Can We Feed an Expanded Population?

One argument you often see is that our farmland can easily feed even more people and that our technology will see that famines are a thing of the past. I am going to suggest that this may be an overenthusiastic view of our ability. First, the world is losing a surprising amount of good soil every year, to water and wind erosion. Seawater rising will remove a lot of prime agricultural land, but there is a much worse problem that needs attention. The 18th May edition of Science had some information that might give cause to rethink any optimistic view. Our high intensity agriculture depends on keeping pests, weeds and fungi at bay, and much of that currently depends on the heavy use of certain chemicals. The problem is what we are trying to keep at bay are gradually evolving resistance to our agents.

Looking at fungicides first, there are basically four classes of fungicides licensed for use, and some of these, such as the azoles, have a number of variations, but the variations tend to be those to differentiate the compounds from someone else’s, and to get around patents. The fundamental activity usually comes from one chemical group. As an example from antibiotics, there are a large number of variation on penicillin, but they all have beta lactams, and it is the beta lactams that give the functionality, so when bugs evolve that can tolerate beta lactams, the whole set of such penicillin-like drugs becomes ineffective. For fungi, the industrial scale production of single crops in some regions optimises the chance of a fungus developing a resistance, and there appears to be the possibility of gene transfer between fungi.

This has some other downstream issues. Thus medical advances lead to people having a much better chance of survival through cancer treatments, but they then become more susceptible to fungi. Apparently Candida auris is now resistant to all clinical antifungals, and is a worse threat in hospitals because it can survive most standard decontamination procedures. A number of other fungi are very threatening in clinical situations.

So what can be done about fungi? Obviously, seeking new antifungals is desirable, but this is a slow process because before letting such new chemicals out into the environment, we have to be confident that there will really be benefits and the chemicals are sufficiently effective under all circumstances, and we also need to know there are no unintended consequences.

Insecticides and herbicides (and following the article in Science, these will be collectively termed pesticides) have the same problem. It was estimated that even now the evolution of such resistance costs billions of dollars in the US. With regard to weeds, in 1996 plants were produced that were not harmed by glyphosate, and the effectiveness of this led to over 90% of US maize, soy and cotton being planted with such plants. (Some will recall the fact that some were bred so the plants did not produce viable seed, and further seed had to be purchased from the company that developed the plant.) Now there are at least forty serious weeds that have developed resistance to glyphosate. Plants have been engineered that are resistant to chemicals mimicking previous herbicides but the weeds are defeating that. Weed species have evolved to resist every known herbicide, and no herbicide has been developed with a new mode of action over the last thirty years.

In agriculture, it is easy to see how this situation could arise. When you spray a crop, not every part of every plant gets the same amount of spray. Some of what you don’t want will survive in places where the dose was less than enough. From the farmer’s point of view, this does not matter because enough of the pests have been dealt with that his return is not hurt by the few that survive. However, the fact that some always survive is just what evolution needs to develop life forms capable of resisting the chemicals.

So, what to do? Obviously, more effort is required, but here we meet some problems that might be intractable. Major companies have to invest large amounts of money to provide a possible solution, and they will only do so when there are likely to be guaranteed very large sales. However, to defeat resistance, it is most desirable to pulse agents, thus using agent A one year, agent B the next, and no repeat for a number of years. That maximises the chance of avoiding the generation of further resistance, but what company wants to participate in the sort of sales future? We could try natural procedures and live with the fact that yields are lower, but that implies we really do not want to eat that much more, which in turn suggests population growth needs to be curbed. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers.


Agricultural Fix for Climate Change?

One of the sadder aspects of our problem with climate change is that the politicians simply do not appreciate the magnitude of the problem, which is illustrated by a briefing in the journal Nature (554, 404). It is all very well to say that emissions must be curbed, and fast, but there is a further problem. What is there is still there. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has argued that carbon emissions must peak in the next couple of decades, and then fall steeply if we want to avoid a 2 Centigrade degree rise in average temperatures. So how do we get a steep decline?

The 2015 Paris agreement settled on negative emissions. That sounds good, until you start putting numbers on what has to be done. Consider the simple approach of putting silicates onto the land, where they will be weathered to produce silica and calcium/magnesium/iron bicarbonate or carbonate.

