“Hard Lessons From the Great Algae Biofuel Bubble”

Guest post by David Middleton


From 2005 to 2012, dozens of companies managed to extract hundreds of millions in cash from VCs in hopes of ultimately extracting fuel oil from algae.

CEOs, entrepreneurs and investors were making huge claims about the promise of algae-based biofuels; the U.S. Department of Energy was also making big bets through its bioenergy technologies office; industry advocates claimed that commercial algae fuels were within near-term reach.

Jim Lane of Biofuels Digest authored what was possibly history’s least accurate market forecast, projecting that algal biofuel capacity would reach 1 billion gallons by 2014. In 2009, Solazyme promised competitively priced fuel from algae by 2012. Algenol planned to make 100 million gallons of ethanol annually in Mexico’s Sonoran Desert by the end of 2009 and 1 billion gallons by the end of 2012 at a production rate of 10,000 gallons per acre. PetroSun looked to develop an algae farm network of 1,100 acres of saltwater ponds that could produce 4.4 million gallons of algal oil and 110 million pounds of biomass per year.

Nothing close to 1 billion (or even 1 million) gallons has yet been achieved — nor has competitive pricing.


The promise of algae is tantalizing. Some algal species contain up to 40 percent lipids by weight, a figure that could be boosted further through selective breeding and genetic modification. That basic lipid can be converted into diesel, synthetic petroleum, butanol or industrial chemicals.

According to some sources, an acre of algae could yield 5,000 to 10,000 gallons of oil a year, making algae far more productive than soy (50 gallons per acre), rapeseed (110 to 145 gallons), jatropha (175 gallons), palm (650 gallons), or cellulosic ethanol from poplars (2,700 gallons).


Green Tech Media

“VC” refers to venture capitalists.  I had to look it up because I didn’t think the Viet Cong were still in business.

The problem with algal biofuel is this:

According to some sources, an acre of algae could yield 5,000 to 10,000 gallons of oil a year, making algae far more productive than… 

10,000 gallons is 238 barrels per acre.  A typical oil well in the Gulf of Mexico yields 300-500 barrels per acre*foot and a typical reservoir is 50-100′ thick.  This works out to 15,000 to 50,000 barrels per acre over the life of the well.  Assuming the well produced for 10 years, this works out to 1,500 to 5,000 barrels per acre per year.

Gallons of Oil per Acre per Year Min Max
Algae          5,000          10,000
Typical GOM Oil Field       63,000       210,000

Granted, there are a lot of differences between crude oil and algal oil… And, hypothetically, the acre of algae is “renewable”… However, 1 acre of algae requires 1 acre of land.  An oil well only requires the acreage that it’s production facility covers.  Oil reservoirs can cover 100’s or 1,000’s of acres, can be well over 100′ thick and often occur in stacked sequences.

Shell’s Mars oil field (Mississippi Canyon 807) has produced about 1.3 billion barrels of oil and 1.7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas since 1996.  This works out to about 1.6 billion barrels of oil equivalent (BOE).  The “footprint” of the field (platform + outline of directional wells) covers about 11,000 acres.  The field has averaged over 6,700 BOE (over 280,000 gallons) per acre per year from 1996-2016.

Gallons of Oil per Acre per Year Max
Algae       10,000
Mars Oil Field     281,400

After 20 full years of production Mars is still going strong.  In 2016, it produced over 6,000 BOE per acre.

It’s refreshing to see that some of the green energy herd is capable of learning lessons… But I doubt they learned this lesson.


After re-reading the GTM article, I think the author may have actually learned at least part of this lesson:

So is there some lesson here other than that disrupting the global fossil fuel market is not for the fainthearted and entrepreneurs are irrationally optimistic?


179 thoughts on ““Hard Lessons From the Great Algae Biofuel Bubble”

  1. odd…the people saying this never mention how they are going to run all those open air ponds….and not let them get contaminated with other algae, dinos, etc

    • L
      And those alga, Dino’s, etc. are the reason, among other things, even the best of the best, Bb “Showa” and Bb “Ninsei”, couldn’t be made to produce at an economically attractactive rate.
      Bb = Botrycoccus brauneai

    • …how they are going to run all those open air ponds….and not let them get contaminated…

      Simple indoors under artificial light – do I need sarc tags for that?

      • if nuclear power could produce warm tanks and lots of light, it all comes down to conversion efficiency.
        synfuel is worth serious money.its just a question of the cheapest route from whatever energy source you have

      • Leo, that’s like using diesel generators to power flood lamps at night to keep the solar panels going. Like they used to do in Spain.

    • The algae producers are keenly aware of wild vs. engineered algae. Putting acres and acres of algae ponds under roof is a daunting and expensive task. So some schemes include large plastic reactors with lights tuned to the algae, so you get 24/7 production. Others put the algae in dirt troughs with thin plastic film both over and under to contain the growing solution and exclude wild algae. There are plenty of others.

      • “The promise of algae is tantalizing. Some algal species contain up to 40 percent lipids by weight, a figure that could be boosted further through selective breeding and genetic modification. That basic lipid can be converted into diesel, synthetic petroleum, butanol or industrial chemicals”.

        Isn’t that how fossil fuels have always been made?

    • Let me first say that I am not an advocate of bio-diesel mostly because of its energy density association with the greens and their ideas about CO2. You need to burn more biodiesel to obtain the equivalent energy as that from burning petroleum diesel, thereby creating more CO2…but it is GREEN CO2….[face palm]

      The algae need not be grown in ponds, but in transparent curtains of enclosed channels (plastic sheeting). These curtains can allow vertical arrangements and provide greater density per acre for growing alga. So, growing density can be greatly increased over horizontal ponds. this also has the added effect of controlling the atmosphere within these channels.
      However the plastic that the curtains are made from comes from petroleum deposits.

      • Wait a second…I am having trouble picturing this?
        Plastic sheeting contain water vertically?
        How high?
        Above ground?

        But the basic process is a capture of solar energy via photosynthesis.
        The sun is most of the day.
        You need acres of sunshine because the energy of the sun is in watts per square whatever.
        Stacking tanks up to the sky will not give you more solar energy than horizontal ponds.
        But, hey…I am no rocket surgeon, or even a brain scientists.

      • Yup, there is that Elisa.
        And the whole “water is very heavy and plastic sheeting is not very strong or rigid” thing.

      • UV in sunlight does break the polymeric bonds and thus degrade the polymers in polyethylene sheets, although the addition of UV inhibitors can slow this process quite a bit.
        Instead of having a useful life of a few months, it can be made last for perhaps a year in direct sun.
        If transparency is not required, inhibitors that can greatly increase the lifespan can be added.
        The degradation manifests as increased brittleness and decreased strength. It eventually cracks and then breaks into tiny brittle chips.
        But plastic sheeting is completely unable to support a tall column of water against the pressure caused by gravity. Not without closely spaced supports anyway.
        But all this is beside the point that trying to capture solar energy by building a vertical structure ignores the need to maximize sky exposure.
        Same reason why a vertical farm is a dumb idea that could only have been dreamed up by someone who never farmed or thought about the costs and the inputs.
        Land is generally cheaper than tall structures, and in most places it is hugely so.
        And the sun is the source of the production, so exposure to it needs to be maximized.
        Except for certain high value cash crops needing little space, farming with artificial light could never hope to compete with farming outside in a field using the ground and the sun and the rain.
        Trying to create artificial vertical ponds to grow algae to make oil may work and be profitable someday, but I will bet any amount of money to any takers it will not be during our lifetime.

