back to article Gas crunch: Jatropha, kudzu, algae and magic to rescue

Read the daily reports on what to do to counter high gas prices, and you'll see the importance of magic in US energy strategy. A rich variety of schemes have been put forward, literally within weeks of the gas crunch, delivered with the traditional slogan that occurs to every editorial writer who believes children's fairy tales …


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  1. Mark

    Was there a point to that?

    Really can't see one.

  2. Paul Kinsler

    deliberate misrepresentation?

    xx It was a remarkable thing to print since the consumption of any

    xx carbon-based fuel, whether it comes from algae or kudzu, produces

    xx greenhouse gas.

    If you don't use the rhetorical device of stripping away the context, what was (presumably) meant was: No NET emission of CO2. And if conversion is done using the energy from the algae, no net emission should be achievable -- the algae absorbs CO2 to make algae.

    Unless algae take significant carbon from non-CO2 sources to grow -- this might be true for plants, but for algae in water?

    It may or may not be judged "economic", of course. But it's often hard to compete against the hundreds of millions of years of biological and geophysical subsidy that fossil fuel got to convert solar energy to hydrocarbon.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Paris Hilton

    What about peanuts?

    Didn't Jimmy Carter get the prez job because unlike the other oil-rich perps,er prezies, peanuts can be made into a bio-diesel type fuel and so make him and the whole 'hidden govt' that runs the world spanking loads of cash.

    Who else likes a spanking and has loads of cash....

  4. Legless


    There is great deal of research been done into algae into oil. And it's worth looking at. There are even genetically modified algae that produce huge quantities of oil.

    All they need to grow is sunlight and C02.

    Of course, growing and processing them in anywhere near commercial quantities will throw up lots of gotchas, but I'm intrigued by the possibility of using waste C02 from a coal plant to feed carbon hungry algae.

    If it's possible, it would be a nice solution.


  5. Andrew Oakley
    Black Helicopters

    Soylent Green

    "algae as a cure-all for everything: carbon sequestration, water purification, automotive fuel and energy"

    Algae. Yeah, right. Algae. That's what they said Soylent Green was made of.

    Green biofuel is people!

  6. Hal Dace

    The point seemed to be...

    That there's no point in trying to find additional energy sources, since you'll just attract mockery from the Reg.

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The Point?

    Just a reminder that there are no quick fixes to GW or alternative fuels. Given what I hear people say where I live, those reminders are needed frequently!

    Whereas the ideas sometimes sound promising, it's the shear size of the problem, and the resultant efficiencies and production scales required, that make many of them non-starters. The numbers are just F****** HUGE.

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Jobs Horns

    Kool-Aid-Fueled Kars

    Bravo for a well-administered dose of biofuel herbicide. Whenever the inconvenience of high fuel prices becomes great enough, all of my fellow countrymen with a predisposition to right wing survivalist isolationism or left wing communal agrarian utopianism find common cause in touting miracle cures that are somehow in tune with natures own digestive processes.

    Of course, I'm little different, as I've been convinced since I was 13 that the only viable energy strategy involves hydrogen-fueled internal combustion engines. Sure, generating hydrogen -- especially from water -- is inefficient, but a big investment in infrastructure will eventually amortize at any price. And vehicles using such a system will need to condense and save their exhaust for reclamation, otherwise Los Angeles really will be the land of perpetual rain like it was in "Blade Runner." Although maybe there's value in venting the exhaust in places like the spreading edge of the Sahara (where there are, what, 5 cars? 6?).

    Yep. Those biofuel cranks are totally lining their brains with tinfoil, but we hydrogen cranks, we have the magic wand. Now let's get ourselves a tasty slice of that congressional pork pie!

    Wait a minute. Do I see the bacterial crude guys gaining in the rear view mirror?

  9. Mark
    Dead Vulture

    I think the point was . . .

    . . . that the only real solution at the moment is to use less fuel and what we do use to be more efficent about it. All the other proposed schemes are going to make a tiny impression.

  10. Miami Mike


    Nuclear power plants (lots of them) plus some solar and some hydroelectric (every bit helps), mostly electric cars and trucks. Gasoline/jet A only for vehicles like airplanes and smaller boats, where straight electric isn't yet practical.

    Nuclear for plenty of electricity - better insulation on houses, businesses, more telecommuting.

    The "nuclear waste" problem is a straw man - it can be contained and disposed of pretty safely. Waste from coal or oil burning power plants is CO2 plus other pollutants - some of which are known carcinogens - and we are currently disposing of them directly into the atmosphere - you just can't see them, so no one is upset about them. They're only poisoning the world, right now, instead of "could" and "might" like the big bad nuclear waste boogie man the NIMBY crowd loves to hate.

    If it were not for the rabid anti-nuclear crowd, we'd have had sufficient power capacity years ago (like France, a net exporter of nuclear-generated electricity) and there would BE no energy crisis, no OPEC (because no one would need very much of their product), and probably no war in Iraq.

    Anything you do creates waste - at least we track and are careful to dispose of or store nuclear waste properly - while the waste from other sources we are busy breathing.

    If we could cut all the politics and the fearmongering and the eco-bullshit out of the energy problem, we could put OPEC out of business in five years, and bring global warming to a halt.

    You want to talk about it while you drown, or do you want to DO something?

  11. Anonymous Coward

    re:What about peanuts?

    Mr Diesel himself in his very first engine did infact use peanut oil!

    And have you noticed that you cant buy ground nut oil in the supermarkets now?

    yes oddly peanuts are good! they dont need much processing, but dont they need a reasonable amount of water?

  12. Gordon Pryra

    Just use less

    But thats a bit hard when the average human bieng believes

    1) In a god who made this world and all its resources for humans to use at will

    2) Someone else will fix the problem

    3) in nothing but himself, who gives a shite what happens 10, 20 or 30 years down the line.

    4) That companies need to expand, and that, for the share holders, they are allowed to do what the hell the want

    5) The politicians (ignoring the fact that they are just making cash for their own little enterprises)

  13. SpeakerToAliens

    Manhattan Project == Nuclear Fusion!

    Isn't a lot of money being spent by many countries on a Nuclear Fusion reactor in France? Isn't that, quite literally, the modern equivalent of the Manhattan Project?