In an experiment (Beerling et al. 2018. Nature Plants: 4: 138 – 147) applied 3.5 t/ha of wollastonite powder (calcium silicate) to some New Hampshire land, which led to a 50% increase in the delivery of weathered calcium and silica to a stream. This was accompanied by a decrease in soil acidity and a decreased release of soil aluminium. So, carbon dioxide was taken from the atmosphere while improving the soil quality. Global cropland totals 12 million square km and additionally 1 – 10 million square km of marginal land is available.

Wollastonite is not the most readily available rock, but there is unlimited basalt. There are massive amounts of olivine, and this is potentially able to capture 0.8 – 0.9 t CO2 per tonne of applied rock, but olivines also tend to have higher levels of nickel and chromium. The authors suggest continental flood basalts, which have lower amounts of nickel and chromium and higher amounts of phosphorus, but now the carbon capture potential is about 0.3 t CO2 per tonne of applied rock. This suggests that applying 10 – 50 t /ha/y of rock to an area of farmland about the size of Texas could sequester 0.2 – 1.1 billion tonne (Gt) of CO2. That is a significant reduction, but of course about 1/3 of that would currently be emitted in the grinding/transportation. Suppose we wanted to put it on all agricultural land? There is a hundred hectares to a square kilometre, so in the worst case we would need to grind and apply 60 Gt of basalt per year.

The problem could be lessened if the 7 – 17 Gt of silicate waste were used. For example, it is estimated that quarrying for construction generates an estimated 3 Gt of “fines” that are too small to be used. There is about 1.4 – 5.9 Gt of construction/demolition waste dumped each year. Cement in particular is particularly suitable. Up to half a Gt of steel slag is produced each year, and this contains weatherable elements plus some fertiliser, such as phosphate. Besides these wastes, in some places there are historically accumulated dumps of material, although these materials are probably already sequestering CO2, so perhaps they should not be counted

A further benefit from this is that the silica will replenish eroded soil and aid replacement of further soil organic carbon, as the world’s cropland soil is eroding far faster than it can be replaced (about 5 t/ha/y). Such weathered material provides silicic acid for plants, which strengthens stems, and it is suggested that this might reduce the effect of pests.

To summarise, here is a method that could in theory take CO2 from the air, but think of the problems. Let us assume the most encouraging figures. Humanity currently burns about 9 Gt of carbon a year. To absorb all of that, we would have to apply 109 Gt of powdered basalt a year, and burn no carbon while we are doing it. That is 109 billion tonne of basalt, which is not a soft rock, and do that while running the risk of some serious adverse environmental issues, and try to avoid having a lot of silicosis amongst the workers. All of this is not going to be easy. Worse, as far as CO2 levels are concerned, that is merely standing still.

There is one other related option. The rock peridotite is a mantle rock, but occasionally there are large surface deposits. It is a relatively soft rock on the surface, and it is one of the faster rocks for sequestering carbon dioxide. For that reason, it tends to be rather rare because when it does get to the surface, it weathers and erodes relatively quickly under the effect of water and carbon dioxide. However, one proposal is to drill into a deposit and fracture hydraulically, and force CO2 in, where it will form dolomite. The problem here tends to be with location. One of the bigger masses of peridotite is in the Oman desert, which is not rich in water, nor in local CO2.

Thinking about this shows some of the problems of modifying a planet. People seem to think changing Mars into somewhere pleasant to live in would be easy. In my novel Red Gold I offered the suggestion that to do that you would need a dead minimum of at least a petatonne (a million billion tonne) of nitrogen to have enough pressure to have a tolerable outside air pressure that would last through the winter. Where do you find that?

Another small commercial break: from May 3 – 10, for those in the US and the UK, A Face on Cydonia will be at 99c or 99p respectively. For everyone else, Amazon requires it to be $2.99 – still a bargain!

How Earth Cools

As you may have seen at the end of my last post, I received an objection to the existence of a greenhouse effect on the grounds that it violated the thermodynamics of heat transfer, and if you read what it says it is essentially focused on heat conduction. The reason I am bothering with this post is that it is an opportunity to consider how theories and explanations should be formed. We start by noting that mathematics does not determine what happens; it calculates what happens provided the background premises are correct.