      • There’s a limited supply of sunlight. While you may manage to get a higher density, the average amount of sunlight the algae receives will go down.

  2. Here’s my idea: Build algal oil growth ponds on the sites of depleted oil wells. Once we’ve drained all the oil from the ground that we can, we set about making more of it above ground. Different business entities will be involved in the different ventures, of course. But as long as profits can be made without massive government handouts, mandates, subsidies, tax breaks, and other corrupt practices, let the markets work.

    • “But as long as profits can be made”

      Therein lies the problem. To date no profits have been made,. The possibility of making profits in the near term appears dim as well.

      • Yep. In the post I used the perimeter of the directional wells drilled from the Mars TLP as the footprint. That’s actually a subsurface footprint. The surface footprint is just the “plumbing” below the TLP.

        And for resource purposes, I should have used the areas of the reservoirs… But I don’t have the time to map someone else’s fields. However, the reservoir areas would be considerably smaller than 11,000 acres.

        I do have maps of reservoirs I have worked on. A well I drilled in Garden Banks back in 2007 tested a 235 acre amplitude anomaly. We found about 175′ of oil. That well produced 5.6 million barrels of oil and 45 BCF of gas from 2009 through 2016.

        That works out to almost 7,000 BOE per acre per year… Over 290,000 gallons per acre per year.

  3. I was curious about the Algae to fuel idea, then I read what I could find out about it. After about ten minutes it was clear that the limiting factor is the amount of atmospheric Carbon Dioxide and the process of photosynthesis. Algae extracts Carbon from CO2 to ultimately produce the fuel.

    This may become more viable if/when CO2 has been increased to sufficient levels, but it is still a factor of Earth’s surface area (like solar and wind) and that means it’s not scalable.

      • Exactly – Good Point – coal fired power plants could leverage an algae farm.

        But can algae be grown in a multi-tiered vertical structure?

      • Believe me, it has been considered. But even with enhanced CO2 from coal plant flue gas, it is difficult to make money. The algae has to be grown, dewatered (actually rather expensive in energy costs) and then processed into the “value added” products. Some fraction of the oils can be made into omega-3 fatty acids as nutritional supplements but don’t let anyone get wind of the fact they are made from toxic, toxic, toxic coal plant flue gas.

      • There is (was?) an Israeli firm called Seambiotic that was trying to produce algae-based biofuels as part of a carbon capture and sequestration project. One of the technical hurdles is sulfur. Once adequate scrubbing of sulfur is done, the effluent is then pumped through ponds to grow the algae. Algae was squeezed for the oil and the remainder was either used for nutritional supplements or to create ethanol. The website does not appear to have been updated for quite a few years, and I haven’t heard anything new about them lately.

        This method of CCS seems to be more feasible than typical sequestration projects (pumped underground without use for EOR) as the energy demand should be lower and a saleable product stream is created. Too bad it hasn’t been realized yet.

    • Use the CO2 from CCS plants on traditional coal or combined cycle plants. This industry is still in its infancy, such as computers were in the early 1960’s. Time changes everything.

      • The semiconductor transistor then the integrated circuit transformed the computer industry. Any new transformative technologies on the horizon for this industry?

      • David Middleton
        Thanks for CO2-EOR reference. For the latest 2016 data see:
        Using CO2-EOR, the ROZ and Carbon Management for Energy Independence, Vello Kuuskraa, Advanced Resources International, Inc. Dec 6, 2016, EOR Carbon Management Workshop, 22nd Annual CO2/ROZ Conference Week

        * U.S. imports 5+ million barrels per day (net) of crude oil and petroleum products; 80 billion barrels in 40 years.
        * U.S. spends $170 billion per year on oil imports; $6.8 trillion in 40 years
        *Revenues from sale of CO2 to EOR industry PLUS FISCAL INCENTIVES support installation of CO2 capture on 60% of US power plant capacity.
        * 0.9 Gt/yr of CO2 is captured and sold to the EOR industry for $32/metric ton; provides $29 billion/yr ($1.15 trillion in 40 years) to the power industry.
        * CO2 purchased from the power industry enables production of 5+ million barrels/day of additional domestic oil (80 billion barrels in 40 years).

        Oil at $85/bbl; CO2 at $32/metric ton; CO2-EOR at 0.45 mt CO2/Bbl
        “Revenue neutral” incentives for capturing and utilizing (storing) CO2 are discussed later in the presentation.
        Economically Recoverable Oil via “Next Generation” EOR 81.1 billion bbl
        Economic Demand for CO2 37 billion metric tonnes.
        “use of CO2-EOR could provide $70 per metric ton of “incentives”
        for capturing CO2, including $32/mt from CO2 sales and $38/mt from “revenue
        neutral” tax credits.”

        Sale at $32/metric ton ($1.68/Mcf of CO2)
        $38/ton as “Revenue neutral” tax credits
        = $16.9 / bbl to Fed/State treasuries; and $30/bbl to general economy.

      • David… Except there are thousands of coal and gas plants producing electricity all around the world that can’t just pipe their CCS to an oil field a 100 miles away. Unless you are proposing that we liquify the CO2 and ship it to the oil fields. Maybe that would work, but would need to see the present cost benefit analysis. If that works, then why not?

        Why are you against a Manhattan project David, to commodify as much CO2 as we can into some commercial product that adds value? Are you afraid that once we can make vast sums of money on CO2 that somehow the planet will run short again on carbon dioxide? No, we all know it just stays in the carbon cycle. Or that is runs a competition to geological fossil fuels which is your area of expertise. Or are we just trying to make out the status quo which is just fine as it is for present economic interests and belittle any other point of view by stating it presently costs us 10x as much?

        I know we are old coots who probably can’t think out of the box anymore, but the vision is there and the technology is there, but of course it can’t be economical yet when oil is $50 a barrel. But you know better than anyone that we will reach the fossil fuel limit on production at some point in the near term future. Maybe not in our lifetime but we know that day is coming soon. Which is why the National Security function of the federal gov’t that we start examining our options for that day that will surely come in the not to far distant. We ran out of economic whale oil 150 years ago…luckily we had fossil fuels to fall back on, but we won’t have that luxury forever, or even too many more decades. In the scheme of time, that is nothing. We are talking about a massive substitution for fossil fuels that will someday be too expensive. I believe the market will take care of that, but it will be on the backs of research and development from many failures and trial and error like any other major scientific advance. Just think of the space race, and all the great things that came out of that. Using your logic, we never would have spent a nickel on space, because it was too expensive.

        And it is kind of a shame to burn up valuable fossil fuels at 25% efficiency in a SUV. (although I do in several, so I am a hypocrite but I admit it) At least Anthony Watts admits he is green with solar panels on his roof, and drives an electric car, and promotes intellectual discussion on all sorts of subjects on every side of the debate. Which is more than I can say about a lot of posters and commenters here who just respond to red meat, and all sing from the same hymn book the evils of anything new or different.

