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 …

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  1. Tom7
    Thumb Down

    Some advice

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

    1. dr2chase
      Thumb Down

      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.

      1. Painless

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

      2. Nigel 11
        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).

        1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

          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.

      3. Danny 5
        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.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      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.

    3. Steve Crook
      Coat

      We've tried saying that

      @tom7

      But people still build wind farms...

  2. Gordon 10 Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    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.

    1. thedweeb

      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...

    2. That Awful Puppy

      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.

      1. MyHeadIsSpinning
        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.

        1. Mips
          Childcatcher

          No actually

          It will lead to the Status staying Quo.

    3. Thomas 4

      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.

    4. dr2chase

      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?

      1. Vladimir Plouzhnikov

        "eating less beef"

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

      2. Vladimir Plouzhnikov

        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!!!!

      3. James Micallef Silver badge

        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

      4. Filippo

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

        1. YetAnotherBob
          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.

      5. Ammaross Danan
        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.

        1. dr2chase

          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.

          1. Mips
            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.

      6. Captain Thyratron

        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?

  3. Dodgy Geezer Silver badge
    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...

    1. Anonymous Coward
      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!

    2. Anonymous Coward
      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? :)

      1. AdamWill

        no

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

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        @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.

      3. Anonymous Coward
        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.

    3. Jared Hunt
      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.

    4. Captain Underpants
      Facepalm

      @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.

      1. YetAnotherBob
        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.

  4. Anonymous Coward
    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.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      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!

    2. Anonymous Coward
      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.

  5. IdristheSweep
    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.

  6. ciaran

    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?

    1. Marketing Hack Silver badge
      Go

      @IdristheSweep

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

      1. AdamWill
        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?

    2. James Micallef Silver badge
      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

    3. Sean Baggaley 1

      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.]

    4. Armando 123

      The space mirrors would heat the atmosphere.

    5. chr0m4t1c

      >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.

      1. YetAnotherBob
        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.

  7. Sir Runcible Spoon Silver badge

    Sir

    "they saves the planet" precious?

  8. Steven Jones

    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.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

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

      1. Steven Jones

        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.

        1. YetAnotherBob
          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.

  9. Richard Barrington

    Distribution is the Handicap

    Nicholas

    Great article and interesting conclusions about the 'new localism' that is emerging. However for me the challenge is scale and particularly distribution. Will the big 5 really allow their stranglehold to be broken and, as Gordon 10 suggests, with our current patent and IP protocols can anyone achieve enough critical mass to effect change?

  10. MonkeyChap
    Childcatcher

    First Law of Thermodynamics

    CO2 is going to be converted to energy-rich hydrocarbons "in a tank". Where is the energy coming from ? The sun ? Not much of that in blighty.

    1. Vladimir Plouzhnikov

      Energy source

      Nukular?

    2. Steven Jones

      Indeed the Sun - and a lot of it. However, one advantage of artificial hydrocarbons is that the can be readily transported, as the oil industry demonstrates daily. However, that would still leave the enormous problem of covering millions of square km of suitably sunny land with the appropriate plant and keeping it supplied with fresh water etc.

      Humans use roughly 500EJ of primary energy a year whilst about 3,000EJ (equivalent) of biomass is created every year. If all 500EJ of primary fuel (the great majority of which are fossil) was to be replaced by artificial hydrocarbons, that would be equivalent to about 17% of the World's annual biomass generation. That's a lot of land area - in the millions of square km, and getting enough freshwater to (say) the deserts rather than displacing agricultural or natural rain-forest and the like is going to be an engineering project, the like of which has never been dreamed of to date.

  11. james lewis

    I was with you right up until the end. Unfortunately there are two finite resources we will still rely on.

    One is the stuff of which things are made. the tnsions between china and japan for example illustrate how important access to natural resources used in electronics can be to a nation's prosperity.

    The other 'resource' is the waste disposal capability of the planet and its ecosystem.

    A renewable energy powered future is attractive, but it certainly doesn't mean that the concept of 'sustinability' becomes redundant.