The objection mentioned convection as a complicating feature. Actually, the transfer of heat in the lower atmosphere is largely dependent on the evaporation and condensation of water, and wind transferring the heat from one place to another, and it is these, and ocean currents, that are the problems for the ice caps. Further, as I shall show, heat conduction cannot be relevant to the major cooling of the upper atmosphere. But first, let me show you how complicated heat conduction is. The correct equation for one-dimensional heat conduction is represented by a partial differential equation of the Laplace type, (which I would quote if I knew how to get such an equation into this limited htm formatting) and the simplest form only works as written when the medium is homogenous. Since the atmosphere thins out with height, this clearly needs modification, and for those who know anything about partial differential equations, they become a nightmare once the system becomes anything but absolutely simple. Such equations also apply to convection and evaporative transfer, once corrected for the nightmare of non-homogeneity and motion in three dimensions. Good luck with that!

This form of heat transfer is irrelevant to the so-called greenhouse effect. To show why, I start by considering what heat is, and that is random kinetic energy. The molecules are bouncing around, colliding with each other, and the collisions are elastic, which means energy is conserved, as is momentum. Most of the collisions are glancing, and that means from momentum conservation that we get a range of velocities distributed about an “average”. Heat is transferred because fast moving molecules collide with slower ones, and speed them up. The objection noted heat does not flow from cold to hot spontaneously. That is true because momentum is conserved in collisions. A molecule does not speed up when hit by a slower molecule. That is why that equation has heat going only in one way.

Now, suppose with this mechanism, we get to the top of the atmosphere. What happens then? No more heat can be transferred because there are no molecules to collide with in space. If heat pours in, and nothing goes out, eventually we become infinitely hot. Obviously that does not happen, and the reason becomes obvious when we ask how the heat gets in in the first place. The heat from the sun comes from the effects of solar radiation. Something like 1.36 kW/m^2 comes in on a surface in space at right angles to the line from the sun, but the average is much less on the surface of earth as the angle is at best normal only at noon, and if the sun is overhead. About a quarter of that is directly reflected to space, and that may increase if the cloud cover increases. The important point here is that light is not heat. When it is absorbed, it will direct an electronic transition, but that energy will eventually decay into heat. Initially, however, the material goes to an excited state, but its temperature remains constant, because the energy has not been randomised. Now we see that if energy comes in as radiation, it follows to get an equilibrium, equivalent energy must go out, and as radiation, not heat, because that is the only way it can get out in a vacuum.

The ground continuously sends radiation (mainly infrared) upwards and the intensity is proportional to the fourth power of the temperature. The average temperature is thus determined through radiant energy in equals radiant out. The radiance for a given material, which is described as a grey body radiator, is also dependent on its nature. The radiation occurs because any change of dipole moment leads to electromagnetic radiation, but the dipoles must change between quantised energy states. What that means is they come from motion that can be described in one way or another as a wave, and the waves change to longer wavelengths when they radiate. The reason the waves representing ground states switch to shorter wavelengths is that the heat energy from collisions can excite them, similar in a way to when you pluck a guitar string. Thus the body cools by heat exciting some vibratory states, which collapse by radiation leaving them. (This is similar to the guitar string losing energy by emitting sound, except that the guitar string emits continuous decaying sound; the quantised state lets it go all at once as one photon.)

Such changes are reversible; if the wave has collapsed to a longer wavelength when energy is radiated away, then if a photon of the same frequency is returned, that excites the state. That slows cooling because the next photon emitted from the ground did not need heat to excite it, and hence that same heat remains. The reason there is back radiation is that certain frequencies of infrared radiation leaving the ground get absorbed by molecules in the atmosphere when their molecular vibrational or rotational excited states have a different electric moment from the ground state. Carbon dioxide has two such vibrational states that absorb mildly, and one that does not. Water is a much stronger absorber, and methane has more states available to it. Agriculture offers N2O, which is bad because it is harder to remove than carbon dioxide, and the worst are chlorocarbons and fluorocarbons, because the vibrations have stronger dipole moment changes. Each of these different materials has vibrations at different frequencies, which make them even more problematical as radiation at more frequencies are slowed in their escape to space. The excited states decay and emit photons in random directions, hence only about half of that continues on it way to space, the rest returning to the ground. Of that that goes upwards, it will be absorbed by more molecules, and the same will happen, and of course some coming back from up there with be absorbed at a lower level and half of that will go back up. In detail, there is some rather difficult calculus, but the effect could be described as a field of oscillators.