      • To grow algae in ponds sounds like it requires a lot of land…and a lot of water too.
        No mention of that anywhere in this article…where is the water from?
        And most electric plants are in habituated areas…where land is not cheap, water is often in limited supply, and people may not be happy about vast areas of algae covered ponds. Particularly salt water ones.
        Unless this type of algae is different that most, large shallow salt ponds filled with algae will have an unpleasant odor.
        To say the least.

      • Ron, lots of things are kind of a shame.
        And some are more than “kind of” a shame.
        Like the monumental waste of time, money, resources, and loss of scientific integrity that has come to us via the CAGW scam.

      • Correct, Menicholas. Covered ponds go anaerobic. If the pond exists only for algae production, and it’s far enough away from civilization, it’s not necessarily a problem.

        Though I wouldn’t want to work there.

    • A paper in Science way back in 2002 by Hoffert et al., mentions many energy supply approaches, and has this to say about biofuels-

      “All renewables suffer from low areal power densities. Biomass plantations can produce carbon-neutral fuels for power plants or transportation, but photosynthesis has too low a power density (0.6 W m^2) for biofuels to contribute significantly to climate stabilization.”


      Nothing has happened in the ensuing 15 years to challenge this fundamental limitation.

      • chris y More important to focus on how to achieve commercially cost effective fuels. i.e., Increase conversion efficiency and reduce costs.

  4. This and numerous other claims of alternates to existing “conventional” oil have and, I’ve little doubt, will continue to be a questionable uneconomic venture. No doubt the hype and rush to alternative sources of energy together with the mistaken fear of fossil fuels, is the cause of such pursuits. When one thinks of the likely billions expended in these ventures it just boggles the mind!!

    • Just as is the case for any capital venture, profitability for investors is the key. For bio-fuels, whose return on investment cannot compete with conventionally-available liquid fuel sources, that ROI may not be realized until some future time when existing conventional energy sources for fuels have been tapped out.

      Looks like grant money – and not venture capital – may keep the research going in the current political environment.

      In the absence of artificially-tipped (via taxation or regulation) markets for liquid (or solid) fuels (think Clean Power Plan, ethanol from corn, and their ilk) it appears bio-fuels cannot compete without government mandates – at this time. This is not to say the research being conducted is not valid, or interesting, or bereft of ‘societal value’ . Bio-fuels are, in the current energy world – as are PV and wind generating sources for electrical energy – niche market commodities with what appears to be negative ROI’s at the moment. (Cue Griff and others to weigh in on the vast sums of power being generated – at a profit – from these sources in the absence of government mandates. I await the fun in reading those posts).

      in some far distant future – bio-fuels may be all we have for limited liquid fuel sources. Research in these areas is a Good Thing for humanity as a whole. But as Mr. Middleton has been pointing out in his extensively researched submissions, that time may be pushed ever farther into the future by applying currently-available enhanced oil recovery technology to existing oil fields.

      Interesting times. The recent posts here at WUWT have been very thought provoking and informative. I appreciate the work being done in this regard, keeps me coming back to learn more!

      Regards, and keep it coming,


  5. I think anything will have trouble competing with fracked oil and gas for the next little while. Call us back when oil goes above $200/barrel.

  6. Back in the 1970s there was basic research into the feasibility of giant kelp farms as a source of biofuel. The problem then as now is that despite rapid growth rates, the capture of sunlight energy by algae requires a large surface area and somewhat problem-prone harvesting/processing techniques. Oil reservoirs have compressed the surface area problem by accumulating hydrocarbons over vast amounts of time and harvesting/processing is relatively standard engineering. It all comes down to concentration and efficiency.

    • There is no reason to not be hugely against this…

      $26 a gallon?! Navy’s ‘Green Fleet’ meets stiff headwinds
      By David Alexander

      WASHINGTON | Mon Jul 2, 2012 3:12pm EDT

      WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A U.S. Navy oiler slipped away from a fuel depot on the Puget Sound in Washington state one recent day, headed toward the central Pacific and into the storm over the Pentagon’s controversial green fuels initiative.

      In its tanks, the USNS Henry J. Kaiser carried nearly 900,000 gallons of biofuel blended with petroleum to power the cruisers, destroyers and fighter jets of what the Navy has taken to calling the “Great Green Fleet,” the first carrier strike group to be powered largely by alternative fuels


      The Pentagon hopes it can prove the Navy looks as impressive burning fuel squeezed from seeds, algae and chicken fat as it does using petroleum.

      But the demonstration, years in the making, may be a Pyrrhic victory.

      Some Republican lawmakers have seized on the fuel’s $26-a-gallon price, compared to $3.60 for conventional fuel. They paint the program as a waste of precious funds at a time when the U.S. government’s budget remains severely strained, the Pentagon is facing cuts and energy companies are finding big quantities of oil and gas in the United States.

      Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, the program’s biggest public booster, calls it vital for the military’s energy security.

      But to President Barack Obama’s critics, it is an opportunity to accuse the U.S. leader of pushing green energy policies even if they don’t make economic sense. The bankruptcy of government-funded solar panel maker Solyndra last year was a previous example of that, they say.



      Spending $26.75/gal for biofuel was idiotic when JP-4 was selling for ~$4/gal.

      • Cost isn’t relevant*. We are saving the planet.

        * Cost is only irrelevant when we are spending other people’s money.

      • “Green fleet” is quite misleading.Every single active Navy carrier is a CVN, meaning a nuclear powered carrier. Only their planes can use biofuels. Obviously, the major energy for a carrier is the electricity provided by the nuclear reactor., which propels the ship and provides all of the electricity to operate every system on it. I doubt that the fuel for its jets constitutes a large portion of the energy the ship uses. No one in their right mind would build a carrier that wasn’t nuclear powered – the fuel requirements would be huge – meaning a severe operational restriction. In WWII the carriers required tankers to accompany them, a ship that is basically defenseless and required constant protection. Their operations were always concerned about how to fuel their ships while at sea. Nuclear power basically revolutionized the Navy, allowing it to do the same activities with far fewer ships and far fewer logistics headaches.

      • The recently retired Forrestal and Kitty Hawk class carriers were conventionally powered and they served quite well alongside the CVN’s.

        The surface escort ships of a carrier strike group are all conventionally powered.

        The only nuclear powered ships currently in service with the US Navy are carriers and submarines.

        The Navy uses a lot of petroleum-based fuel. This is why they were hell bent on spending taxpayer money on idiotic biofuels projects over the past 8 years.

      • Mark W: My corollary to that is:

        Nothing is too unimportant to spend someone else’s money on.

      • Not only net cost per gallon, but shelf-life issues regarding destabilization or separation during storage and transport are obstacles that can limit the viability of bio fuels for military requirements.

        I submitted post on this back in December in response to one of Griff’s inane submissions extolling the DoD ‘s use of biofuels in jet aircraft, but I haven’t been able to find again the DoD document that lists shelf-life as a limiting factor for extensive bio-fuel use by the military.

        It is a paramount concern – more for aircraft, than for diesel-electric powered vessels, but shelf-life enhancing research for bio-fuels is assisting in bio-fuel viability… here’s an example of what’s going on in this area;


        if I find the DoD document again and this post is still active, I’ll get it up for those interested to read.


      • Better to go back to sailing ships, but then how would jets avoid the sails on the aircraft carriers?