    Mine's the one with the "Ready Brek" glow around it.

  14. Tom Turck

    Thank you Standard Oil

    The core of the wealthly elite in America has its origins in fossil fuels...suggesting that Americans create/use an efficient/renewable mass transportation system is akin to becoming communist, hippy, tree-hugging, French speaking, metric users....

    What next socialized medecine?

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Stand by for action!

    I have solved the problem people!

    > The telly is off at the wall. <

    My work here is done.

    I didn't expect Dick Destiny to be anti-research on this one, I'd have thought he'd have liked the idea of throwing money at investigating the problem.

    His bucket of algae might not produce much, but then a bucket of wheat wouldn't get you much bread either - how many buckets in the sea?

  16. goggyturk
    Thumb Up

    Forget Algae...

    I saw an article on this in Wired, about some Silicon Valley types trying to create some bubble-type hype over this. It all sounds really exciting until they mention that one rather large reaction tank might produce 1 bbl/day under ideal conditions and that it would take a plant the size of Chicago to produce about 25% of the USA's needs.

    Just build some nuclear reactors!

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Wouldn't Cannabis be a viable source of fuel?

    Oil bearing seeds to produce fuel.

    Fibres from the stems to produce textiles and paper.

    Recreational products from the flowers to produce fun.

  18. Peter Dawe

    Numbers PLEASE

    We use around 88million barrels of oil p.a.


    How many square miles of weeds, solar thermal or other?

    How many m3 of water

    How many $m invested

    What proportion of key non-sustainable minerals needed

    per million barrels p.a. of course.

    Then we can see if the proponents or the detractors are fanticists!


  19. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Dear Dick

    Hot effluent gases can be used in CHP technology, providing nice warm water for the algae to multiply and anabolise in, or even, where the plant is near population centres, hot water to actual dwellings, or 'free' steam to help extract the oil from the biomass.

    Yes it'll take a lot, but there are a lot of power stations already. Spread the love.

    You're right that it doesn't exist, but its potential hasn't even been explored yet, so why pooh-pooh the idea? Chlorophyll is a more efficient solar energy-capture mechanism than pretty much anything else we've got. A bit of (genetic) engineering stands a chance of producing a technology that might help reduce (not eliminate; there's not enmough solar wattage in the areas around electricty generation plants to where you'd want to pipe the gases to replace the inpout from black gold, but a supplement isn't impossible to achieve) the dependence on mineral oil and the amount of CO2 being added to the atmospheric mix.

    It's not a "perpetual motion machine" any more than those solar-powered cars that race in Oz every year are: there's an external source of energy being proposed, i.e. the Sun.

    Why have you bothered stringing so many half-baked counterarguments together, Dick? Are you being ironical, or dim? Or are you just suffering from imagination failure today?

    No, it's not a magic bullet, but the reality of today is that if you don't oversell something, you don't get any funding to develop it.

  20. Martin Gregorie

    Re: algae

    Biofuel production is inefficient because plant metabolism is only as efficient as it needs to be to compete with other plants.

    I've read (in New Scientist - and sorry! no reference to hand) that the highest yield you can get from biofuel production is equivalent to collecting 500 watts/sq.m. of solar energy. That boils down to under 50% efficiency in the UK and a lot less in sunnier places - and that's without figuring in the costs of refining and distributing the biofuel. Industrial solar energy capture in hot deserts like the US South-Western states or North Africa could do much better than that, thus providing a lot more energy from smaller and hence cheaper installations.

    IMO biofuel is a non-starter without a massive drop in energy use and/or equally massive global depopulation.

  21. Steven Hunter

    Perpetual Motion

    "...smack a bit of the old plans for perpetual motion machines."

    Uh, except that the sun is a part of this system... Huge ball of plentiful energy that gets injected into the system.

    Think about it this way:

    You do X amount of work produces Y carbon.

    You capture Y carbon in algae using solar power (via photosynthesis).

    You then do Z amount of work, producing Y carbon.

    So for Y carbon you can dor X+Z work instead of X work alone.

    How *viable* the system is remains to be seen though.

  22. Roger Ruffley

    Florida and Texas

    "It does no good to mention that all of, let's say Florida, Texas or a couple other states, would need to be turned over to [Jatropha biodiesel production]."

    It doesn't? Sounds like a great idea to me. The whole of Texas and Florida, nothing but weeds.

    Indeed, why stop there? How many other states are there?

    [NOTE: I'm joking... well, other than about Texas]

  23. Anonymous Coward
    Paris Hilton

    @Nuclear power plants

    Nuclear power plants. Three choices at the moment:

    1) Fusion - tech not ready, but hopeful

    2) Thorium (or other fissile) reactors - tech not ready, but

    3) Existing fission tech - max 100 years fuel left in the ground, assuming no increase in consumption. Plenty in the sea, but extraction tech currently consumes more energy than the fuel can generate

    4) Existing breeder fission tech - could extend fuel reserves by a factor of 60, and because of the problems above, is the only realistic nuclear option. Problem - we need to be replacing our old reactors with these, and building new ones now. And we're not, we're mostly sticking with replacement. Even if it only takes a decade or so to start building them, we'll have burnt most of the fuel before they come online.

    The waster problem isn't as bad as the greenies say because theoretically, it's containable and can be made safe. Sadly, in the real world, we are proving incapable of doing it properly, and it's turning out to be hideously expensive.

    Which leads further into the problem - nuclear is currently slightly cheaper for the end user than renewables. But only if you discount security and waste disposal (shouldered by government and hence the tax payers). Realistically, with peak-fuel approaching and demand increasing, it's going to get more expensive and it's going to do it exponentially. Also bear in mind that current fission is at the end of it's improvement cycle - we aren't going to squeeze much more out of what fuel we have.

    So, yes, nuclear could tide us over until we work out fusion or something else, but in reality, it has a supply problem that we aren't doing anything about, it's too expensive, and we're too disorganised to do get together and solve the problems.

    It is PART of the solution, but it's not enough.

    Renewables aren't the whole answer either, but we can build them now, have them working in weeks or months, not years, and we can guarantee that most of them are going to improve in efficiency and cost, without causing any waste or security problems.

