I noticed the following press release:
"Joule Unlimited, Inc., has been awarded a US patent covering its conversion of sunlight and waste carbon dioxide directly into liquid hydrocarbons that are fungible with conventional diesel fuel. Joule is the first to achieve and patent a direct, single-step, continuous process for the production of hydrocarbon fuels requiring no raw material feedstocks, enabling fossil fuel replacement at high efficiencies and costs as low as $30 per barrel equivalent."
So... good news, right?
Or is it?
Well anything that slows the decline rate of oil should be good news but I think a bit of careful analysis will show that there is a rusty nail in the silver lining.
Assuming this works then we are talking about a 10% efficiency rate for capture of the solar energy by these microorganisms. That's about 6X better than the best biofuel crops.
So what's the problem?
Well it's the same as the problem with regular oil: if we're going to find 2-4 new million barrels of oil energy equivalent every single year after peak oil it's going to be seriously difficult to do.
Simply because internal combustion vehicles are ridiculously inefficient because close to 90% of the energy from the raw crude oil product is wasted by the time it's processed into gasoline (or diesel), transported and then burned in the extremely inefficient (25%!) internal combustion engine.
So taking those numbers your microorganisms are really pumping out at a 2% efficiency rating.
Conversely, the worst efficiency solar panels are already operating at 10% efficiency and given that electric vehicles are closer to 90% efficient compared to 10-15% efficient for the internal combustion engine we are looking at 9% for the worst solar cells. The best on the market solar cells right now are 25% so that would mean we would get 22% of the energy back for electric cars.
Clearly for cars and trucks algal oil or biofuel is not the way to go.
But it's not a total downer, however, because there is one application that needs liquid fuels:
Post-peak oil, there are substitutes for almost everything except jet travel.
You can move freight to electric trains instead of long distance big rigs (though we could convert long distance big rigs to nat gas). You could take trains for long distance passenger travel or else you could take your electric truck on a route which has project better place style battery swap stations along the way or else you could take a boat powered by nuke. But jet travel is difficult to do without liquid fuels.
In reality in the meantime we could create liquid fuels from coal or else natural gas and this has been done already but let's assume that our only option is biofuels. (And to be honest everything is welcome).
So let's look at what that might look like in some post peak world:
Right now (fall 2010) for my pathetic fuel mileage dodge durango (15 miles per gallon) if I want to take a trip, to say, disneyland it's about 2000 miles each way so a 4000 mile trip. That's 266 gallons. At $3 a gallon that's $798. Call it $800.
Now on the least expensive flight option (and let's say I get a FREE rental vehicle at the other end with gas include (bursts out laughing)) it's $400 per person. So for myself, my wife and two kids it'll run me $1600 to fly.
That's a decent difference, but people today will still pay for that to avoid the hassle of driving 4000 miles.
At an efficiency rating of 4X worse than electric means of transportation, you may expect to see flights cost 4x what it costs to drive, so my trip to disneyland would cost $3200 in today's money.
Expensive, but not out of reach for a two income family.