      • It’s going to be a said day when jet fuel contamination from biodiesel brings down an airliner. There have been close calls.

  7. “Physics and thermodynamics are fairly important in energy applications.”

    Revolutionary thinking, that.

  8. I know, lets create a 3-D matrix of growing areas interspersed with LED lighting ! That way the ground footprint can be arbitrarily small …

    • In all of my experience with algae, i have noted that it is very wet, as a rule.
      And once removed from water, it is incredibly stinky.
      And saltwater algae drying out in the sun is a sort of fetid stink monster with few peers.
      I think this must be why they wanted to do it in the desert.
      Hey, has anyone done an environmental impact study of the effect of pumping huge amounts of seawater to ponds in a desert?
      Or the cost?

  9. One of the better ideas was to grow biofuel algae in ponds that you were already using for aquaculture, Basically, you raise fish (catfish, for example) and scoop the algae off of the top (or filter it out with low-pressure pumps that are already aerating the ponds). The fish output fertilizer and raise CO2 levels in the water, making the algae grow a lot faster.

    With a small processing plant, you could run the whole thing off of the algae biofuels instead of paying for energy to run the pumps.

    Not something you could use for large-scale fuel production, though.

    • Don’t catfish eat algae?
      I’d worry that algae would put enough hydro-carbons into the water to make the fish grown there inedible.

      • Biodiesel is vegetable fat, not crude oil. The fish can eat it without problems (and the higher fat content may actually be good for fish). It’s even a decent human food supplement. Most fish farms keep their stock fed well enough that the fish won’t be going after the floating algae anyway.

      • I think referring to the stuff they get from algae as “vegetable oil” is kind of a stretch.

        Me, I am gonna stick with corn or canola for my vegetable oil.

      • The oils from algae are vegetable oils and unless you get into a red tide situation quite edible. Even bio-diesel is extremely low toxicity, some even claim you can drink it without harm, but recommend against human consumption.

    • It takes a lot of effort to gather up, dry out, and process, such materials.
      And this effort will be ongoing.
      In general, algae must be skimmed off of the top of water…it will not be sucked into low pressure pump intakes.
      And few pumps not made for the purpose can handle any solid material in large amounts…which is why such pumps are outfitted with intake screens and basket filters and such.
      But these ideas seem to have missed the point about wild algae contaminating and outcompeting the high lipid content algae’s need for this purpose.

      • The real problem has been and always will be getting the algae concentrated enough to extract the lipids economically. Ultraviolet light tends to stun the algae so that it’s cellular walls cease ion pumping and the cells fall out of colloidal suspension. This works well in aquariums and koi ponds, but doesn’t scale up to industrial quantities. Pumping dirty water is trivial.

  10. The only way this makes sense is to convert an existing sewage plant to provide feedstock to the algae vats. Then the savings offset from treating the raw sewage to an algae production unit might provide a source of revenue for the existing Waste Treatment Plant.

    Variation of biomass energy yield in wastewater treatment high rate algal ponds


    Biomass productivity depended on season and zooplankton grazing pressure and biomass energy content increased algal proportion and lipid content of the HRAP biomass. The average biomass energy yield in the HRAPs was 113.3 kJ·m− 2·day− 1 (based on the average annual biomass energy content of 19.2 kJ·g− 1 and the mean annual HRAP biomass productivity of 5.9 g VSS·m− 2·day− 1 during the year). Biomass energy yield increased significantly during summer (175 ± 5 kJ·m− 2·day− 1) compared to winter (68 ± 18 kJ·m− 2·day− 1) since summer environmental conditions were more favorable for biomass growth. Results suggest improving algal proportion and productivity would promote biomass energy yield in WWT HRAP by enhancing biomass energy content and productivity concurrently.

    Variation of biomass energy yield in wastewater treatment high rate algal ponds (PDF Download Available). Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/297586860_Variation_of_biomass_energy_yield_in_wastewater_treatment_high_rate_algal_ponds [accessed Apr 20, 2017].

    Not sure if this line of alternative energy production and cost effectiveness has been successful. Note that output is mostly seasonal where the bulk of algae energy output is in the summer.

  11. So is there some lesson here other than that disrupting the global fossil fuel market is not for the fainthearted and entrepreneurs are irrationally optimistic?

    No this is ridiculous.

    Oil companies try to make renewable oils, it is just not feasible.

    And no, entrepreneurs are not irrational, but green zealots with loose money are pretty an easy piece for a steelhearted opportunist.

    • Speaking of steel hearted opportunists, I’m thinking Elon Musk could make the algae scheme economically successful.

      For him.

  12. Totally off topic but watched something amusing on Fox News. Dave Calloway, Democrat strategist and invited quest, had this to say about the Hillary Clinton legacy.

    “Her place in the anals of world history is secure”

    His confusion about the difference between “anals” and “annals” led him to mistakenly speak the truth.

    Eugene WR Gallun

  13. Here is a 2011 study on HRAPs:

    Hectare-scale demonstration of high rate algal ponds for enhanced wastewater treatment and biofuel production


    So the question is can one convert all or most of the raw sewage into some usable product that is cost effective either in terms of reducing the cost of waste water treatment by selling the product at comparable market rates? Is there a cost reduction in terms of treating raw sewage? IF not, does the sale of the usable product offset the increased price of treating raw sewage?

    No answers yet…I suspect if it were so, alternative energy advocates would be advertising the results publicly.

    • dscott-
      “So the question is can one convert all or most of the raw sewage into some usable product that is cost effective either in terms of reducing the cost of waste water treatment by selling the product at comparable market rates?”
      I believe the question was answered in 1926 when Milwaukee started making fertilizer from its sewage. It is still doing so today. It’s called Milorganite. I remember my uncle used in in his wholesale nursery in the 1950s. Smelled awful when wet, but really made things grow!

      • Well, yes making potting soil clearly has been done, but the question still remains, can the conversion of raw sewage via algae be economically viable to produce a fuel? No one has answered that question yet…
        IF this could be done then as long as humans and their agricultural waste from animal farms exist, there would be an inexhaustible supply of fuel.

  14. Here’s my issue. 238 barrels/acre/year
    The US uses ~20M barrels per day.
    20,000,000 * 365 / 238 ~ 30M Acres
    or 47,925 sqmi
    To put that into perspective Mississippi is 48,431 sqmi. I don’t know how we would turn the entire state of Mississippi into an Algae pond. To make anything close to viable you would need to cut consumption by likely 80%, and that’s not happening.

    • I wonder how much water has to be pumped into these ponds every day to make up for evaporation?
      Speaking of evaporation, how much rainfall would increase downwind of this Mississippi sized swamp?

      • And how much energy does it take to quickly dry the algae?
        And how much space, if it is done by leaving it in the sun as seems to be the only logical way.
        Centrifuging it first would help speed it up…but how many tons of wet algae does it take to make a barrel of oil?
        And how much of that must be used to fuel the whole endeavor?
        This sounds to me like the sort of thing where, once all of the inputs are taken into account, is like ethanol…questionable if there is any net energy.

  15. One of the first rules of project management I learned is that costs are always several times the forecasts and benefits are always a fraction of forecasts. At a minimum the forecast cost/benefit ratio must be less than 1:4 to have a reasonable anticipation of eventually breaking even.