    Paris, because she's better with a calculator than most of the nuclear industry

  24. Anonymous Coward

    But surely

    ...AGW is all just a lot of nonsense by environazis and research-grant hungry "scientists" who are all secretly in the pay of Greenpeace. And anyway, I need my car to get to work. Sorry reality, my need to earn a living outweighs the laws of physics. Stuff Boltzman, have you seen the price of a pint these days?

    Seriously though, since 1988 I've been getting steadily more and more pessimistic about the chances of humanity doing anything to even /delay the onset/ of the tipping-point changes that are going to wipe out industrial civilisation as we know it today. (Think I'm exaggerating? Try looking up world cities within 20m of current sea-levels. Now bear in mind that the world's ports are also going to be under water, so no more international shipping, and by that time the price of oil will have long made air travel an expensive luxury only available to the super-rich.)

    Doomed, I tell you, doomed. Ha ha, only serious.

  25. Anonymous Coward

    re. Was there a point to that?

    I think the point is that if the US (and by extension the rest of the world) wants to replace oil with some kind of farmed alternative fuel then it's just wishful thinking.

    The point is that all the schemes outlined come to nothing when you try to scale them up to match the consumption of the US!

    Any scheme that involves using farmland to grow fuel is going to come into conflict with the need to feed people.

    The choices seem to be:

    1) Use a lot less fuel per person (not popular in the US)

    2) Have a lot less people (not popular anywhere really)

    3) Magic fuel out of thin air (answers on a postcard please)

    Yes, there's a lot of scope for creating electricity from nuclear power and renewables, but this isn't very useful for powering anything made in Detroit. Energy consumption for automotive use is the issue.

    The world is going to change radically over the next fifty years (even if climate change isn't real, consumption of fossil fuels is); you can either start now and do it relatively painlessly or you can keep ignoring the issue and wait for the painful energy crunch.

  26. Swee' Pea

    RE: Cannabis?


    You got the order wrong.

    If you start with "Recreational products from the flowers to produce fun" then the requirements for the other products reduce. The only travel required is to the fridge and then the grocery, when the fridge is empty!

  27. Eric Worrall

    Hombrew nuclear reactor

    If some oddball kid could get the materials to build an almost viable nuclear reactor in his parent's shed, maybe its time that all of us consider cutting our home power and heating bills, with a little box which sits in the corner which we dont talk about.

  28. Sam

    @ Martin Gregorie

    "I've read (in New Scientist - and sorry! no reference to hand) that the highest yield you can get from biofuel production is equivalent to collecting 500 watts/sq.m. of solar energy. That boils down to under 50% efficiency in the UK and a lot less in sunnier places"

    Err,shouldn't that be MORE in sunnier places? More sun..more energy?

  29. JeffyPooh

    I've got an idea...

    I was reading up on the global warming impact of the concrete industry (which is variously reported as being somewhere between big and huge, 'up to 15% of all man-made CO2 emissions' by some reports).

    The concrete industry claim (I think they mean in the best case, the most energy efficient) that 40% of the CO2 from concrete comes from the fuel / energy required to burn the limestone, and 60% comes from the CO2 expelled from the burning limestone itself.

    The next claim is that the 60% portion is all reabsorbed (from the atmosphere) into the crumbling concrete over the next few (many?) hundred years so it doesn't really count in the long run.

    Anyway, here is the suggestion: A concrete plant is a perfect example of a major point source. So, whatever it costs, sequester the CO2 from all concrete plants. Just do it. The plants can even be relocated to optimum locations and the concrete moved around by train. You can't ask for better than major point sources where you can even adjust the schedule of emissions (unlike power plants). It doesn't get any better.

    Now, with this plan, the concrete becomes a NEGATIVE source of CO2 as it reabsorbs CO2 (the 60%) from the atmosphere over the following few (many?) hundred years.

    It's 1.6 for the price of 1.0 !!! And on major regional point sources that are already a best-case. And the concrete industry need not complain because if they accept this challenge, then we will throw huge buckets of money at them. They should get rich and deservedly so if they help out in this manner.

    It's a no brainer.

    Send the Nobel Prize via e-mail.

  30. Perpetual Cyclist
    Dead Vulture

    I think this is the negotiation stage.

    The stages of grief:

    1. denial

    2. anger

    3. negotiation

    4. sorrow

    5. Acceptance.

    The world is running short of cheap fossil energy, not just oil. No other energy source has the huge energy return on energy invested that a traditional oil well has. Modern industrial society is designed around cheap plentiful fossil energy. There is no plan B. Not even nuclear can make up the shortfall we are facing.

    The global financial model is built on the assumption of ever increasing amounts of cheap fossil energy. That is even more insane. Even if we could make marginal schemes like algal biofuels work, we could never catch up with the demands of exponentially growing global GDP.

    The global economy is going to contract in proportion to the global energy supply. We are profligate with energy, we can adapt to a low energy existence if we try, but it will not much look like industrial society. We have very little time left.

  31. Jim

    @ @Nuclear power plants

    I think you are being a little too positive about nuclear power ;)

    "2) Thorium (or other fissile) reactors - tech not ready, but"

    I thought the usefulness of Thorium is that it can be bred into U233 (would be happy to be corrected on this) that leads on to...

    "4) Existing breeder fission tech - could extend fuel reserves by a factor of 60, and because of the problems above, is the only realistic nuclear option."

    The problem is that breeder fission tech has proved not to be a realistic nuclear option. It seems that expermental breeder reactors are being closed down and research halted in most places with only the French Phenix and Japanese Monju (when not on fire) experimental sites still functional. The Super Phenix is the only example of a commercial size reactor and that was unable to demonstrate anything like the theoretical 1.3 breed ratio, even during the brief intervals when it was operating at capacity. In fact they appeared to have major problems getting above 1. Personally, I find this disappointing as fast breeder tech certainly had a much brighter future than LWR - if they could have got it to work

  32. Nigel
    Thumb Down

    Poor reporting.

    You're wrong about algae.

    Like bacteria, and unlike the higher plants that you rightly disdain as hopeless, algae grow exponentially until they run out of a critical resource. Mostly what they need is CO2 (from the atmosphere) and sunlight (the more the better). And some strains are 80% oil when you squash them - oil that's very easy to process into diesel fuel.

