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back to article Superhero oil-burping algae will save the world

"Rely on the sun and the other eco-friendly things that Mother Earth has given us. We need to stop being dependent on the corrupting effect that is oil now!" – HuffPost Super User "ProgressivePicon86" The next energy revolution is coming - and promises the biggest disruption since the industrial revolution. Today we assume that …

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Some advice

Make your technology work, _then_ start thinking about new politics.

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All these eggs will grow into lovely chickens

The scale needed is the kicker; if you do corn-based ethanol (ignore production costs) and convert the entire US crop to ethanol, you get 20% of our gasoline volume. Even at 100x efficiency, that's still 5% of current acreage to cover all our gasoline consumption, or a square 84 miles on a side.

100x more efficient is difficult to believe in anything that would be deployed at a homeowner scale. Dedicated people manage to grow tomatoes pretty well, but not-dedicated people tend to kill ant farms and cactus.

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Anonymous Coward

that's pretty daft, you should consider the consequences of your actions before you commit to them instead of after you've done so.

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Coat

We've tried saying that

@tom7

But people still build wind farms...

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Actually switchgrass is ten times more efficient thatn corn to make ethanol. However, the corn growers have a bigger lobby and therefore more subsidies.

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Boffin

Algae are so easy compared to plants.

Algae are easy to grow. Any pail of water left in sunlight will turn green. Add some nutrients (sewage, say) and they'll turn it into thick green slime. Most people have created a pail of geen slime at some point in their lives, and it's a shame that the usual reaction has been "Yeuuuch!"

Algal photosynthesis is much more efficient than multicellular plantlife - there's no need to for them to maintain structural integrity and internal transportation networks, which holds a plant back. Algae are the plant equivalent of bacteria. Exponential growth until limited by nutrient supply.

Algae don't need fresh or clean water. They grow in the sea, in raw sewage, in toxic effluent. (They'll actualy eat sewage and produce much cleaner water) This means you can put algae farms in a desert (most sunlight) and culture tham in brackish or salt or toxic groundwater that's not a valuable and depleting resource like freshwater groundwater is.

If you can bio-engineer them to go 20x faster given 20x CO2 supply, you can get to burn coal twice. Once in a power station, the second time around in a car (as algal bio-diesel). I'd also observe there are lots of natural CO2 and carbonated water sources bubbling into the atmosphere.

Mere selective breeding will get you to algae that produce pretty good diesel fuel when you squash and filter the green soup. (What's left over is nutrient for the next generation of algae).

As you can guess I'm a fan of algae, along with solar panels. Technological civilisation doesn't have to grind to a stand-still when the oil runs out, and we don't have to continue raising atmosphereic CO2 for the next century either (with potentially dire and irreversible consequences for the climate).

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Meh

why are you comparing

Bio Ethanol with Bio oil? they are two quite different substances and have a very different harvesting method. bio ethanol is often made from sugarcane or beets, bio oil comes from algea.

Granted, both come from plants, but you must agree that the two are worlds apart.

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Agreed. There are various evolutionary pressures that let structured plants outcompete algae in most environmental niches - competition with neighbors for sunlight, faster diversification through sexual reproduction, better anchoring to a substrate, etc. But it's easy and cheap for us to alter those pressures in a farm environment. Growing switchgrass to turn it into fuel is pretty silly (and growing corn for fuel is simply idiotic) when you have the tech to grow algae instead.

There are already profitable commercial algae farms - it's an established technology. A lot of it is for food production, but the basic idea is sound.

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Yea but

I tend to agree with the thrust of this article - mostly the End timers refuse to countenance that we have the ability. Home Sapien means wise or knowing man for a reason. We will always save ourselves eventually.

On the other hand - the secret sauce to produce bio-oil like this will be guarded behind layers of IP and other legal protection. Think the current big Pharma rackets on steriods (sic)

This wont stop us saving ourselves - but it will add years of time to doing it and perpatuate the current Geopolitical divides.

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Homo not so sapiens

" the secret sauce to produce bio-oil like this will be guarded behind layers of IP"

Surely that should be layers of HP...