    • Amazing the difference in perception from people who have spent time doing things, and not just thinking about doing things.
      I see on a regular basis the things that get overlooked by people who have no field experience but are nevertheless given the task of designing and planning stuff.
      It is common for entire projects to be scrapped after months and even years of work, once implementation is attempted.

  16. Okay, so there is a use for EPA after all. They can regulate the open air ponds to death to make it even more uneconomic over and above the basic uneconomic aspects of the perpetual pilot project. It would save taxpayer money to hold in this research model indefinitely.

  17. “VC” refers to venture capitalists. I had to look it up because I didn’t think the Viet Cong were still in business.
    First thing I did too (-:

    • The VC were pretty much wiped out after the Tet offensive. The survivors have since moved into management positions.

  18. During the first oil embargo in early 70’s, I remember a professor in CA claim that biofuel from algae would replace oil by mid ’90’s. Nirvana, or disaster always seem to be just 20 years away! And our gullible “journalists” & politicians fall for it every time!

      • Of course, there is that little complication of them being at the bottom of the ocean, buried in mud, all spread out in a layer.
        But it does add up to a lot, true.
        There are certain people in certain places that have been trying to get at it and make it work.
        Has anybody any recent news on those efforts?

  19. Fundamental law of conservation of mass and energy works against this scheme. The algae receives energy from the Sun and converts it to a hydro-carbon state through photosynthesis which is subsequently “burned” later in a redox reaction. The amount of energy converted is a function of the square surface area of the Algae being produced and the amount of time it is exposed to sunlight. The same basic energy laws of pertaining to solar insolation apply here as they do to photostatics. Interesting now that a major oil company is running a nightly TV ad about farming algae with a pretty girl claiming to be a Ph.D. and an energy farmer. Ads paid for by government subsidies and stimulus…..Good marketing and investor PR but bad business economics.

  20. 5-10K gal per acre could be sufficient to make this viable compared to agricultural use, though less than marijuana. so would it make money if oil is at $50?

    • The updated cost comparison based on a normalized set of input assumptions was found to greatly reduce economic variability, resulting in algal oil production costs ranging from $10.87 gallon−1 to $13.32 gallon−1.

      Comparative cost analysis of algal oil production for biofuels
      (PDF Download Available). Available from:


      There are 42 gallons in a barrel. This works out to $456.54 – $559.44 per barrel.

      • I wonder…what did they use for the cost of the various forms of energy and fuel needed in the entire production process?
        Todays prices for gas/nuclear/coal based energy and oil-based fuels?
        Or what it would cost using energy obtained at this level of costs you noted here, David?

      • Today’s prices for coal, oil and natural gas are based on what the market is willing to pay… not on the cost of production.

      • Of course.
        What I mean is, did that price of $10+/gallon result from producing it using gasoline at todays price, electricity at todays price, diesel at todays price?
        If so, what would it cost if the price of all of those things were 10x higher, as would be the case when this is competitive?
        IOW, they are using cheap energy and fuel to make expensive fuel.
        If there is no cheap energy to use, and no cheap fuel, then what?

      • That’s the “all in” cost estimate for algal biofuels.

        If the cost of petroleum, natural gas and electricity became 10 times more expensive, it would probably drive up the cost of algal biofuel production… but probably by far less than a 10- fold increase.

        If I understood your question correctly, there probably is no price of oil or natural gas at which algal biofuel would be competitive.

  21. Am I missing something here?

    Algae, in my experience, is usually a phenomenon in summer only. In winter the stuff doesn’t multiply because there isn’t enough sunlight, at least in the UK.

    So to even make it a viable proposition for a year round fuel supply, the only places that could be used are from the equator, to limited degrees north and south of it. In other words, the middle east and all points east and west.

    Does that mean the desert has to be irrigated? And would that mean equatorial forests would have to be cleared to make way for the massive acreage of water required?

    Seems a bit counter productive to me. But what do I know, I’m not green.

    • Near the equator – yes. Irrigated – no. What you would do is build a close loop saltwater process in arid areas so you can use seawater. In less arid areas (swamps) you can use open pools. It might also be possible to build floats near off-shore oil rigs. However, in order to make it profitable you have to have reasonable access to supply lines (be located near a refining hub) and efficient use of capital (large scale projects). Drilling rigs are no longer viable since they would not be producing enough to warrant a pipeline for biofuels back to land. Deserts in the US, China, and India are out since they are far from appropriate pipelines. Small scale rooftop is not viable since the equipment cost would be much higher per gallon. So you end up with gulf coast in the US and middle eastern deserts. Ironically both places where it is massively cheaper to just pump crude out of the ground.

      • @chadb

        Thanks. That’s kind of what I thought, well, the last sentence, I don’t know enough to think of the rest.

        In which case, maybe I’m greener than I thought

      • Algae needs more than water and sunlight to grow, it needs nutrients.
        Fertilizer, basically.
        That costs money.
        And if you need seawater, how much does it cost to pump it into ponds?
        And what about evaporation?
        Getting rid of the concentrated brine you are left with would be a big problem, and unless the ponds are lined, saltwater will be getting into the ground water and salting the Earth that was exposed to any of this water.
        You could not cover the ponds to prevent evaporation…you need exchange of gasses, plus you need to be able to harvest the algae.
        And again…I bet ponds full of salt water algae that have a high lipid content are incredibly stinky.
        Areas large enough to make a dent in our total demand?
        It would be unlivable for miles around.
        If this process needs salt water, the idea of doing it inland sounds poorly conceived.

  22. The lesson here is that human kind will probably always be dependant on carbon based fuels, at least for many applications that will never be run on electricity or batteries. Algae is the foundation of fossil fuels, at least oil, so creating bio oil from algae will be sort of like Moore’s law in that efficiencies will be found, and some day it will be competitive with fossil fuel oil, perhaps at the peak we reached at $147 a barrel for oil. It will have to be, since we know that we will slowly run out of economical fossil fuel oil, perhaps not this decade or the next, but absolutely in the longer term future. And time will march on and future generations will be grateful for the R&D that goes into bio oil now, since it can replace fossil oil for every application that we currently take for granted in fossil fuels for thousands of products that are made from oil. Oil is renewable, and very glad to see such great articles here at WUWT promoting renewable oil.

    After researching yesterdays article on CCS, I am happy to see that progress is being made on splitting CO2 into Carbon Monoxide and Oxygen. Pure CO can be used to make methanol and syngas, which can be further refined to make synthetic gasoline. Of course, this isn’t anything new; the German’s in WW2 were doing similar with other technologies and ordinary folk were running cars/truck and tractors on wood gas. Perhaps not high tech like we can do now, but they were able to run much of their war machine on synthetic oil. But the fact that we can keep our carbon based infrastructure in place forever is reassuring, especially that we know one day if and when we need to, we can substitute traditional fossil oil with algae oil for feedstock, and is somewhat carbon neutral as far as the CAGW crowd is concerned.

    Not that CO2 at 406 ppmv is a problem, rather we probably saved all life on earth from extinction with CO2 at all time lows at the height of the ice age. This is evident in photosynthesis shutting down at 150-180 ppmv, which we were very near at the height of the last ice age, and probably had something very significant to do with the Mega Fauna extinction.