    Algae can be grown both in saltwater (no shortage in the oceans) or in polluted freshwater (which they detoxify as they grow). They don't need much in the way of other nutrients, beyond having what's left after the oil is squished out of them returned to the pond for recycling into more algae. It's bio-solar power in its purest form, and (usefully for vehicles) it generates oil rather than electricity.

    Yes, it would take a vast amount of land covered in ponds to supply our needs. No, that wouldn't be agricultural land. It would be barren desert. There's no shortage of desert. Much of it adjacent to oceans, for the water supply.

    Algae are one of the three renewable technologies that could actually scale up to a big enough scale, the others being solar-thermal and solar-PV. All can make good use of desert land.

  33. Mark

    Re: Nuclear power plants

    And you don't want to be using oil in transport/processing of nuclear material or in construction of the reactor (or extraction of the materials for construction).

    Because it means if you're still using oil, you are now increasing the cost of nuclear power because oil is scarce. Which is WHY you're moving to nuclear.

    So you need to move your machinery over to electric FIRST. Then (if nuclear is cheaper than oil), you can power them from the electric you're generating from the stuff you're digging up. Or from local production (solar/wind/wave/gerbils/...).

    Still people want to make reactors FIRST.

    I dunno why.

  34. Mark

    Re: Numbers PLEASE

    Uh, do it yourself, Peter.

    It's not like you don't already know what to ask, or that you won't be able to find answers.

    Add to the system by doing something, rather than pooh-pooh it because you can only raise the energy to ASK questions rather than ANSWER them.

  35. Mark

    "a tiny impression"

    OK. So solar power will make a tiny impression.

    Power reduction will make a tiny impression.

    Biofuels will make a tiny impression.

    Wave power will make a tiny impression.


    Now, add them all together...

    (heck, do you have trouble walking to the shops because it's a mile away and one step makes a tiny difference to the distance left to go, so why bother?)

  36. james hedley
    Thumb Down


    What was that all about? Usually articles on El Reg are quite good, but that was just a directionless rant!

    Obviously, Yanks need to learn to drive a lot less. Higher fuel prices will do that. Clearly, collecting weeds and squashing them to get the grease isn't going to directly replace all fossils fuels. Yes, corn-to-ethanol is just another Dubya tax-handout to his pals.

    What exactly did that article say that wasn't already blindingly obvious?

    Do you lot have editors?

  37. Jim


    "The "nuclear waste" problem is a straw man - it can be contained and disposed of pretty safely."

    Huh? Disposed of? You mean left in a swimming pool (high/intermediate level) or dumped in a hole in the ground and hoping no one finds it accidentally (low level).

    Roughly every 20 years since the 40's, the nuclear industry has claimed that the waste problem will be solved within 20 years - still waiting. Though sub-critical reactors look hopeful for annihalation of the nastiest stuff, what is being done to properly dispose of the mountains of low level waste?

    "Anything you do creates waste - at least we track and are careful to dispose of or store nuclear waste properly"

    Tracked properly? So how come fuel reprocessing plants carry a significant inventory of missing material, ie stuff that supposedly went in to a process but never came out?

    Stored properly? Most nuclear waste from civilian power is in temporary storage while awaiting permanent storage to be found some time in the future. In fact, in the US, all spent fuel is still stored in cooling ponds at the reactor sites.

  38. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Even if the US cut over to diesel cars they'd go from an average low 20s mpg (UK gallons) to late 40s.

    If they learned to use the cars a little less (you don't need to drive across a car park to go to the next shop), turned off lights when they weren't in the room, didn't run their air-co to 16C this might not be such a problem.

    However, while they do there's little point us doing much more.

  39. Peyton
    Thumb Down

    So what about hard numbers?

    So if a group comes forward and says "we estimate we can produce 10,000 barrels a day via algae" - are you calling them liars, incompetent, what?

    Or are you simply suggesting that because an alternative energy source cannot completely subsume current need, it is not worth pursuing?

    This was a strange article.

    (On the bright side, I had been under the impression that kudzu was brought to the States years ago nefarious Europeans (obviously looking to have some fun watching the US transform into one giant green carpet) - but sparked by this article to look it up in wikipedia - I now know it's the Asians that are to blame for the introduction of this noxious botanical menace to the glorious South ;)

  40. Jerry Adamson


    Harness the energy of flatulent hacks.

  41. Anonymous Coward

    Nuclear and Solar Power Satellites

    Nuclear fission/fusion is a reasonable short term solution, however more energy is needed (huggies advocating "do less with less" should go live in a dank cave somehwere). We are a bit limited energy wise on the surface of this mudball, so what is needed is for the first world to start harvesting all that solar energy in space that is 'going to waste'.

    Even better, America/Europe can do this, but the oil cartels so far can't. Well, we could if there was any national spine anywhere to be found....

    Even a simple expedient of intensifying the insolation at specific areas to enhance algae growth is possible-- and cheap to orbit as a distributed constellation. We need to start somewhere and stop whining.

  42. Mark

    "do less with less"

    Why should they live in a cave? They don't advocate Doing Less With Nothing. YOU advocate that. At least you keep bleating on about living in caves.

  43. Douglas Lancaster
    Thumb Up

    @ Soylent Green

    Liposuction to the rescue!! If we could "harvest" 10 pounds of fat from half the population of the United States per year, that would be.... um... lots. Convert that to biodiesel and we have a renewable source of fuel that will never run out.

    And now all those people who insist on driving their Hummer to their local MickeyD can feel good about themselves as they are actually "fueling the economy".

  44. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Netherlands could grow Algae

    I reckon fusion is stuck in a rut, fifty years from now they'd still be building big hot plasma rings and still trying to make energy. That's not going anywhere without some magic spark to take them in a new direction.

    Fission is reasonable, but short term, with unwanted waste.

    Algae, well as carbon capture it's rubbish, since you need to find somehere to dump it that won't release the CO2 (I can't really imagine pumping it into the mines would work, CO2 would just escape).

    But yeh, farming those big algae plumes are sea is possible not sure if it's viable for the energy.