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The beauty of big molecules

Pharma uses relatively small molecules, where changing a single atom will *usually* cause the compound to have completely different results. The proteins that make up the mechanism with which algae turn sunlight+CO2 into oil, however, are pretty huge, and even if Venter, who is by all accounts very much an ultracapitalst, manages to patent the genome that encodes these proteins, there's nothing, absolutely nothing, stopping anyone from producing an open-source (oh god, I can't believe I'm arguing for open source) protein that is very similar, but different enough not to be covered by the original patent, yet still retains the original functionality.

Which is exactly what is going to happen when BRIC countries won't want to pay Mr. Ventner's licensing fees.

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True

...the other angle is the economic one. Once the bacteria enters mainstream production, the price of oil will nosedive spectacularly. For countries whose currency is closely linked to oil values, such as the USA and Middle East, the effect will be much like a European country suddenly discovering it can't actually pay back its loans.

Interesting times await ahead but I wish I could see them from a less invested point of view.

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What's amusing is the use of the phrase "end timers"

To describe non-apocalyptic changes like "eating less beef", "drive a smaller car", "carpool", "use a bicycle for short trips", and "you should upgrade your home's insulation". Oh, teh horror!

So, yeah, it's totally within our abilities, if only we were willing to contemplate the tiniest changes to how we do things. We probably will end up using this bioengineered oil, but it's a heck of a lot easier to cover out consumption if we first cut it by 50 or 75%. And surely, you don't think that this stuff will be cheap, do you?

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"eating less beef"

Sounds quite apocalyptic to me. Next thing they will start saying about eating less pork as well!

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Cutting consumption

"it's a heck of a lot easier to cover out consumption if we first cut it by 50 or 75%"

Easier? By 50% to 75%? Ha. Ha ha. Ha ha ha. Bwahahahahahahaha!!!!

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I agree in general that improving efficiency and reducing waste are in themselves good goals to aim for, but aiming for 50-75% reduction is, to say it politely, ambitious. 10% is a good point to start from, however overall worldwide consumption will still soar in the next 20-30 years

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Cutting energy usage by 50% or 75% is "easy"? Holy crap, what is "hard" then - interstellar travel?

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Coat

@dr2chase: Problem

"but it's a heck of a lot easier to cover out consumption if we first cut it by 50 or 75%"

The problem with people saying "we should just cut our usage in half!" doesn't understand why the automobile industry is growing. It's not that people's cars break down and they discard them to junk yards. It's that their children come of driving age and require a vehicle now as well. We've quite likely DRAMATICALLY reduced our consumption of various Bad Things (tm) on a per capita basis, but population growth likely shrouds such cut backs. Perhaps someone should give us per capita energy use, polution, etc, etc and trend that out rather than just spouting how many Googl-tons of CO2 pumped out by the human race each year....

/Mines the one with the bike lock key in the pocket.

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Go

International students

Yeah, and don't forget that lots of students from BRIC countries are studying at Western universities, despite the huge costs of doing so; and they are studying economics and hard sciences like physics, chemistry and biology.

These people then get hired by banks and by oil companies.

They maintain contact with their countrymen over the internet and at various academic and professional gatherings, and information is exchanged.

All of this will add to the likelyhood of open source/alternative bio-oil methods of production etc.

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Depends on your baseline, of course

Don't forget I'm posting from the US; if we cut our per-capita CO2 output by 50%, we'd be stuck with English standards of living. Clearly, the end of civilization as we know it.

What-I-imagine for getting gasoline consumption down that much, is much smaller cars, and much smarter cars. Over here, every second car is a fatty-McFatMobile; cut those down to size, you probably get 10-20% right there. Hope that we can use smart/self-driving cars to make "mass transit" look a lot more like automated point-to-point carpooling, you can probably get another 30%, also cut traffic jams and time wasted looking for parking. Do more with hybrids, maybe do more with formation-cruising at highway speeds.

Also assume some bicycling, where appropriate (dense places -- about 1/3 of the US lives in places dense enough to convert a few dozen miles of travel each week to a bicycle).

Delivery trucks ought to be something a lot more like robots; if you're not paying a driver, speed and size are not quite so important (won't need to amortize the cost of the driver). Reduced speed and size means less energy wasted, also less scary to people in their newly shrunken cars.

And yes, detail city, lots of caveats and quid-pro-quos -- as if massive-scale algae-farming were a solved problem.

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Lead by example.