    • The processes that have driven down the cost of a transistor just don’t seem to have found their way into any other process. A relatively inexpensive graphics card today has 12 billion transistors, and that’s at the 16nm process node technology. 3nm is targeted for 2022. Which makes me wonder why I keep hearing that the world is in really bad shape (implied CAGW).

      • “The processes that have driven down the cost of a transistor just don’t seem to have found their way into any other process.”

        Sure it has. Just look at the efficiencies that have been created by fracking. On an inflation adjusted basis, gasoline, or oil for that matter, has never been cheaper. And I remember just 8-10 years ago that shale oil was a pipe dream. It won’t last long, but it sure does work after the first frack.

    • Nuclear could easily replace carbon-based fuels for pretty much everything except small vehicle transportation. All the shipping, trains, ect could be done via nuclear powered vehicles. The one thing standing in the way of that would be safety concerns about crashes/theft of nuclear transport vehicles.

      • Creating liquid fuels just take energy.
        It comes down to cost, and cost is a simple way to determine which way of doing something is most practical given then present realities.
        Solar is a diffuse energy source.
        Nuclear is not.
        It seems to me that algae as a fuel source will be practical when a process is devised that is akin to tapping a pipe into a maple tree and collecting the sap.
        Algae dripping fuel into tubes and pipes with little or no ongoing effort is what is needed.
        Declaring that since oil came from algae it is the only long term solution to our energy needs seems to me to be “picking the winner”.
        It is the best solution if it can be made to be the most efficient overall way to turn sunlight into a liquid fuel.
        Assuming that this is a suitable replacement for all liquid fuels.
        Which I do not think it is…I cannot recall seeing any small motors which can run on diesel oil.

    • “This is evident in photosynthesis shutting down at 150-180 ppmv, which we were very near at the height of the last ice age, and probably had something very significant to do with the Mega Fauna extinction.”

      Try telling that to a green, they refuse to believe it, refuse to acknowledge it, ignore it, divert the conversation, ask for peer reviewed proof, throw their teddies out the pram etc. But in the scheme of things, I would far rather be heading northwards than southwards and take my chances.

      Not that I believe CO2 has anything whatsoever to do with increasing global temperatures.

    • Synthetic fuel plants are vulnerable, particularly to air attack.
      “On May 19, 1944, after …..the attack, Hitler received me…..I described the situation……’The enemy has struck us at one of our weakest points. If they persist at it this time, we will soon no longer have any fuel production worth mentioning’.”
      On June 24, 1944, Speer states “….the allies staged a new series of attacks which put many fuel plants out of action. On June 22, nine-tenths of the production of airplane fuel was knocked out.”
      On July 28, 1944, Speer sent a memorandum to Hitler. “I implored Hitler……to reserve a significantly larger part of the fighter plane production……to protecting the home hydrogenation plants……”
      November 10, 1944. “Meanwhile the army, too, had become virtually immobile because of the fuel shortage.”
      Huge biomass plants piping to a synthetic fuel plant look an easy target, even if only 25% of the missiles reach the target.
      Not good in a shooting war.

      • And by that logic, we should shut down all our oil refineries. They might be destroyed in war…

    • You say: The lesson here is that human kind will probably always be dependant on carbon based fuels, at least for many applications that will never be run on electricity or batteries.

      Oh Ron, what a howler.

      Electricity isn’t an energy source at all – it is an energy transport system. All those electricity recharging points for electric cars are running on whatever mix of energy sources (coal, gas, nuclear, solar, wind, etc.) that happens to be the used.

      The current case for electric cars is that they are non-polluting at the point of use. The current case against electric cars is that they are not yet a cost- or space-efficient form of transport, hence the need for unsustainable government subsidies. Unsustainable because, in the UK at least, the loss of the fuel tax would bankrupt the government if we all suddenly decided to drive electric cars…

      • David C. Speaking of howlers, by your own definition, coal, oil and gas aren’t technically an energy ‘source’ either. They are the result of photosynthesis eons ago by sunlight for which we get a relatively free lunch on a one time basis. Maybe over 200+ years. Hydrogen from electrolysis isn’t a fuel source either, but we use it as as an energy source. In your definition, hydrogen would be a fuel source if it were cracked from NG, but not electrolysis. I think we are both wasting our time on this one since I know we both know what we mean.
        Why do people bother to comment on the obvious, or a comma or just throw stuff at the wall at hope it sticks.

  23. I wouldn’t laugh at the mistakes of venture capitalists – after all, they are not scientists or engineers and must look to others for knowledge about what is possible or feasible.

      • Many of them are investing their own money.
        The opportunistic scoundrels are the ones getting a fat payday from government grants, and then never producing a thing.
        And these grants seem to have been, in the past anyway, apportioned based more on politics and the repaying of favors that on merit or promise of technological advancement.

      • @Menicholas

        Corporate Venture capitalist’s like 3i who invest in schemes like this, never invest their own money.

        Anyone calling themselves a venture capitalist investing their own money is just a private investor.

        Trust me, I have been involved with private investors and at one time dreamed of the chance of venture capital, then a mate of mine was skinned alive by 3i. They took his business all his money, house, reputation the lot. They funded his management buyout of a business with a T/O of £20M or so when the owner retired about 20 years ago. The first problem the business hit, a matter of months into the buyout (which was no big deal, a client pulled out of a deal which hit the T/O projections but not profitability) they invoked a clause in the contract, shut the company down, sold the contracts, assets and property; made 50 or so staff redundant and walked away with a very healthy profit.

        They will capitalise on government grants, but to be fair, who doesn’t? More fool the government for interfering in business, they should steer well clear because their influence upsets the entire business dynamic.

  24. In 2008, I attended a conference on algae called the Carbon Recycling Forum in Scottsdale, AZ. All the big players in Algae were there and gave sufficient info to calculate a few interesting facts. The object was to take the CO2 from the Arizona power and light Apache power plant and convert it to fuel using algae. The plant produces 400 MW power emitting 3.7 million tons/year of CO2. I calculated that the algae field needed to capture the CO2 from the power plant would require 64 sq mi of land and cost $32B. If all the CO2 were converted into fuel, that would be 23,600 bbl/day of fuel, but algae only converts CO2 into biomass during high sun hours (say 10 to 4) or 8 hours/day and at best it is 40% oil. Thus the best you can expect is 1/3 that or maybe 3,200 bbl/day. Capital costs alone at $32B make algae fuel capital cost $512,000/bbl product.

    No one at the conference wanted to point that out. Nor did they acknowledge that low angle sunlight cannot penetrate water to be useful for photosynthesis. Nor did the discuss that the electric power requirements were higher than the energy yield from fuel production just for filtration of the algae from the water, let alone drying and extracting the oil from the algae.

    There are other concerns as well. Genetically altered algae are not native species, and open trough algae fields will revert to native species quickly. Also, no one accounted for dirt and sand accumulation in open fields of water and didn’t even mention evaporation losses which can amount to 10 vertical feet per yr in arid hot climates. The did mention using brine at one point, but what do you do with all the salt accumulation when water evaporates from brine?
    The list of issues is so large that no engineer would ever consider building this type of facility. Yet people still think that algae fuel is the future. And to do that would essentially destroy the desert environment that normal people would want to preserve as best possible.