    In fact, if energy is no longer a constraint, the rate at which the resources mentioned become depleted will doubtless accelerate.

  12. David Kelly 2

    Greenies Hate Oil

    It doesn't matter where it comes from, Greenies hate oil. They hate carbon. And therefore they hate carbon-based life.

    1. Vladimir Plouzhnikov

      That assumes that

      They know what carbon is...

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      No, don't give up! You can remember the safety word after all.

  13. That Awful Puppy
    Trollface

    How long

    before the environmentalists, undeterred by logic or science, start preaching that burning algae oil produces CO2 and is therefore bad?

    1. Eddie Edwards
      Thumb Down

      Um

      Hate to break it to you, but burning algae oil does produce CO2. Creating it is supposed to use up CO2 too, but I don't see Orlowski give a figure for how much is used vs how much produced on combustion. Because, after all, this tech DOES NOT YET EXIST so knowing its attributes is kind of hard right now ... Orlowski's "hey I'm drinking the kool aid on this because it confirms to my preconceived notions about the issue" notwithstanding.

      I mean, seriously, the guy has an axe to grind, but lately he's been grinding it with the basic concept that if anyone famous comes up with an idea, that idea is as good as implemented, with no unforeseen drawbacks at all. The guy needs to work in engineering for a while to instill in himself the gut knowledge that this NEVER happens. How someone so cynical (a good thing) can be so credulous (when it suits him) is beyond me. Well, not beyond me. It's called intellectual dishonesty, but don't tell Andrew.

      1. That Awful Puppy
        Thumb Down

        Oh dear.

        x CO2 + H2O ---(sunlight + enzymes)--> pretty much any hydrocarbon you want with the general formula of CxHyOz, where z can be zero, but the other two are decidedly nonzero.

        Burning the same hydrocarbon:

        CxHyOz +O2---(FIRE! FIRE! FIRE!)--> x CO2 + y/2 H2O (+ possibly some CO and even some C if there isn't enough oxygen available)

        Amount of carbon going in = amount of carbon going out. Said carbon usually takes the form of CO2 on both ends.

        I'll refrain from asking how your degree in Media Studies is working out in today's job market.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          it turned out to be a £300-£350 a day yield, how YOU doin?

      2. JimC Silver badge

        > a figure for how much is used vs how much is produced

        > but I don't see Orlowski give a figure for how much is used vs how much produced

        > on combustion.

        Its not very hard... Basically oil comes in multiples of one carbon atom for every 2 hydrogen atoms. So to get oil (lets say, for simplicity cyclohexane) you mix six CO2 molecules, six H2O molecules and get one C6H12 (cyclohexane) and nine O2.

        When you burn a C6H12 it burns with 9 O2s, and gives you back the six CO2s and six H20s. The number of molecules involved don''t change: they never do unless nuclear reactions are involved.

      3. Hungry Sean
        Pint

        basic chemistry

        I don't share Mr. Orlowski's views on environmentalism and global warning, but you're off the mark.

        In basic chemistry (absent nuclear reactions), elements are neither created nor destroyed, only recombined. So, if carbon comes out of the tank in the form of diesel, it needs to first go into the tank (probably in the form of CO2 in the case of Ventner's work, or in the form of sugar for the second gen biofuels). Hence these technologies being described as "carbon neutral."

        The concerns I would have would be this:

        1) for Ventner's work, carbon dioxide needs to be highly concentrated. If we get rid of nasty coal burning plants, its there a low-energy means for achieving this sort of concentration from atmospheric CO2?Is the net energy gain still positive? If not, but it's at least near-neutral, this could still be a decent means of storing traditional solar energy, and would probably be significantly more environmentally friendly than battery cars/hybrids.

        2) I doubt that the bacteria and yeast researchers are experimenting with consume solely CO2, water, and sunlight. If other compounds are required in concentrations in the fermenting vats, they'll be spread in a fine film over the earth once we combust them. Depending on what they are and how hard they are to get, this could be a long term problem.

        Other than that, I think this is a really interesting technology and I'm hopeful for it. Make huge hundred story tanks out in the desert and go to it.