I'll leave you to cut your own consumption by 50-75%. Let me know how it works out.

"We" in environmental rhetoric is all too often a euphemism for "you", as opposed to "you and I". This is how your second paragraph reads to the other side of the aisle:

So, yeah, it's totally within your abilities, if only you were willing to make the tiniest changes (see below) to how you do things. You probably will end up using this bioengineered oil, but it's a heck of a lot easier to cover your consumption if you first cut it by 50 or 75%. And surely, you don't think that this stuff will be cheap, do you?

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Childcatcher

Why is everyone fixated by cars?

Only a fraction of the fuel used at present is used in personal transport. True it is a symptom of the malaise: if you cannot fix transport how can you fix anything else. Basically the problem is we have to rethink energy usage from the start. The mantra reduce, redeploy, recycle applies.

What is wrong with using your legs either to walk or cycle? Apart from anything else is is good for your heart. We have bred a generation of people who thing that watching sport on TV is getting exercise.

The first thing to do, if you want a better life, is to get rid of motor sport. Yes I know that the UK is good at it and makes a lot of money but it does not do the world any good now does it?

Another thing that has destroyed "leg work" is out of town shopping. So stop driving, go to town and use your legs. It is surprising how tired they will feel and how you will sleep better.

Internet shopping is also having an adverse effect. Get off your arse, go out and get it, after all you are descended from a race of hunter gatherers who walked the plains of Africa.

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Childcatcher

No actually

It will lead to the Status staying Quo.

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Holmes

"Cutting energy usage by 50% or 75% is "easy"? Holy crap, what is "hard" then - interstellar travel?"

Yes, interstellar travel IS hard. But, it is slowly being worked on. DARPA in the US currently has a program going on that. The '100 year starship'. There have been past programs, such as the old Daedalus program. NASA also had one that assumed fusion power would be available. These are for people carrying vehicles. They all need centuries to reach their destinations. But, the design is being worked on.

Algae farms though, are relatively easy. Just give them food and light. It's square feet that is important. This has been done for a long time now.

For energy savings of up to 50 %, take your baseline from the early 1979's. we are already over 30% in energy savings, so, only another 15% to go.

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Stop

What's not to like?

I think you will find the environmentalists will not like it.

They have a huggy mediaeval village view of the world including hand looms and water from wells, and only support the anti-carbon hysteria because it offers a chance to attack manufacturing companies. If it supported manufacturing they would be agin it...

The most important thing to point out, of course, is that carbon dioxide is NOT responsible for damaging our atmosphere, it is an essential ingredient and plants can't get enough of it. The 'science' behind global warming has collapsed, and this should be pointed out at every opportunity...

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Anonymous Coward

"They have a huggy mediaeval village view of the world"

This is imagery from inside your own head. Stop projecting and find yourself a proper argument!

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Anonymous Coward

Thought I'd highlight that you've had 16 downvotes and no replies - lots of people not liking what you said, but too ill-informed to know why? :)

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no

We just understand what a 'troll' is, and why it's not worth replying to one.

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@AC 1556

Too ill informed? I think not. Too tired of the incredibly poor debating skills demonstrated by many here is much more like it.

It's not any particular side, but it is in most arguments on the Reg's comment forums, they're just that - Arguments - not debates.

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Mushroom

Ok I'll bite...

I agree there are some tree huggy medieval village types out there and they probably won't like it. They can fuck off back to the woods and go live in a Yurt for all I care.

The thing is, the momentum behind the current environmental movent has pretty much fuck all to do with them and a lot more to do with ever increasing mountains of evidence leading more rational people to the inescapable conclusion that we really do have a collective impact on the world around us and we are responsible for the consequences.

Anybody who dismisses that fact is as much on the fringe as the tree huggers IMHO.

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@Dodgy Geezer

Ah yes, carbon dioxide is a naturally-occurring substance and therefore couldn't possibly be bad for you.

I invite you to partake of some wild almonds in that case, since by your own logic cyanides are naturally occurring substances and thus can't be bad for you. I look forward to your conclusion regarding this.