      • I was just putting “an acre of algae could yield 5,000 to 10,000 gallons of oil a year” into a meaningful context.

        A capex of $512,000/bbl isn’t even competitive with Green River Oil Shale.

    • I’ve got a 10,000 gallon lined koi pond and I can attest that getting algae to do what you want is far from trivial. If there were an efficient and economical way to get micro-cellular algae and cyano-bacteria out of water, there is a lucrative market for it.

  25. The surface footprint is a big issue when they are talking about 238 bbl/acre. Let’s put that land use into perspective. The U.S. produces about 5 million bbl crude per day — or it was at $80+ oil — which is 1.825 Bbbl/year. 1.825Bbbl/year/238bbl/acre/year=7.668MM acres, which is almost 12,000 square miles, or over 1,000 square miles more than all of New Jersey and Long Island combined.

  26. Combustion of liquid fuels provides the best stored energy to weight ratio and so for transport purposes there really aren’t any other options (at least on the scale we need in a modern society). Fossil hydrocarbons seem to be much more prevalent than was thought even 10 years ago (let alone 20 or 30 years ago) so we really don’t seem to be in need of alternative sources for quiet a few years yet.

    That said, our current theory of the genesis of underground hydrocarbons is one which for which the logical assumption is a decline in availability at some stage in the future. At that stage, it is sensible to presume that biofuels will have a role in replacing some of the demand currently filled by fossil fuels. The calculation of when (in the future) this point is reached is purely economic – i.e. when do fossil fuels become so expensive that biofuels can compete on price. Governments have been trying to game this market by various price-altering ways (mandates and subsidies), but in the end the market hasn’t really changed.

    To be fair to the various governments, they did have a lot of people telling them that oil prices were only going in one direction when they put in place subsidies for research into biofuels – 20 years ago there were not too many people forecasting that we would have the kinds of production levels and proven reserves that we now have. However, subsidies have ended up (as they always seem to do) creating an alternative market, where farmers receive inflated prices for certain crops and whole industry sectors have grown up on the basis of continuing government mandates and subsisdies. Given the maxim that every change is for the worse (because the only people who complain are those who will lose out, however small a minority they are), getting rid of the subsidy/mandate market is politically impossible – look forward to many more years of it!

    • For reference, the Navy will only accept hydrocarbon renewable fuels. Biodiesel and ethanol are not ‘Drop-In” fuels for any DOD application. Biodiesel (Fatty Acid Methyl Ester–FAME) is not allowed for use in any deploy-able vehicle. So FAME must be hydroprocessed into “Green Diesel” or jet which does not contain any oxygenates. This fuel is stable and actually improves on the stability of conventional fuel. However, it takes a lot of hydrogen to convert the oxygenates in biodiesel into hydrocarbons and water. That is where the cost is, which must be added to the cost of the fatty oil feedstock. Currently soybean oil is $0.38/lb and it takes about 8 lbs of soybean oil to make a gallon of Green Diesel. Assume processing costs of near $1/gal, and you have $4.20/gal fuel. No wonder you need a subsidy like RINs and LCFS (Calif.) to make this work. Only California can afford to purchase Green Diesel (like Neste NextBTL) as they subsidize this significantly. No free market economy would support this activity.

      • “However, it takes a lot of hydrogen to convert the oxygenates in biodiesel into hydrocarbons and water.”

        The “consensus” understanding of where no-so-green Diesel or Jet A comes from is that lipid-rich algae in anoxic ponds or lakes of long ago formed sediments that turned into shale that became the source rock for petroleum trapped in those sedimentary basins.

        How did the oxygenates in those lipids get turned into saturated (with hydrogen) straight-chain hydrocarbons. Not saying it didn’t happen, but does anyone have an explanation other than “Step 3, Profit!”?

        J F Kenney complains that it is thermodynamically impossible under crustal temperatures and pressures (I guess he means in an equilibrium process) to turn plant matter such as cellulose into the straight-chain saturated hydrocarbons found in oil, and people have said, “Foolish person, coal comes from plant cellulose, oil comes from algal liquids.” OK then, where does the hydrogen come from to turn algal liquids into straight-chain saturated hydrocarbons as found in oil?

    • Yup, just like everyone in 1902 telling the Wright Brothers that flying was a pipe dream. Even the US Navy didn’t take flying serious until 10 years later… Never listen to the status quo. Or an old washed up petroleum geologist. Kidding…

  27. “However, 1 acre of algae requires 1 acre of land.”

    Not necessarily A hydroponic algae growing operation could be built vertically.

    In stead of a flat acre of algae production, you could have a cubic acre.

    • The dimensions of a cubic acre are L^6.
      Wow, that is seriously multi-dimensional.
      Beats acre feet for certain.

      • @ Philip Mulholland,

        You are confused. An acre is a unit of area (flat, 2 dimensional). An acre foot is a unit of volume which is the amount of water that would cover 1 acre to a depth of 1 foot. A square with an area of 1 acre (the standard land plot acre is rectangular 660 feet x 66 feet) would be 208.71 feet x 208.71 feet. So a cubic acre would be 208..71 feet x 208.71 feet by 208.71 feet. .

      • MattS
        It is you who is creating the confusion. The original definition of an acre is the amount of land that could be ploughed in a day by a yoke of oxen. It consists of a strip of land 1 chain (66 feet) wide by 10 chains (660 feet) long, which is one furlong. So an acre is a measurement of area of a particular shape used to measure ploughing. This is not very useful in science or mathematics.
        You choose to redefine an acre as an exact square and then invent the spurious measurement of a cubic acre based on your redefinition of an acre.
        I do not follow your logic and I certainly do not follow your mathematics. There is a very good reason why volumes of rock are measured in acre feet. There is no such measurement as a cubic acre except in a Donald Duck universe.

    • Algae biofuel is a method of capturing solar energy.
      Making a pond as deep as it is wide would be incredibly expensive and not increase total amount of sunlight available for conversion via photosynthesis.
      Building a structure which is transparent and strong enough to hold a cubic acre of water?
      Good luck wit’ dat.
      Anything with 40% lipid content is likely going to be floating…deeper will not help for that reason as well.
      And if it did somehow fill the entire volume of the cube…there is the small problem of retrieving it.
      I know!
      The could make a one acre motorized sieve and store in on the bottom, and then just lift it up to strain the algae out.
      Then you just need to climb up and get it.
      Hmm…an autoscraper?

      Where is Rube Goldberg when we really need him?

      • I’m talking about a singular pond of a cubic acre.

        I saw an article once describing a plan for a vertical algae farm. The algae wes to be grown in a three dimensional structure made of clear acrylic piping. Vastly more surface area than a simple flat pond.

        There are other ways to do it, spacing out many small grow ponds in a three dimensional arrangement.

        Your entire objection is built on a failure of imagination.

      • MS I think the problem is not so much capturing the energy from the sunlight but having enough sunlight over the acre in the first place to capture.
        The walls of a square piped structure would capture the light, but would overshadow the rest of the pipes.

      • Exactly Lewis.
        I have imagination Matt, but also practical experience.
        This is a method of capturing solar energy.
        Diffuse light will not work…not enough energy to capture.
        You need direct sky exposure.
        I do not know what your imagination is telling you, but mine is telling me you are not paying attention to the details.