        Beer, because it comes from a vat full of yeast and look how good it is.

        1. YetAnotherBob
          Holmes

          Answering concerns

          for your concerns,

          1. Technology exists today to extract the CO2 from the air at relatively low cost. Basically, what you have are calcium ions in some kind of membrane. It can be solid or liquid. Air is blown over the membrane. The CO2 sticks to the calcium, forming single molecules of limestone (Calcium carbonate). When heated to around 150 C, the carbonate disassociates back to CO2 and calcium. with proper heat transfer, there is little energy lost. The disassociation occurs in a chamber, and the CO2 is captured. This process was developed for carbon sequestration (CCS). It works just fine for atmospheric CO2 capture also. Then the CO2 is just compressed, and transported. Later, you release it into the algae growing medium.

          2. They are not talking about ANY fermentation process. They are not intending to produce ANY ethanol. That is a different bio fuel. Oils generally have a higher energy density than alcohols do.

          Also, on 2., yes, you do need some sort of fertilizer. Sewage waste works just fine, as does the dead algae that the oil was recovered from. Almost any biological waste will do. There is also a need for nitrogen. Air supplies this. Fortunately, most algae can 'fix' the nitrogen. Most plants cannot. The usable nitrogen is usually in some form of ammonia or a compound of it.

  14. MacroRodent Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    Sustainable oil just fine (but what about phosphate?)

    Re: "Buzzwords such as "sustainability", founded on a resource-constrained view, will no longer be credible. People will simply laugh at them."

    Bah, oil just becomes a renevable resource, so using it is sustainable. As a green-minded guy, I see nothing wrong with that. Assuming it works as advertised, a big if. Besides the algae will compete with the same space, water and sun-light to grow as foods. Might cause a replay of the bioethanol from corn debacle. I hope a solution can be found to that (maybe farming the "oil algae" in tanks floating on the sea?).

    Oil by the way is not the only non-renewable resource that can cause problems. Look up "phosphate scarcity" in Google. Don't expect end-of-timers going away, ever.

    1. Captain Hogwash Silver badge
      Coat

      Don't expect end-of-timers going away, ever.

      Except maybe until the end of time?

  15. Rupert Fiennes Bronze badge

    Au contraire

    There's loads not to like, from the environmental activist point of view. The biggest advantage to global warming was it's ability to justify endless interference in everyone else's business. If it didn't exist, it would have to be invented...and when it's "gone", something else will suddenly emerge

    1. Armando 123
      Coat

      "There's loads not to like, from the environmental activist point of view."

      Yes, but what if one DOES bathe and possesses a capacity for logical thinking?

    2. YetAnotherBob
      Holmes

      Global Cooling

      You are probably too young to remember. But, 30 years ago, before Global Warming, there was Global Cooling. Yes, you are correct, the only thing that could save us was the same solutions that are being pushed today to 'solve' Global Warming. so, there is precedent for what you are saying.

  16. Richard Wharram

    But...

    Surely growing lots of algae requires lots of space to grow it in. That's not an infinite resource (at least on Earth, and there's no obvious way to utilise the vastness of space for this enterprise.) The environmentalist argument could simply move on to population levels and usage of land.

    1. Painless

      They are already working on this issue in an environment where there is lots of space and lots of sun....the Arizona desert. Seems a perfect place to grow algae. And there are lots of deserts about the globe.

  17. Zog The Undeniable
    Thumb Up

    It would all be worth it

    just to see the lovely House of Saud riding camels again, rather than being filthy rich despots because they happened to be born on top of an oil reservoir.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      but they get lots of sun ...

      ... good for growing all that photosynthesizing algae. They're born on top of a giant fossil-oil reservoir, and underneath (near) peak solar intensity.

      1. Brewster's Angle Grinder Silver badge

        And they have acres of space...

        ...full of sand and nothing (much) else.

