Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Algal Oil Breaktrhoughs?

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:
Jet travel.

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.


Hybermann said...

Once more a very interesting articel (and thank you for the answers to my last post)

I wonder though, when it comes to your algal oil production senario, arnt you assuming that the world demand would keep growing? meaning that oil consumation would remain high and growing despite shifts to alternative energy sources?

I would think that keeping up with demand would be easier in a world where clean energy is the powerhorse would be relitivly easy, thus lowering the cost for algal yet fuel

that would be the only "flaw" (lack of better term) I can find in an otherwise excellent articel


Ps: I will ask my solar energy related question here aswell (making it easier for you to keep track on my comments :))

you said in the solar energy articel that once the price for solar power and traditional fossil fuel power reaches the same level, the shift to eletric power would be breathtaking

You refer here to developments in Italy and South Africa, my question is if we would be able to reach a similar rquality in the northern/western hemisphere (where sunlight is less common than in the south)

In a way sunrich areas have an advantage in this field, and I wonder if solar power will become as efficent in the north

I pardon any ignorence my question may display, but Solar power is not somthing I know that much about :)

PPs: Please pardon my deplorable english spelling, it is not my first language heh

DB said...

Yes you're right. I am indeed assuming that demand will keep on growing. Where I break from the doomers is that I believe that the demand will be shifted away from oil in most sectors EVENTUALLY but in the meantime we will still have a huge (and growing in some area) conventional fleet.


Because the BRIC countries want to grow. They look at the western lifestyle and ask the question: "We have money, why can't we have cars too?"

Well why can't they?

What is interesting is the interplay between the developed market and the developing markets.

Conventional engined vehicles are a mature technology with heavy competition and economies of scale in all sectors. Competition and economies of scale tend to lead to lowered prices.

Given that's the case, those in the developing economies will be able to afford conventional vehicles *first* before they can afford alt-fuel vehicles.

That scenario means that the rich world is going to have to take the burden of switching to higher priced alt-fuel vehicles first. That will tend to lessen global demand for oil but due to the chaotic interplay between decrease in demand in the rich countries combined with slow but rising demand in developing countries we're likely to see a bumpy oil price with many peaks and troughs over the next couple of decades.

Eventually alt-fuel vehicles will be cheap enough that everybody can afford them and at that point, yes demand would plummet from the ground based transportation sector but at the same time, since there is no viable alternative for jet fuel, it's likely that the price of jet fuel could still be high.

Bear in mind however that I'm discounting any potential disruptive technologies.

For example: a super high energy density fuel cell could work for a turbo-prop engined aircraft although not a jet-engine.
And turbo-props would work for short-haul flights.