because of multiple passes through surface system before removal).

Intervention A:  4x the settling rate (11 -> 44), but that would require a 4x increase in global productivity.

Intervention B: Pump down 30GtC/yr (600Gt over 20 years) maybe by fertilizing near downwelling zones (Greenland Sea whirl pools?) OR by mechanical pumping with wind or wave power.

Algaculture has advantage of controlling respiration.  Assume 50g of algae/m2/d about half of which is carbon.  Thus it takes 10-4 m2 (fingernail) to grow 1 gC/yr.  To sink 30Gt, you’d need 3×10^9 m2 or 3000 km2.

Field trials?  3,900 oil and gas platforms are in operation off coasts of Louisiana and Texas.  The north Sea presents a similar opportunity.

$2M for WA algae industry

State algae industry gets a boost from U.S. Senator Patty Murray

Murray recently helped secure $2 million for the Washington State Algae Alliance, a consortium made up of Seattle area companies Targeted Growth and Inventure Chemical as well as Washington State University. But not every U.S. politician is on board with the $2 million, with U.S. Senator John McCain calling out the algae research project in a Tweet back in October as more “pork barrel” politics.

$300 DIY clothes washer repair trumps $1500 replacement

Our Kenmore (Sears 417.43042200) front-load washer recently vomited it’s rubber boot out the door.  Annie and I fixed it with some great guidance from the Samurai Appliance Repair Man (Fermented Grand Master of Appliantology).  A load later it started banging like hell.

With further guidance and beer it became clear to me and Liam — my 5.9 year old, drill-wielding assistant — that one arm of the spider bracket was cracked, that the inner stainless steel basket had scratched the sides and ends of the tub, and that the rear bearing was a bit grickly.  Despite peaceful bouncing around the Sears customer stiff-arm departments (warranty, parts, parts PR, etc.), I failed to convince anyone there that the tub/bracket assembly had failed under a parts warranty.  They seemed willing to consider the possibility, but not without a site visit from a technician — for which we had lost patience and time.

Instead, I ordered from searspartsdirect.com 1 replacement boot kit ($38.49) and 1 drum assembly/spin basket ($200.99) with expedited shipping ($44.97).  Thus, for $311.47 including sales tax, we were ready to repair (with only moderate cynical reservations about whether that $300 was why Kenmore juxtaposed Al and SS metals).  I decided to put off bearing replacement since there didn’t seem to be much grease/mung leakage (though I wonder about some of the mysterious whitish/blue stains we’ve experience on our white/light clothes…)  With luck, we’ll get another few years out of it before having to disassemble again.

The alternative seemed to be to junk/sell the Kenmore and purchase a new washer that is (even more?) energy- and water-efficient.  The Miele and Staber were recommended as not having such crappy engineering, but the price tags were scary: $1500-ish, at least.

Here are some photos of our quite-satisfying Do-It-Yourself experience:

The algae-ethanol question

This makes me wonder what wild marine phytoplankton might have sufficient sugars to warrant ethanol production, or actually produce ethanol. This article seems to imply that Algenol’s algae are pumping ethanol into water somewhere, but it’s unclear if that is the medium or just water in the cell.
clipped from www.nytimes.com

New York Times

Algae Farm Aims to Turn Carbon Dioxide Into Fuel

Algenol grows algae in troughs filled with saltwater that becomes saturated with carbon dioxide.

Published: June 28, 2009

Dow Chemical and Algenol Biofuels, a start-up company, are set to announce Monday that they will build a demonstration plant that, if successful, would use algae to turn carbon dioxide into ethanol as a vehicle fuel or an ingredient in plastics.

“We give them the oxygen, we get very pure carbon dioxide, and the output is very cheap ethanol,” said Mr. Woods, who said the target price was $1 a gallon.

The company has 40 bioreactors in Florida, and as part of the demonstration project plans 3,100 of them on a 24-acre site at Dow’s Freeport, Tex., site.
Algenol and its partners are planning a demonstration plant that could produce 100,000 gallons a year. The company and its partners were spending more than $50 million, said Mr. Woods, but not all of that was going into the pilot plant.
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Venter on super-algae

It will be interesting to see whether his team is using genes from fresh or salt-water organisms, macro-algae or phytoplankton… Perhaps in a closed system with no competition, a pure culture of genetically-modified cells really could simple excrete the lipids. It certainly would be nice to simply skim the lipids off the water surface without damaging the productive cells instead of struggling to extract the lipids from the cells as grazers like copepods must do…
clipped from www.xconomy.com
Synthetic Genomics’ team already has genetically optimized an algae species so that almost half of the organism’s mass consists of lipids, a broad group of naturally occurring molecules that include fats, waxes, sterols and other energy storage compounds. Now the team is enhancing the organism further to make even more lipids. Such algae would serve as a biofuel feedstock.