        1. Antony Jones
          Pint

          exactly - we'll still be dependent on the Middle East for much of our oil

          Imagine a future not too far off. Vast ships carrying pressurised CO2 captured from power stations in the industrialised world offload it at algae farms spread across the equatorial deserts where guaranteed sunlight and land with no other value makes it economical. This means North Africa and the Gulf States, plus South Western US and Australia. Sea water is pumped in using wind or solar power (no fresh water, and that's a scarce commodity anyway). From space, the deserts will start to look very green...

          Similarly, if we ever crack high-temperature superconductors, then basing our solar power stations in those areas and feeding it back to the populated areas along vast transmission lines would become practical.

    2. Armando 123

      They've already got so much money invested in banking, etc, that it's probably not TOO much of a concern.

  18. scrubber
    Meh

    Oil is not the only constraint

    Fresh water will be next. Competition between uses (consumption, industry and agriculture) will lead to real problems until someone works out a way to use the cheap oil to effectively desalinate enough to meet all needs.

    This all smacks of technologism (like scientism but with technology) in that we'll bury our heads in the sand over any possible current problems because we'll develop a technology that will cure our ills. We might, but to think we'll do it in time to avoid any pain is optimistic.

  19. John Smith 19 Gold badge
    Thumb Up

    Note that bacteria or plants or whatever is being tweaked to make oil

    are *not* evolved to make it in the first place.

    Evolution selects for *survival* over the conditions that the source species have encountered over their evolution.

    It's *highly* unlikely those conditions would have driven their body chemistry to make them *perfect* oil substitute producers, or anywhere *near* that level of efficiency.

    Which suggests there is *lots* to play for.

    However there is the issue that whatever is produced will need raw materials (including sunlight) to operate.

    1. dr2chase

      Unfortunately also suggests

      that we'll need to be constantly on the lookout for genetic drift in our tanks towards "fitter" algae that does not waste so much of its energy creating oil for us.

      1. Robert E A Harvey
        Headmaster

        @dr2chase

        Nah, that's easy. We merely need to apply 'population pressure' to make the production of oil adventitious. The obvious solution is some aggressive growing medium where the aggression is mitigated by secreting 4* petrol.

        Then Darwin will work to improve, rather than reduce, yield.

  20. Waderider
    Mushroom

    The usual rubbish.........

    ........spouted by people without a broad education. The comments mainly, not the article. Scientific consensus is that current climate change is anthromorphic; that debate is dead amongst all but folk who are in, or candidates for the Teaparty.

    The question is what are the solutions? Keep up at the back.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      ........spouted by people without a broad education. The comments mainly, not the article.

      did that "broad education" not teach you about sentence structure?

    2. Graham Dawson

      Scientific consensus once had it that the moon couldn't affect the tides because there was no visible mechanism.

      Galileo came up with that one...

      Two things to learn from this: Consensus is meaningless in science, and even the greatest of great men can completely fuck up when they invoke it.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Or...

      Or, the people commenting here anti-AGW are smarter than the Climate Scientists, PhDs and all.

  21. Christian Berger Silver badge

    Efficiency

    As pointed out before, photosynthesis usually has a really low efficiency. If the efficiency of those new algae is much less (more than an order of magnitude) than the one of photovoltaic cells, it's not viable.

    Obviously, if I may put on my conspiracy hat, there are many people interested in the continuation of oil-based economies, regardless of what's sensible.

  22. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    So one day the middle East will just be somewhere dry and very hot. we dont have much interest in. They can only dream of the day.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      ...it will turn out to be the only viable place to grow the stuff and we'll be needing to "persuade" people to stop living there.

      All you guys assuming the wars are about oil need to check a bit further back in history.

      The crusades predate the car.

      Afghanistan has been under invasion from one force or another for longer than the history of the automobile or the crisis of oil that plastics and mass use of cars started in the 60s.

      Or were the romans trying to save $0.10 on chariot trips to the local shops?

  23. b166er

    Whatever the outcome, the necessary decoupling of world finance from fossil oil ain't gonna be pretty.

  24. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    the thing to remember is facts

    "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"

    and the phrase "too much of anything" slipped past you all these years.

    Quick refresher of pre-O level biology. ecosystems are balanced...