So the take-away message is the physics are well understood, the effect of the greenhouse gases is it slows the cooling process, so the ground stays warmer than it would if they were not there. Now the good thing about a theory is that it should predict things. Here we can make a prediction. In winter, in the absence of wind, the night should be warmer if there is cloud cover, because water is a strong greenhouse material. Go outside one evening and see.

A Response to Climate Change, But Will it Work?

By now, if you have not heard that climate change is regarded as a problem, you must have been living under a flat rock. At least some of the politicians have recognized that this is a serious problem and they do what politicians do best: ban something. The current craze is to ban the manufacture of vehicles powered by liquid fuels in favour of electric vehicles, the electricity to be made from renewable resources. That sounds virtuous, but have they thought out the consequences?

The world consumption of petroleum for motor vehicles is in the order of 23,000 bbl/day. By my calculation, given some various conversion factors from the web, that requires approximately 1.6 GW of continuous extra electric consumption. In fact much more would be needed because the assumptions include 100% efficiency throughout. Note if you are relying on solar power, as many environmentalists want, you would need more than three times that amount because the sun does not shine at night, and worse, since this is to charge electric vehicles, which tend to be running in daytime, such electric energy would have to be stored for use at night. How do you store it?

The next problem is whether the grid could take that additional power. This is hardly an insurmountable problem, but I most definitely needs serious attention, and it would be more comforting if we thought the politicians had thought of this and were going to do something about it. Another argument is, since most cars would be charged at night, the normal grid could be used because there is significantly less consumption then. I think the peaks would still be a problem, and then we are back to where the power is coming from. Of course nuclear power, or even better, fusion power, would make production targets easily. But suppose, like New Zealand, you use hydro power? That is great for generating on demand, but each kWhr still requires the same amount of water availability. If the water is fully used now, and if you use this to charge at night, then you need some other source during the day.

The next problem for the politicians are the batteries, and this problem doubles if you use batteries to store electricity from solar to use at night. Currently, electric vehicles have ranges that are ideal for going to and from work each day, but not so ideal for long distance travel. The answer here is said to be “fast-charging” stops. The problem here is how do you get fast charging? The batteries have a fixed internal resistance, and you cannot do much about that. From Ohm’s law, given the resistance, the current flow, which is effectively the charge, can only be increased by increasing the voltage. At first sight you may think that is hardly a problem, but in fact there are two problems, both of which affect battery life. The first is, in general an overvoltage permits fresh electrochemistry to happen. Thus for the lithium ion battery you run the risk of what is called lithium plating. The lithium ions are supposed to go between what are called intercalation layers on the carbon anode, but if the current is too high, the ions cannot get in there quickly enough and they deposit outside, and cause irreversible damage. The second problem is too fast of charging causes heat to be generated, and that partially destroys the structural integrity of the electrodes.

The next problem is that batteries can be up to half the cost of the purely electric vehicle. Everybody claims battery prices are coming down, and they are. The lithium ion battery is about seven times cheaper than it was, but it will not necessarily get much cheaper because at present ingredients make up 70% of the cost. Ingredient prices are more likely to increase. Lithium is not particularly common, and a massive increase in production may be difficult. There are large deposits in Bolivia but as might be expected, there are other salts present in addition to the lithium salts. There is probably enough lithium but it has to be concentrated from brines and there are the salts you do not want that have to be disposed of, which reduces the “green-ness” of the exercise. Lithium prices can be assumed to go up significantly.