Craig Venter Has Algae Biofuel in Synthetic Genomics’ Pipeline
Venter said “the new algae” is something that “secretes whatever lipid size we want to engineer. This changes algae from what everybody’s been looking at as a farming problem into a manufacturing problem. So we are trying to get algae to go into a continuous production mode, pumping up these lipids, that come out in a pure form.”
Genetically engineered algae needs sunlight and carbon dioxide, and then secretes a liquid that “can basically be used right away as biodiesel,” according to Venter.
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New incentive for the blue revolution

Unclear when this prize will actually be available, but it’s surely a good thing for pushing R&D forward. Will the rules preclude experiments in the wild (e.g. ocean fertilization)?
clipped from www.xconomy.com

Prize Capital Moves Closer to Creating $10 Million Algae Fuel Prize
San Diego-based Prize Capital said today it has entered the final phase of creating a $10 million prize to encourage advances in algae biofuels technologies.

As part of the final planning process, Prize Capital founder and chairman Lee Stein convened a workshop of 26 leaders to draw up rules and other criteria for what Stein calls the $10 million Algae Fuel Prize. The group met for much of the day at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and Stein told me during a break he had invited venture investors, scientists, environmentalists, and business and government leaders from across the country. But he was not willing to say how long final planning will take before the competition will be unveiled.

Prize Capital’s announcement is the culmination of work that began more than a year ago, Stein said, when initial planning began at the Washington Renewable Energy Conference
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Compact fluorescents:75% power savings

Brightened up the playroom and kitchen a bit today by replacing ~500W of incandescent bulbs in recessed ceiling fixtures with 7x23W (=~175W) CFs from Home Depot (about $4 each).  The “green” n:Vision bulbs have a pleasant, warm glow to them (the “blue” and “red” really would work only in the garage) and Annie agreed the situation was improved.

That’s a power reduction of about 70% for those two rooms.  For an optional source of additional brightness, I retrofitted a broken halogen torchiere lamp to take 2x25W CFs (equivalent light output to 150W incandescent).  Since the kitchen already had about ~150W of CFs lighting, that brings the total lighting demand for those most-used rooms in our home to 325-375W.

Indo-German iron experiment begins

At first glance this LOHAFEX experiment looks to be a step forward.  Understanding the longer-term evolution of carbon (and other) fluxes is a short-coming of past iron fertilization experiments.  This article suggests they will monitor the patch for about two months.

Printed from
Germany clears Indo-German Antarctic expedition

27 Jan 2009, 2307 hrs IST, Amit Bhattacharya, TNN

NEW DELHI: Ending days of suspense and anxiety for the Indo-German team of scientists sailing in the cold and desolate waters off Antarctica, the German government on Monday gave the go-ahead to a controversial ocean-seeding experiment that experts say could lead to a way of fighting climate change.

“This is the best Republic Day gift we could have hoped for,” S W A Naqwi, leader of the 29-member Indian scientific contingent aboard the ship, RV Polarstern, told TOI on email from the vessel. The expedition, called LOHAFEX, is now in the process of dropping 20 tonnes of iron sulphate across a 300-sq-km patch in the South Atlantic Ocean to study the resulting explosion of plant life that’s expected suck CO2 gas from the atmosphere and store it below the ocean.

The German government had put the expedition on hold, days after the scientists set sail from Cape Town on January 7, following protests from environmental groups. These groups said the experiment would breach an international moratorium on ocean iron fertilization (OIF) – as the technique is called – and could damage the marine ecology of the region.

“The last few days were full of anxiety. But we were confident that this would pass, and did not allow ourselves to be distracted from the task at hand. As a result, the suspension has not affected our work schedule at all. Right now, of course, everyone is excited and greatly pleased,” Prof Naqwi, who teaches at National Institute of Oceanography, said.

The “all-clear” came from the German ministry of education and research after the experiment was reviewed by three independent agencies – the British Antarctic Survey, Institute for Marine Research, Kiel, and the German Environmental Agency. “After a study of expert reports, I am convinced there are no scientific or legal objections against the… ocean research experiment LOHAFEX,” German research minister Annette Schavan said in a statement.

The scientists utilized the period of suspension to prepare for the experiment. “We have selected and surveyed a suitable ‘eddy’, a body of water that does not exchange much with the rest of the ocean. It’s located at 49S, 16W. After we got the green signal, we have filled the tanks with iron sulphate solution in seawater and began discharging this solution on Tuesday morning. The operation will take around 30 hours,” Naqwi said.

The iron seeding is expected to result in a rapid explosion of phytoplankton, an algae that quickly dies and sinks into the ocean along with the CO2 it absorbs during photosynthesis. “We will make regular observations inside and outside the fertilized patch, monitoring the evolution and demise of the algal bloom until early March,” Naqwi said.

OIF is seen as a promising geo-engineering method to trap billions of tonnes of CO2 below the ocean if conducted on a large scale.

LOHAFEX, the biggest and most comprehensive study of the method, is expected to provide vital answers about its efficacy and the effects it could have on marine ecology. With the method generating a lot of interest from private companies seeking to profit from it in the carbon trade market, a comprehensive scientific study will help policymakers frame appropriate laws on OIF.