As you would know if you had any understanding whatsoever of chemistry, chemical reactions are exceptionally context-dependent. Environmentalists are concerned about increased CO2 production not because they claim CO2 is inherently awful but because in the specific context of having an increasing proportion of it in our atmosphere (compared to the proportion present around 100-150 years ago) we will generate climate variation that is detrimental to the overall goal of densely-populated human existence on the planet earth. There *appear* (note I say *appear* since the arguments on this subject are far from over and the science is far from definitive) to be some links between increasing temperatures and other climate adjustments in relation to increasing atmospheric CO2.

That is what this is about, not some retarded renaissance fair fetish that, let's be honest, only exists inside your head. You may take the view that the science underpinning climate change as a model has collapsed, but simply saying this doesn't make it so - if you've any interest in the scientific aspect of this you should be working to convince the rest of us with hard data, modelling and simulations which give us predictions against which we can test. Spouting bollocks about the imaginary treehuggers in your head does nothing except flag you as being potentially in possession of defective headmeat.

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Anonymous Coward

It's almost too stupid to bother replying to: The thought that all environmentalists are Luddites.

Attempting to slander the lifestyle of a group of people whose policies you dislike is pretty pathetic, when you get down to it.

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Holmes

CO2

Yes, CO2 levels are higher now than at any recent period in Human History (we think). But, they were higher 35 Million years ago than they are today, a period known as the Mid Eocene Climactic Optimum. CO2 levels were also lower than they are today for the last few million years or so, a period known as the Ice Ages. In the distant past, the levels of CO2 were both higher and lower than at any time in the past 100 Million years. And YES, those extreems do seem to be harmful to our kind of life. But, they don't occur until levels get more than an order of magnitude higher or lower than they are today.

And know what, Life survived.

Latest evidence is that the long term climactic effect of all the CO2 we are releasing is not very major. Greenland hasn't melted, in spite of the 'hockey stick' graph (a programming error). Nor did we all freeze to death as predicted by the models used in the 1970's.

Models are just that, models, not the real thing. We use models to predict, then by comparing the model with reality, we hope to learn something.

So far all we have really learned is that our climactic models aren't very good. That doesn't mean that we should ignore the scientists using them, nor does it mean that we should all run around announcing the end of the world.

What it really means is that there is more to learn. We just aren't done yet. Keep studying. Make new models, and test them. The best tests break the model. That means that the results so far are good. Now, we need to understand why the last 40 years of models failed to predict long term. Once we think we know why, it will be time for more models.

It is indeed true that human activity is effecting the planet. It's more a question of cutting down forests than it is of dramatic climate change. It's more a question of pollution than it is of end of the world scenarios. There are indeed large portions of the world that need better care.

Cleaning up a yard is easy. Cleaning up an ocean is not.

Something needs to be done about all of that. But, the Air Conditioning Coolants released by the 'third world' and 'BRIC' countries is having more of an effect than all of the current CO2 releases are. Methane is also much more important than CO2 totals are. Contrary to popular opinion, cows do not release the majority of the methane on earth. Bacteria do.

The truth is that CO2 is only a weak greenhouse gas. Methane is around 10 X more powerful, Water vapor (clouds) is around 20 to 40 X more powerful, and Freon is over 1000 X more powerful. (fortunately, freon is only at concentrations of around 1/10 of a percent.)

It might help if we knew what the optimum CO2 level for the earth was. But, we don't. More CO2 means that plants will grow faster. Too much and animals will have problems breathing. (We are animals too!) But, those levels are more than a power of 10 higher than we are now. If agriculture becomes more productive, and climate isn't vastly changed, then we might even find that future governments will find reasons to require MORE carbon burning, not less.

It is also quite possible that there can be reasons on the other side too.

We just don't really know. It's all guesswork right now.

But after all that, the Algae being worked on right now is a good thing, long term.

It's really a very complicated world. Simple solutions often have very strange consequences.

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Anonymous Coward

environmentalism will become much more about everyday concerns

I think this is happening already.

The lefties have seen they've reached the end of the global warming->climate change stuff to try and get their way, hence the "occupy" stuff.

It's always been a fight against capitalism, but now it's not gasses but banks (and a church!) who are the evil ones to be banished.

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Anonymous Coward

Environmental concerns have mostly been about everyday stuff, anyway. That's why people like you will criticise people for recycling because it's so mundane. Just throw the aluminium in the trash and fire up the smelter already, eh?