      • Maybe it would help to imagine instead trying to get more electricity from solar panels on a one acre plot by stacking them up in a one acre cube.
        It does not matter how you arrange them…the amount of incoming solar energy available for capture is a function of the area covered, not of the volume of collectors.

      • BTW, Phillip is exactly right…a cubic acre is not a thing.
        If and when you take any science classes, you will be well advised to learn early to pay attention to dimensional analysis. It will almost always tell you if you have set up your equation correctly…all the units must balance out.
        There is no such thing as a cubic acre in three dimensional space.
        Imagine that.
        I think someone here is confused alright, Matt.

      • MattS, it is you who are failing to understand reality. It doesn’t matter how fanciful your design is, if you can’t get the sunlight to the algae.

      • For the sake of argument, which has improved the comments so far…. LED Lighting. There are several commercial ventures now doing vertical hydroponics for everyday vegetables in multi level structures, sometimes up to 7-8 levels high. And planned higher. And they are commercial ventures not being subsidized by anyone. They wouldn’t be done if this if it wasn’t economic.

        I get the concept of a ‘cubic’ acre foot. It is length x width x height. 43,560 sq feet per level is 1 acre. Go up 10 levels on 1 acre gives you 10 acres of flat acreage on the footprint of 1 acre. Maybe it isn’t a recognized unit of measurement, but we all know what is being implied. This is just volumetric arithmetic. Why make a fuss over something we all know what is being discussed.

        If the lighting input was cost effective low power LED luminance, fed with CO2 from CCS capture from a coal plant, and add warm water from the coal plant cooling towers, then there will be a positive accounting of energy out in the form of bio oil from Algae. It also solves lots of problems like temperature for year round operation in cool climates, smell, collection of algae etc, so I think the concept has merit. Plus it solves the problem of having to axe the coal fired electricity plant, because now it is needed for the CCS CO2, the parasitic load for LED lighting, and the waste heat. Sounds like a win-win.

        Would I invest in one? I don’t know yet, because it hasn’t really been done yet. But it does sound commercially viable to me when adding up all factors.

      • That is ridiculous Ron.
        You are going to use electricity to make light, then use photosynthesis to capture some of that light and transform it into fuel to make energy?
        Are you really thinking this through?
        Or do you just not understand how inefficient this is?

  28. One day but not yet. Many of us will remember the large shale oil project in the USA circa 1973. Politicians and economic development types will take capital for projects good or bad. They usually consider economic activity a positive regardless of cost.

    Barrack Obama and Joe Biden went on an economic disaster tour of green projects early in their first term. If they visited your plant it was time to update your resume.

    There should be a blog that dies nothing but track these disasters in detail.

  29. A 10,000 ga/acre of oil has energy of around 4 Gj/m2 and annual average insolation is 5.4 Gj/m2.

    Since photosynthesis is 3-6% efficient (solar reflections, respiration, cell division and maintenance), the algae can store at most 5.4*0.06= 0.3 Gj/m2.

    Thus one acre algae can generate at most 10,000*0.3/4= 750 ga of oil, not 10,000.

    I am surprised VCs did not notice this fallacy.

    • Particularly when 10,000 gal/ac/yr was already insignificant compared to crude oil.

      [Gallon per ?? per year? (ac = acre ??) .mod]

      • Ac is the abbreviation for acre.

        Gal/ac/yr = gallons per acre per year.

        I should have expressed it as (gal/ac)/yr.

  30. Three and a quarter years ago, on Jan. 5, 20014, Lesley Stahl hosted, on CBS’s “60 Minutes” program, an episode called “The Cleantech Bust.” Its subtitle was “Despite billions invested by the U.S. government in so-called “Cleantech” energy, Washington and Silicon Valley have little to show for it.”
    Its transcript is at http://www.cbsnews.com/news/cleantech-crash-60-minutes/

    Solazyme (SZYM) (now TerraVia (TVIA)) grew and grows algae in large fermentation silos in Brazil, using sterilized sugar cane and water, plus pumped-in filtered air, to grow algae to make oils for various purposes, currently for use as fish feed. Its “engineered” algae don’t require light to grow. However, it is much too costly to be used as biofuel. The company got out of biofuel-making ahead of others in the field. Its most notable success was in a rejuvenating skin cream cosmetic called algenist, which costs a pretty penny. (It’s been sold to another company.)

    The company had an IPO around ten years ago over $22; currently it is at around 50 cents.

  31. Bates College just started burning a proprietary biofuel, manufactured by Canada-based Ensyn Corp., in one of its three campus boilers…. Since Bates switched from natural gas to RFO for its primary heating fuel, on Jan. 10, those emissions have shrunk by roughly 83 percent.
    Because RFO is not a fossil fuel, burning it does not release fossil carbon into the atmosphere. .. in a typical year, burning 70 percent RFO will cut the steam plant’s emission of carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e) from about 3,080 metric tons to 532.

    • Wait…if they use 70% of this stuff, then their emissions decline by nearly 83%?
      How does that work?
      Would not the other 30% still create the same emissions as they always have?
      That sounds like saying that if I use rainwater for 70% of my water needs, my water bill will go down by 83%
      And BTW…what sort of fuel was used in the operation to cut the trees, transport them, convert them, and transport the fuel to the Bates site?
      These sorts of calculations always sound like they use sketchy info and are largely hype and are, basically…not even close to the whole story.
      IOW, BS.

  32. Algae ponds can go on the roofs of the buildings in our cities. That way, the inhabitants of these cities – who pass all the laws – will learn rather fast that there is no such thing as “Renewable Energy”

  33. Algal biofuels do have potential. The advantages over crop based biofuels is that you can build ponds in the sea that do not compete with food crops. The yields per acre are impressive if you have all the right inputs. These are lots of sun, political stability and a source of CO2 from say a power station. The costs are theoretically competitive with fossil fuels, but not yet practically competitive. The fact is that taking oil from the ground is extremely cheap. It is really hard to produce fuel as cheaply. We are talkng a few cents per kilogram. To keep costs to a minimum it is probably pointless to think of plastic tubes etc. The only viable option is probably open salt water ponds that are cheap to build. The contamination problem is then accute, so you can theroetically select or breed algae that can tolerate conditions that invaders find inhospitable. Harvesting can be energy intensive. Approaches such as centrifugation simply use too much energy for cost effectiveness. So you are lookng for less energy intesive methods of isolating the algae, such as ultrasonic focussing.

    If succesful, algae offer the opportunity to produce significant amounts of transport fuel without reducing food production – something that plant based bio-fuels can not do.

    It is all about marginal costs. If you can produce algal fuel at 20c /L, but petrodiesel is 15c/L you cannot survive. There are plenty of ways to shave off a few cents per litre in theory, so algal fuels may yet have a future.

    One of the problems I mentioned above is political stability. Many of the otherwise ideal sites for such ponds are in politically unstable areas.

    • Algal biofuels absolutely do have tantalizing potential… hence the collapsed bubble of VC investment in algal biofuels.

    • DOE currently estimates that algal biofuel costs could be brought down to $10-14/gal to manufacture.

      The retail price for diesel is about $1.86/gal here, excluding $0.44/gal State & Federal taxes.

      When your manufacturing costs are 5-7 times the retail sales price of your competition, you are in the wrong business.

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