    I still like my idea of cutting a canal from the pacific to Utah salt flats, (with a tunnel under the rockies). Fertilizing it with excrement from the sewage plants and growing algae as it falls into the dessert.

    I wonder if Netherlands couldn't grow algae in their many shallow diked ponds simply by dumping the sewage INSIDE the dike instead of OUTSIDE. You can see the alga plume here.,3.426361&spn=0.579691,1.078033&t=h&z=10

  45. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    Thanks for remembering me, Reg

    Hey, I just want to say thanks for remembering that I commented on this very issue -- biofuels from algae -- a few months back. Glad to see you're all for it, in your usual "I don't understand this so I'll slag it off" manner.

    Cheers. Let me know when you need some more stories. Or -- tell you what -- just do what I do and learn about the technology. It'll do you good.

  46. mike panero

    Ban fertilizer

    The resulting price increase and natural scarcity of food will starve the excess population to death

    Oh wait thats organic farming

  47. Bruce Clare

    All to the good...

    A few good technology scams to pull all of the speculators out of the commodities markets will help curb the inflation those goons have been contributing to the economy. There's really too much money in the hands of the investing class that they don't know what to do with and they're to greedy to give it up as charitable donations or taxes.

    A good .fuel bubble would get them out of businesses that peoples' lives depend on and might even fund a Yahoo! or Google that actually produces a viable solution.

    Incidentally, regarding the US Sugar buyout in Florida: It's a scam too. By the time the government pays off the bonds that they issue to fund the buyout, the Everglades area will be part of the Gulf of Mexico due to rising sea levels from GW. Figure 30 years tops. US Sugar is just selling ahead of the market.

  48. Brennan Young

    Anyone who thinks the world is only 8000 years old...

    ... will necessarily have a poor grasp of the concept of 'fossil' fuels, and how much time (and what kind of process) is needed to (re)create them. That's part of the problem. You don't just generate the energy equivalent of millions of years of forest sunlight in a few months, or even a few years.

    I think this was a great article. Sober and necessary. As others have pointed out, 'the point' of this article is to remind us of the orders of magnitude involved in solving the energy crisis, and to reiterate that *using much less energy* needs to be part of any reasonable solution. This message needs to be stated over and over again, until the petrolheads get a clue, because it is very unpopular. We also need to realise that there is no *single* solution which will replace fossill fuels, which means we need to consider hybrid and combination solutions.

    Assuming we discover a 'magic spell' to deal with the problem of nuclear waste disposal, nuclear fission will still never be 'the' solution because of the tricky little problem of 'rogue states' and atom bombs and all that. What are Iran and North Korea supposed to use as a energy source? Oh, right, 'we' just don't care. They don't deserve energy because they hate our way of life. Nice solution.

    Well, Kissinger was pushing nuclear fission on Iran before the Islamic revolution. Imagine if their nuclear program had managed to get up and running before the Islamists took over? Wait a minute, what's happening in Pakistan... A 'friendly' country can become a 'rogue' state, and you then have to hope that they have no nuclear program, because by golly dey gonna wanna make dem bombs.

    Thorny problem, but some people still say nuclear power is 'the' solution because they are not seeing the whole problem: Any solution to the energy crisis needs to do more than fit within the laws of thermodynamics, and the logistics of large-scale operation. It also needs to be a politically viable solution. Nuclear fission is, above all, too bloody dangerous for *political* reasons. None of the pro-nuke lobby ever deal with this issue, of course.

    As for nuclear fusion... More 'magic'? Still a pipe dream (hope is good, but it wont solve the energy crisis on its own). What about harnessing the power of hamster wheels? If we had enough hamsters - deployed over an area the size of Texas... yeah... that might just keep Louisiana's richest districts going until we can think of something better. Don't worry, there's plenty of time. Some of our most reassuring politicians say the Hubbart oil peak is still a few years away...

  49. Anonymous Coward
    Paris Hilton

    It's too late already

    For those that are posting here thinking that the alternatives will save all the expensive real estate in low lying places from flooding, it's wake up time! It's already too late!

    The ice caps melt - release trapped CO2, permafrost melts - releases CO2 and trapped Methane, desertification no carbon absorption, sea temperature change - release to deep bound Methane, this chain reaction has started and cannot be stopped!

    Biggest worry - we have a non sustainable water consumption increase, we will be going to war over water in the near future!

    Paris because she will always have bottled water at hand.

  50. Erik Aamot


    yes ..

    1. it's the cellulous interior of the plant that can be fermented into ethanol, at about 3-4 times the volume per acre that's possible with Corn, with less water .. can be grown in a wide range of climates and altitudes

    2.Hemp fixes nitrogen, it's deep roots improve the soil, good rotational crop, particularly for corn .. lowers dependence on chemical fertilizers that are made from, mostly, Natural Gas / Methane

    3.Diesel designed his engine for vegtable oils, and Hemp seed is a good source, potencially more in weight per acre than corn oil per acre. Henry Ford wanted automobiles to run on Hemp alcohol, and had an exception for his own hemp plantations to run his personal cars on

    4.Hemp fiber is the best natural fiber, rope made of hemp last in sea water, and hemp production had to be resumed for the WWII effort because the petroleum industry couldn't provide enough synthetic rope .. Cannabis = Canvas .. same word

    5.Why do you think Hemp is illegal anyway ? .. it was a threat to the oil industry, an economic war between agricultural and industrial financial interests.

    6.US keeps 80-90 million acres fallow, and while some of that is considered 'marginal' it's not so marginal for Hemp production

    Need Nuclear power big time too .. I want a Nuclear powered steam car I only need to refuel once each 20-30 years :)

  51. Neoc
    Thumb Down

    Manhattan Project

    Actually, a "Manhattan Project"-like approach would be good, but it will never happen. Why? Let's look at the original:

    The USA was looking down the barrel of a Germany/Japan joint invasion from both side of the world. Germany was well on its way to producing a "superior" weapon (ie, nuclear bomb). The USA was loosing a lot of people fighting a "conventional" war and needed something to break through. The solution: get a bunch of eggheads together, impress them with the urgency of the problem (ie, people dying in droves *right now*), give them lots of money (indirectly) and equipment to play with, keep the press and general public off their back and tell them "give us a workable solution, *any* workable solution". The result was the nuclear bomb and, indirectly, the nuclear industry (including medical uses).