And it's great to see how people shout down that nasty, powerful environmental lobby who dare to spoil things at every turn for those weak and meek oil corporations, banks, the arms business, Big Pharma, Monsanto and so on. How on earth can the corporations afford to influence the voting public with such dastardly mind-tricks in play?

Big hint: they don't bother with the electorate. Thank you for playing, suckers!

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Anonymous Coward

yes and extending this logic I think all students have mastered French because I clearly saw them leaving the class and going on to learn Maths.

This is why the right wing are villified, you NEED a low IQ to fit in.

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Unhappy

Fully support the sentiment but not checking your basic facts undermines your article and diminishes its credibility.

e.g. "The 10 largest companies in the world are all oil companies"

Simply wrong, I'm afraid. By any measure. A simple Google search would have shown this.

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Go

@IdristheSweep

Nah, let him run with it. After all, Wal-Mart does sell gasoline at some of its stores, ergo--oil company!!!

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Joke

yep

And if we're going by market cap, which puts Apple, IBM and Microsoft in the list...well, iPhones are kind of made of plastic, right? Oil byproduct! Ditto bits of IBM's servers, that's an easy one, and Microsoft...er...I think some of their mice come in boxes with plastic inserts, right?

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Not quite true...

Many oil and gas companies are state-owned and therefore not listed in the usual "Top X Most Evil Corporations" lists. Those lists generally go with publicly-traded companies only.

Google "Saudi Aramco" if you want to have your eyes opened. McKinsey estimated that particular company alone was sitting on $781 billion. In 2006.

"12 of the largest 13 companies are state oil groups from developing countries."

I think it's fair to say that, if you include those companies as well as their publicly traded counterparts, the "ten largest companies in the world" would indeed be oil companies.

Granted, the "top ten" list of such companies is bound to change pretty much every quarter or so. Much depends on when Andrew did his fact checking. Even if one or two companies on the list *aren't* in the business of extracting rotted dinosaurs and shipping the resulting gloop around the world for burning, it's plain that most of them quite definitely are, so his fundamental point still holds.

Nevertheless, including sources would have been nice, but this is an op-ed piece, not a peer-reviewed scientific paper.

[Direct source: Financial Times. Indirect source: http://www.metrics2.com/blog/2006/12/15/ft_nonpublic_150_companies_worth_7_trillion_domina.html — the FT article from which they obtained their info requires registration.]

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Biofuel is an Enery-Storage technology

We use fossil fuels for 3 things

- General Energy source

- Mobile energy source

- Raw materials

Biofuel lets you store (solar) energy in a transportable format. So we can set up an algae farm in a desert or the middle of the ocean, but probably not as a regional project near where people live. So its like the dreams of the Hydrogen economy, with the advantage of conserving current infrastructure.

How come we don't use space mirrors to perform urban street lighting?

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Boffin

Just what I thought as well. Using photosynthesis for power, no matter how efficient, still relies on solar energy and it's limited wattage per square metre. Photosynthesis is ridiculously inefficient, typically around 0.1% for normal plants, 2% for crop plants, up to 7-8% for the champion of efficiency, sugar cane. Even improving this by 100% still leaves us in the approximate efficiency region of solar panels.

That means for large-scale production we're still stuck with large tracts of sunny, empty land aka deserts, same as with solar panels. Granted there is the advantage of an end product that is ready-to-use oil, for which there already exists a good transport / storage infrastructure (as opposed to electricity from photovoltaics that are not easily grid-connected from the middle of nowhere and cannot be reliably stored)

Good way forward, still a long way to go so let's not get carried away and keep up teh good work.

As to the environmentalist-bashing, easy does it. It's easy to caricature a whole idea or movement by it's most extreme members, in fact just as easy for sandal-wearing tree-hugging vegetarian doo-gooders as for child-exploiting selfish greedy fat-cat capitalists (see?). The reality is that most sane people would like to live in a world with our fantastic technical achievements that make our lives better, while not poisoning or destroying vast parts of it so as to make $11 squillion instead of $10 squillion

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The space mirrors would heat the atmosphere.

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>Biofuel lets you store (solar) energy in a transportable format. So we can set up an algae farm in >a desert or the middle of the ocean, but probably not as a regional project near where people >live. So its like the dreams of the Hydrogen economy, with the advantage of conserving current >infrastructure.