    Want to challenge that? if you can grow any plant inside your car exhaust whilst the car is in use I'll give you my salary for a year.

    1. Charles 9 Silver badge

      Bad analogy.

      True, catalytic converters help to increase the amount of CO2 emitted from the car's exhaust, but there's usually too much CO still in the exhaust to ignore, and plants like animals tend to have a hard time dealing with CO.

      The article is talking about engineering algae that are specifically designed to photosynthesize at faster-than-viable rates. That's why they won't work without a higher CO2 concentration (still leaves the question of whether or not you can feed it enough sunlight to power the reaction--not much use putting richer fuel in the cylinder if the spark won't fire). It's an extreme lifeform for an extreme environment--sounds like a balance to me.

  25. david wilson

    >>"Buzzwords such as "sustainability", founded on a resource-constrained view, will no longer be credible. People will simply laugh at them."

    Well, there does seem to be more to 'sustainability' than simply energy issues.

    Sure, clean/cheap energy could help in all kinds of ways, but there are issues of land, population, water, etc that wouldn't be immediately solved even if free clean renewable energy arrived next year.

  26. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    PDS...

    How many of the Preachies, would you guess, have PDS (Poor Driving Skills) ? How many of them are therefore car haters? Any guesses at a percentage?

  27. Armando 123

    A couple things

    "But renewable oil is local, and so there's no need to ship it around the world."

    Ah, but there is oil, and there is oil. The 'sweet light crude' is the most desirable and getting algae to make THAT will be trickier than getting them to make oil. And even then, there will likely be refining required, and in refining the economy of scale makes a huge difference in cost.

    "The 10 largest companies in the world are all oil companies – and all are privately owned."

    By this do you mean "owned by one person as opposed to owned by individual shareholders and investment companies" or "not state owned"? Big difference.

  28. Jim Birch
    Boffin

    Sustainability is a certain future, get over it

    I don't get how you can poo-poo sustainability when you're proposing a sustainable solution. Sustainability is a dead certainty: we can't degrade the earth indefinitely. It's just a question of how trashed the environment will get before sustainability is achieved. I agree with you that sustainability will be achieved with some high tech solutions rather than returning to the days of Jethro Tull but it will be sustainability none the less.

    You might benefit yourself by investigating why you have an emotional reaction to sustainability. The answer is biological. Your brain was forged in in an environment where exploitation of available resources was the only successful strategy. Factors outside the individual's control - disease, homicide, warfare and starvation - kept human numbers at sustainable levels. Sustainable thinking, indeed any thinking beyond the present and immediate future was biologically unnatural, a waste of precious energy. It is only really achieved with the aid of surplus, order, and the guidance of mythologies, and then only precariously - just a little stress and we fall back on our built-in pleistocene mental framework.

  29. 42
    FAIL

    Vapour ware

    It might work in years to come eh? So might cold fusion and ant-gravity, but it aint likely.

    Pie in the sky hopefullnes from AO.

  30. Herby Silver badge

    Synthetic fuel is actually quite old.

    Some countries used it back in WW2 (I'm from the USA, figure it out). Given that it is known that synthetic fuel can be produced, all we need is a nice big energy source. Those were also produced back in WW2, and even supply electricity in some locales.

    Mix, match, stir a bit and we have energy for a long time. It even is in a portable form (like gasoline/petrol). Life goes on.

    1. Chemist

      "Synthetic fuel is actually quite old"

      Mostly made by hydrogenating coal !

  31. Hi_tech_guy_18

    Algae will grow in salt water too

    Just walk to any beach in the UK / world wide and You find of it on rocks.

    Algey is also a plant so it easy to cross bread and make new salt water loving Algeys

    And it's Not that hard in a high solar region (dessert) to make Salt water into Fresh water

    Gravity pipe sea water to any well access point in a dessert then pump it up to surface level using wind or solar

    The Salt water into Fresh water Array doest need to be that big all you need is 8x to 16x Vacuum Tube solar water heaters and your able to make water steam. and a chamber that allow this steam to be taken away form the warm salt water and condensed in another chamber to make pure water

    You don't exactly need a (Rivers volume worth of water ) all you need is Just a garden hose pipe volume (Or fire hose) worth to fill / top-up your Algey system since its sealed loop it doesn't suffer with evaporation.