    So let's look at these points in terms of Today's society:

    1) get a bunch of eggheads together - Should be simple enough. *should* be, but isn't. This si something that would require a world-wide search and, let's face it, Government can't even agree on travel restrictions, ;et alone exchange of data on the next Holy Grail of technology.

    2) impress them with the urgency of the problem - Really? How? When the various agencies can't even agree on how fast the environment is going to pot, let alone on *whether or not* there actually is a problem. Conspiracy Theories abound on both sides.

    3) give them lots of money (indirectly) and equipment to play with - Right. Sure. After all of these years of plaguing researchers about the "usefulness" of theoretical research, suddenly money will be poured into lots of pure theoretical research, one of which (but we don't know which) hair-brained ideas miht produce a solution in time. How long before the scientist are ordered to "produce or else"?

    4) keep the press and general public off their back - <derisive snort>. Sure. And (for example, replace as geographically appropriate) the US Congress doesn't stick its nose in other people's business. Let alone its snout in the trough. Remind me again of what happened to the USA's LHC? Oh, that's right - monetary in-fighting by Congress lobbyists all wanting a slice of the action and ready to kill the LHC so "no-one else can have one either so there!"

    5) tell them "give us a workable solution, *any* workable solution" - Lobbyists, anyone? (see previous point) Anyone with an agenda will be pushing that "their" method is the best. Look at what is happening now - all the numbers show that the only way to *currently* stave off the energy problem long enough to find a "permanent" solution lies with Nuclear power. I may not like it (let's face it, there are problem with the fuel) but even I recognise that if we need to find a stop-gap *right now* (ie, in the next decade or so) to give us time to find a better solution, Nuclear is the only way we can go *at the moment*.

    So. While I would welcome a "Manhattan Project"-like approach to the problem, it will never happen until it's too late.

  52. Keith Smith

    It takes time

    I like driving my car, sorry huggies.

    This article was stupid. Everyone always ignores the economics, in particular the dynamics of the economics as a process becomes mature.

    If we can take kudzu, ferment it, and still off alcohol using solar or nuclear even if it's 1:1 it's still a win. What we've done is converted non-storable energy to storable energy, just like charging a battery. There is always some loss in any kind of energy conversion. A gallon of an organic volitile is pretty tough to match in terms of *stored* available energy for size/weight. How many environmentally unfriendly LiOn's does it take to match a gallon of alcohol? And how long can will they stay charged? How much energy loss in charging?

    "Taking up an area the size of Texas". . . First of all, this is not out of the realm of possibility, but totally ignores technology improvement. I'm pretty sure that once processes get in place to grow things like algae, the technology will improve several orders of magnitude.

    When the Saudi's could drop a barrel of crude on the docks for $6, and send the price of a barrel through the floor with supply the motivation for creating a different storable energy source was ZERO. I don't think we'll see oil drop below $50 again, until/unless we actually have alternatives that can produce and store the same number of calories in a similar footprint at the same cost.


  53. Anonymous Coward

    Inefficiency and rampant consumerism......

    Why do we still have traffic jams that are only occurring because so many people work 9-5 and eat at roughly the same time, not forgetting the similar effect on our electricity supply when these same people get home and all put the Kettle on, and slightly later the cooker.

    Also it is hopelessly inefficient for us to spend good-oil importing poor-quality goods that last very little time at all and will never be repaired. Why for example do we need a new mobile phone charger with every phone? It would be better for us all if we standardised the socket. telly speakers die I should be able to replace them easily!

    Then consumerism, why the hell do so many people buy so much rubbish as presents? They often are thrown away 12months later. And those wealthy bods who buy expensive, smart kitchens for "image", and never use them.

    In in 50years those of us who have not drowned in the rising waters will be cursing our stupidity for running the 4x4 in our own ecological living room!

    The best solution I`ve heard?

    One-family one-child.....and the same people who slated china for this policy are now saying "we should not cut our emissions till they do" (please feel free to insert playground voice).

  54. Don Mitchell

    Whole-Plant Biofuel

    We know ethanol from corn is a bad idea. Biodiesel at least gives more energy than it takes to produce, but using just a drop of oil and throwing away all the rest of a plant's biomass never makes sense. If you plant the entire 400 million acres of arable land in the US with Canola, you can only make enough oil to supply 15 percent of the demand.

    Photosynthesis is only 1 or 2 percent efficient to start with, so if you need to be burning the whole plant for fuel. That's how Brazil gets a 900 percent energy return from their sugar-cane ethanol. That's how Florida Crystals generates enough power to run its factory and power 40,000 nearby homes, from burning cane husk.

    The USA has a LOT of coal, and they've secured the vast oil reserves of Iraq. They will ultimately do a lot better in the coming years than Europe or developing nations who will have the rug pulled out from under then when we pass peak oil production. But it all just buys more time, time that they better use wisely.

  55. Ned Ludd

    Let's face it...

    The future is going to be ugly. The only question now is will it be Blade Runner or the Road Warrior?

  56. MarkMcA
    Paris Hilton


    Bio-fuels do NOT produce any net amounts of greenhouse gas. That's the whole sodding point!

    Every last bit of CO2 they release when burned has previously been taken from the atmosphere by the plant growing in the first place.

    That's how plants work. Look it up.

    Paris - cos she's f*cking thick as well.

  57. Mikel Kirk
    Thumb Down

    Algae is a good answer

    As is switchgrass. Both convert solar energy to usable fuels and output more energy than they require as input.

    Conservation will only do so much. Ultimately this becomes a haves vs have-nots issue.

    The only real answer is global population reduction. Unless we get the number of consumers under control we can out-consume any production or economy solution with population growth.

    Down because the author lacks an informed viewpoint.

  58. michael
    Thumb Up


    I may have been reading it wrong but the only arguments agents alge in the article where in it's "finge" benefeites cleen water etc if you ignore the hype from these and just look at the basics grow the stuff turn it into fule to hell with the rest it is certailey the best of teh lot by far it is easy to grow easy to harvest and with the oil rich types easy to produce a good fule ok you might need a lot of "buckets" but you need quite a lot of space to drill oil as well

  59. Claus P. Nielsen

    Re: Algae

    "All they need to grow is sunlight and C02."