Exxon Valdez?

Just because this stuff is carbon neutral, it doesn't mean it's kind to the environment when spilled all over it.

That said, we will almost certainly keep a lot of the existing infrastructure; any small densely populated countries will probably not be able to manufacture enough for their own use and will need to still buy-in from external sources, but they can switch to somewhere they might feel more comfortable doing business with.

For countries that can make enough for their own needs, it's still unlikely that you would manufacture (grow?) right next to where you need to use it, so you will still need the infrastructure to distribute, but more than likely from a different point of origin.

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Holmes

Oil

Oil, think Olive Oil, not Petroleum oil. For most sea life, it's food. But even so, spills are bad because they are wasteful.

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Sir

"they saves the planet" precious?

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Photosynthesis & thermodynamic efficiency

One little problem is that that photo synthesis in real organisms is less than 6% thermodynamically efficient in converting light into plant material (often much less). That's before anything required to turn it into hydrocarbons (either by external processing or directly within the organism). The basic chemical reactions allow for somewhat higher theoretical efficiency, but just how well that can be engineered is debatable. After all, evolution has had the odd few billion years to work on the issue.

What this means is that huge areas would be required to produce all the hydrocarbons we currently use. After all, for the great majority of human kinds history, bio-fuels are all we had at vastly lower population densities and levels of personal consumption. No doubt we can improve on growing trees to burn as fuel, but it's very unlikely to match using up the stored energy resources laid down over hundreds of millions of years as the direct, and indirect result of photosynthesis.

What we really require is something which is much more efficient at turning solar (and thermo-nuclear) power into synthetic hydrocarbons which are, the article says, conveniently energy dense and (relatively) safe and cheap to store and handle.

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Anonymous Coward

Plants tend to photosynthesise a lot better when there's more CO2 in the air. Funny that.

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There's always one...

@Anonymous

Congratulations on completely an utterly missing the point. The issue is about the thermodynamic efficiency of the photosynthesis process. What that means is how much of the energy in light gets transformed plant (or other biological) material in terms of its embedded energy content (basically the thermal energy when it's burned). Yes, CO2 is necessary, and yes (up to a limit) more CO2 will allow plants to grow faster, but not beyond the limit given by the theoretical thermodynamic efficiency of photosynthesis (and in practice, not that high). So if photosynthesis-based processes cannot, in practice, turn more than 6% of the energy in light into bio-fuels, that's what you are stuck with - however much CO2 you throw at it. The energy produced is simply limited by the light.

Theoretically, the inherent photo-chemistry of the photo-synthetic processes might be able to reach about 10%, but that would mean engineering living organisms which had virtually zero overhead and an improbably high level of efficiency of other processes. Evolution has had about 3.5 billion years to work on the problem.

In comparison, good solar panel thermodynamic efficiency can reach about 20% with the theoretical limits approaching 40% using silicon (albeit only reachable in lab type tests at the moment).

Either way, it's going to take an enormous amount of land and fresh water (and maybe phosphate and potassium) to generate all the artificial hydrocarbons we would need to replace fossil fuels.

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Holmes

Effeciency

Photosynthesis is inefficient for most purposes because the plant uses the sugar produced to make structures like leaves, stems, roots and then seeds. It's the seeds you want, so you disallow the rest of the plants production. The actual photosynthetic process is around 25% efficient, which is very close to the thermodynamic limit.

Algae have the advantage that as single cells, they don't build support structures (stems) or resource gathering structures (roots) or even fruit bodies. They are just 'leaves' that store the excess production as either starches or oils. These systems use the oil types, and are trying to extend them to increase production. To extract the oil, just run the algae through a blender, and let the product settle out. The oil rises to the top over the course of a couple of hours. The rest can be recycled back to the growth medium (I would say to cook it first to eliminate virus and bacteria problems, we don't want to sicken the algae now, do we?). That will give the overall process a higher efficiency than you are assuming.

Growth will probably take place at sea, far from land, where there isn't a whole lot growing. Surface areas of deep oceans are in some respects like a desert. We just need floating tanks and some living space for the crews.

People have been working on this for literally generations. It's going to happen eventually. It may just have enough push this time. we'll have to wait and see.

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