    Salt water into Fresh water Array could also be used for growing Fish and they can be used to Both improve Algae production + hydroponic farms + fresh water for a small village

  32. Tom 7 Silver badge

    Science will solve all problems

    its humans engineering with it that really fucks things up.

  33. A J Stiles
    Boffin

    "burning algae oil does produce CO2. Creating it is supposed to use up CO2 too, but I don't see Orlowski give a figure for how much is used vs how much produced on combustion."

    It's the same amount, obviously. Or weren't you listening in science class when the teacher explained balancing chemical equations?

    1. Robert E A Harvey
      Headmaster

      indeed. A system that produced more than it absorbed would have to answer some pretty stern questioning

  34. Richie 1
    Unhappy

    Technology that will be ready in 15 years

    A handy translation here: xkcd.com/678/

    I agree that synthetic biofuels have the potential to be awesome and revolutionary, but this article is a little premature. (Of course in 15 years time this article will have been forgotten, or Andrew gets to claim fantastic foresight.)

    The big unanswered question seems to be how well the process scales, and at what price. A process that works in a small tank may not be appropriate for the trillions of barrels that we currently consume each day.

  35. Richard Jukes

    Self admitted End of Timer here

    I admit to being a End of Times person. I do agree however that if the human race can extract its self out of any mess. Providing that the leadership and co-operation is there. However, as the ship is sinking there tends not to be too much leadership and co-operation. Rather the situation tends to be squabbling and selfishness.

    I however shall be perfectly alright on my boat with solar panels, a large battery bank (2640AH), a generator and my log burner. Best bit is, if the heavens open and the world is flooded (a la Noah's ark) I shall be perfectly sound.... Providing the waves are no bigger than one foot....ahem....

  36. 2cent

    10 privates companys and a load of diamonds

    I fantasize over this kind of possibility.

    However, I think what we'll get is a De Beers Diamonds replay.

    You know, where a carbon mineral is 'naturally' valuable. Scientist come up with one that just as good and cheaper. Next thing you know, marketing shenanigans, price controls and not so much for the average guy, even after the entire market is transferred to the big ten.

    All legal and nice, but not saving the earth. Otherwise, why not just invest in solar, the grid and storage.

    Do automobiles really have that much appeal with a gas/diesel engine vs an electric?

    1. YetAnotherBob
      Holmes

      Range

      Electric cars have been around for well over 100 years. They work better than ICE cars do, except for one thing, Range. Gas powered car just go farther, and can be refueled faster. That is what sealed the fate of the Electric Car by 1910. It's been the bugaboo for them ever since.

  37. Bernd Felsche
    Boffin

    Rehash of 1970's research

    FAO has publishes quite a resource on lipid production by algae; and the ways in which it can be optimised. Some of the research was originally funded by NASA while it still had a hankering to put colonies onto the moon and Mars. As well as bigger ideas.

    I'm unconvinced by the "current" research and moreso by the claims being made. about algae being able to satisfy the need for carbon-based fuels. They won't. Supplement is the best that they can do. algal ponds scale to meet teh transport fuel requirements for settlements in the size of hundreds to perhaps a thousand inhabitants with lots of surrounding area to use to for production.

    Tropical island communities come to mind. Howvere, tourism pays better for those communities. They'd have to do without tourism because nobody wants to dive into murky ponds of algae for recreation.

    The environmental concern about super-CO2-gobbling-algae is that it has the potential to devastate the planet if it doesn't startve at a sufficiently-high level of atmospheric CO2. Such as 300 ppm. Much of today's argicultural productivity, producing food, results from ambient CO2 levels being locally well in excess of 300 ppm. If the algae "scrub" to below 200 ppm, they will impair growth in most plants; beginning with trees; expecially at higher altitudes.

  38. Al Jones

    complete with very preachy appeals

    Talk about the Pot calling Kettle black.

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