    The above statement really illustrates the whole point of the article to me.

    First of all - besides sunlight and CO2, algae needs water, Oxygen (yes they do), the right temperatures and several basic nutrients in the correct amounts to grow.

    All of this needs to be supplied to the algae in the right amount in order to achieve significant yields.

    Shallow pools would probably be a good solution in terms of getting the sunlight to the algae, but that would take up a lot of space - probably comparable to the space needed for trees or other energy fuel plants.

    Using the seas for algae production raises several nontrivial environmental issues. If you use the areas where there is already a large algae production as the site for industrial algae production, you basically have to destroy the existing ecosystem depending on this algae production.

    If you try to do industrial algae production in regions of the sea, where there is presently only limited algae growth, you will have to change something in that part of the sea to get more algae to grow - most likely adding more nutrients. This is basically what farmers do on their fields all over the industrial world, and since they have problems keeping the nutrients under control in just one place, I would conside it an even more monumental task in the sea. Algae growth would spread to other regions where it would impact the existing ecosystems.

    As long as people are going to recommend certain technologies based on gross simplifications, there is nothing but hot air.

    (By the way - couldn't we use the hot air every one of us breathe out every day to produce energy. We would all become our own powerplant!!!)


  60. mark


    "A lot of money" is relative. The total budget for the ITER reactor is something like 10bn euros over a 30 year period. That isn't much compared with the approx $120bn (in todays money) over 13 years that the apollo program cost, or the $24bn (in todays money) in 5 years or so that the manhattan project got through. And ITER is funded globally, not by a single nation.

    The manhattan project engaged the cream of the scientific talent pool, and about 130,000 people in total. Thats an operation as large as any modern corporation, all devoted to a single goal. Were we to adopt a similar strategy now, i.e. gather the worlds top physicists and engineers and fund them with say 0.1% of US GDP ($13bn per annum, still only a fraction of the cost of the iraq war), I'd expect a working fusion power station would happen sooner rather than later.

  61. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    @ Goggyturk

    "under ideal conditions and that it would take a plant the size of Chicago to produce about 25% of the USA's needs."

    Chicago metro: <19ksqkm

    So call it 100ksqkm to produce 100% of the USA's needs ("non-ideal" condition slack would have to be covered by other means. Total land area of the USA? About 9 million sqkm So about 1.1% of the area for total fuel independence? Doesn't sound too bad. Much of that could be sited in the currently useless deserts. Or every home could have a couple of metre square algae reactor on the roof, or in the yard maybe.

  62. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    @Sam (@Martin Gregorie)


    "I've read (in New Scientist - and sorry! no reference to hand) that the highest yield you can get from biofuel production is equivalent to collecting 500 watts/sq.m. of solar energy. That boils down to under 50% efficiency in the UK and a lot less in sunnier places"


    "Err,shouldn't that be MORE in sunnier places? More sun..more energy?"

    No, Sam's points is that agricultural plants collect 500 watts per sq m anywhere. He is suggesting that the UK recieves 1000 W/sq.m of solar energy -- 500 is 50% efficiency. Now in countries where there's twice as much sunlight, the plants do not grow twice as fast or twice as big -- there still only deliver 500W/sq.m. Where the sun deliver 2000 W/sq.m that's 25% efficiency.

    So agricultural biofuels are extremely inefficient in sunnier climes.

  63. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    >So agricultural biofuels are extremely inefficient in sunnier climes.

    Photo-voltaics aren't 100% efficient either.

    The question is which is the best way to convert sunlight to a storable, transportable, lightweight and safe fuel?

    Since everything we have currently runs quite nicely on oils, a replacement oil would be a big gain.

    Perhaps you could use PV's, use the electricity to split water, split CO2, and fischer tropsch yourself some oil - a mechanised version of a plant, but the bio-plant might still be more efficient even if you're getting more energy from the sunlight.

  64. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    200,000 barrels of oil from Morecambe bay

    I reckon sea based growing is the best bet. It means that these nice 'oil' strains that the companies want to grow are likely unusable. They wouldn't get the fine control they seek in a natural environment and would have to grow whatever strain naturally grows there., But what they lose in efficiency they can make up in cultivation area. We are largely a water covered planet after all.


    "A typical algal mass has a heating value (heat produced by combustion) of 8,000-10,000 BTU/lb, which is better than lignite; but the heating value of algal oil and lipids is 16,000 BTU/lb, which is better than anthracite."

    Patent 3650068

    He was able to grow 100kg dry algae per hectare and per day. Lets assume we can't get his perfect algae growing conditions and get say 1/5th that (number pulled from ass).

    So 20Kg per hectare per day.

    Morecambe bay is about 400km2, = 40000 hectares = 800k kgs per day = about 300 million kgs a year.

    Say 8000 BTU/lbs for ordinary algae, about 4000 BTU per kgs.

    1 Barrel of oil is 5800000 BTUs, so the energy equivalent of a barrel of oil is 1450 kgs, so that's about 206,000 barrels of oil equivalent a year for the area of morecambe bay.

    Not great, but not bad.

  65. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    8% of UK oil from Irish Sea Algae

    Looking at the biggest potential, lets assume we could pump our sewage into the Irish sea, and grow algae there. Thats approx 100,000km2, about 250 times larger than Morecambe bay.

    That's about 50 million barrels a year, i.e. about 8% of the oil consumption of the UK.

    Assuming they could improve the algae strains and growing rate, maybe get that to 20%. there's a lot of potential there.

    OK, so it's not going to be a substitute for nuclear or ground oil but still, it's essentially growing for free, if we can find an efficient way to harvest and use it it could make a useful contribution.

  66. Mark

    RE: Anonymous Coward and algae

    However, in the UK, we have a little thing called "winter" where plants grow not so well.

    So efficiency is better as you go south.

    PS please talk to those who think that all this extra CO2 would cause plants to grow bigger and quicker so we shouldn't reduce. They seem to be labouring under the assumption that an over-abundance of one element for growth is enough for abundant growth. As you've said with light (and plants LOVE light), this isn't true.

  67. Anonymous Coward


    We already have the perfect location for storage of nuclear waste. In the 50's the US tested bombs and polluted large areas for the next bazillion (yes, that's the correct term) years or so. These are relatively stable rock and geologic formations that would easily allow for long term safe storage of all the nuclear waste in the world, if need be. So why don't we do it? Simply this: NIMBYtards. They don't want the waste travelling through their city, town, county, name it. They don't want the waste stored in their (city, town, county, state...same picture). They don't want to hear about it; see it, think about it....just so it's NIMBY. These are related to the same NIMBYtards who don't want to see oil drilling into known reserves off the east or west coasts of the states. I suspect they don't want anyone tapping into the frozen gases beneath the ocean floor, either. Should we be reducing oil usage...oh, heck yeah. I realized that when I had my house built with R30 walls and R50 roof...heating and cooling are never going down in our lifetimes. Can we reduce the population: sure, how about one family - no child! that should do the trick.

    We still have the ongoing problem of how to force all the populations into compact housing next to where they work to reduce travel...maybe they can shop at the company store, too. Oh, wait; now I'm just be sarcastic.

  68. G.R.L. Cowan, H2-to-B convert

    The US government makes a weekly $billion or two on motor fuel

    Not that big of a deal compared to its total income, but still enough to totally wag the dog in as far as putative efforts to solve the motor fuel problem are concerned. To get government help, the proposed methods must be clearly inadequate. Thus, biofuel. A guaranteed non-solution.

    The bit about uranium from seawater taking more energy to extract than it yields is wrong by several orders of magnitude; it probably originates in the non-peer-reviewed "Lying Dutchman" thing. Japanese experiments suggest costs are a few dollars per barrel-oil-equivalent (BOE). On the basis that for every 40 dollars spent on anything, three dollars are spent on fossil fuel, we can derive a <=$0.50 fuel cost for this 1-BOE fuel extraction, i.e. a net energy fraction not less than 0.996.

    The reason the extraction is only experimental is that uranium continues to be found on land at a rate exceeding 100 million BOE per day, for a finding cost near $0.02 per BOE, and the market won't bear any price higher than $2.34 per BOE; and that's for long-term contracts. The spot market price has dropped to $1.48 per BOE, which by the 3/40 rule implies uranium extraction for non-long-term contracts now occurs only when its net energy fraction exceeds 0.999.

    --- G.R.L. Cowan, H2 energy fan 'til ~1996

  69. Al Thiel


    We all seem to go with this all or nothing replacement for oil. Wouldn't it be better if we came up with several and made them ALL available?


    Well, for one it makes it nearly impossible for any one market to take the place of oil as a commodity. Another important thing is competition. If there are various solutions they will all compete and lower their prices to become a leader. If there is just one, the oil companies will just buy the major suppliers and do business as usual.

    The most obvious reason is diversity.. If one source is in short supply you can use the others as a buffer or total replacement.

    So now you ask... why so many? Think green! Plants are good!

  70. Schultz
    Thumb Up

    Not to worry,

    It won't be hard to ween US off oil:

    10 $/l (sorry, metric talking here): Sell / scrap your car

    50 $/l: Move into that 0-energy house and buy better appliances

    200$/l: No more chinese plastic


    What's your problem?

  71. G.R.L. Cowan, H2-to-B convert

    @Martin Gregorie

    Typical biofuel yields in strongly sunlit regions are 0.25 W/m^2, around 0.1 percent of sunlight in the tropics.

    Fantastic algae are fantastic because they could conceivably yield 500 MILLIwatts per m^2 -- not 500 watts. That would be more energy out than sunlight in.

    One must anticipate processing losses in the high 90s percent, and a true yield on the order, as with the oil crops, of 0.1 percent. Have you signed the cheque yet? Excellent. We anticipate attaining the promised 0.05 percent very soon. Barring unforeseen difficulties, we'll get you the 0.03 percent you've been counting on by the third quarter next year.

    --- G.R.L. Cowan, H2 energy fan 'til ~1996

  72. Neoc
    Thumb Down

    Re: Idiot!

    @MarkMcA... be careful about stones and glass houses, Mark. Or else someone might point out that Petra Oleum (lit. Rock Oil, petrol to you and me) is actually a by-product of the decomposition under pressure of animal and vegetable remains. So the carbon released by burning so-called "fossil fuels" is also a zero-sum problem *when looking at it from a geological-timescale perspective*.

    The problem is the *quantity* of fossil fuel being used in the timespan we are using it. To put it another way, we are releasing a stock of CO2 that was stored over millions of years and have done so only in the last 100 years. Zero-sum CO2 usage overall, bad side-effects in the immediate.

    "Bio-Fuels" (God how I hate the people who came up with that term. It shows they haven't thought about what Petrol is originally made of) are also a Zero-sum problem, but with a shorter capture/usage cycle so it sounds better politically. The only thing they have going for it is that the *next* batch of bio-fuel production will trap the CO2 from the *last* batch of bio-fuel burning. Except that no system is 100% efficient. Remember, the cycle is "produce then burn", not "burn then produce". In other word, any *use* of the bio-fuel plants is a step backwards in the solution.

    Sorry, even forgetting about the amount of agricultural area would have to be given over to the production, simply looking at it coldly and logically makes you realise it is not a solution, not even for the short-term.

  73. jubtastic1

    Don't Panic! Darwin will save you.

    Natural selection applies just as well to economics as biology, in an energy scarce environment, the products that survive are the ones that need less energy to do their job.

    Given that most of the worlds stuff and the processes designed to construct it in the last 100 years assumed energy was as good as free, there's lots of room for improvement.

  74. Mark


    "Sorry, even forgetting about the amount of agricultural area would have to be given over to the production, simply looking at it coldly and logically makes you realise it is not a solution, not even for the short-term."

    I think you missed out "complete" or "sole" as in

    "it is not a complete solution".

    However, it does allow much of the current infrastructure to continue as-is with much lower impact.

    Given that it's taken ten-fifteen years to go from "there is no global warming" to "well, maybe we've done some of it", how long is needed to get to produce sustainable energy solutions for the long term?

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