But the real elephant in the room is cobalt. Cobalt is not part of the chemistry of the battery, but it is necessary for the cathode. The battery works by shuttling lithium ions backwards and forwards between the cathode and anode. The cathode material needs to have the right structure to accommodate the ions, be stable so the ions can move in and out, have valence orbitals to accommodate the electron transfer, and the capacity to store as many lithium ions as possible. There are other materials that could replace cobalt, but cobalt is the only one where, when the lithium moves out, something does not move in to fill the spaces. Cobalt is essential for top performance. There are alternatives to use in current technology, but the cost is in poorer lifetimes, and there are alternative technologies, but nobody is sure they work. At present, a car needs somewhere between 7 – 20 kg of cobalt in its batteries, and as you reduce the cobalt content, you appear to reduce the life of the battery.

Cobalt is a problem because the current usage of cobalt in batteries is 48,000 t/a, while world production is about 100,000 t/a. The price is increasing rapidly as electric vehicles become more popular. At the beginning of 2017, a tonne of cobalt would cost $US 32,500; now it is at least $US 80,000. Over half the world’s production comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, which may not be the most stable country, and worse, most of that 100,000 t/a comes as a byproduct from copper or nickel production. If there were to be a recession and the demand for stainless steel fell, then the production of cobalt would drop. The lithium ion batteries that would not be affected are the laptops and phones; they only need about 10 – 20 g of cobalt. Even worse, there are a lot of these batteries that currently are not being recycled.

In a previous post I noted there was not a single magic bullet to solve this problem. I stick to that opinion. We need a much broader approach than most of the politicians are considering. By broader, I do not mean the approach of denying we even have a problem.

This post is later than my usual, thanks to time demands approaching Easter, and I hope all my readers have a relaxing and pleasant Easter.

Summer Storms

New Zealand has just had some more bad weather. Not an outstanding statement, but it does add a little more to the sort of effects that climate change is bringing to us. We have had quite a warm summer. Certainly not as hot as Australia, but where I live we have had many days hotter than what before were outstandingly hot days. On many days, we had temperatures about ten degrees Centigrade above the January average. Apart from one day of rain shortly after Christmas, we had almost no rain from October and the country was in a severe drought. You may say, well, a lot of countries have months without rain – so what? The so what is that October and November are usually the rather wet months here.

Then a week ago we got a storm. It was supposed to be “a depression that was the remains of a tropical cyclone” but with wind speeds of 86 knots reported, by my count that is still a tropical cyclone, except it is no longer in the tropics. (It just limps in to a category 2 hurricane.) Why did it not die down? Probably because the surface waters of the Tasman are at record high temperatures, and seven degrees Centigrade above average in places, and warm sea waters feed these systems with extra energy and water.

Where I am, we were lucky because the system more or less passed us by. The highest wind speed here was 76 knots, but that is still more than a breeze. We also missed most of the rain. Yes, we did get rain, but nowhere near as much as South Westland, where 0.4 meters of rain falling in a day was not uncommon.

The rain did some good. A couple of scrub fires broke out in Otago, and it looked like they would be extremely difficult to contain, thanks to the drought. The best the fire service could do would be like spitting at it compared with what the cyclone brought to bear.

However, the main effect was to be a great inconvenience, especially to Westland. Westland is largely a very thin strip of flat land, or no flat land, running through very tortuous mountain country. If you have nothing better to do, go to Google Earth and zoom in on the town of Granity (41o37’47″S; 171o51’13″E). What you will see is the hill, which goes up very steeply to over 300 meters before rising more “gently to the town of Millerton at about 700 meters. Between the road and the sea is one layer of houses, and the storm was washing up into their back doors.

The hills and mountains are very young, which means they have very little erosion, whole a lot of the rock is relatively soft sedimentary rock. There are some granitic extrusions, and these merely provide another reason for the rest to be even more tortuous. The whole area is also torn apart, and constructed, from continuing earthquakes. Finally, there is fairly heavy subtropical rain forest, parts getting over ten meters of rain a year. The area is quite spectacular, and popular with tourists, and it is very well worthwhile driving through it. Once you could see glaciers flowing through rain forest; now, unfortunately, the glaciers have retreated thanks to global warming and they only flow down mountainsides but they are still worth seeing.

The net result of all this is that when this cyclone struck, the only road going north-south and was west of the mountains got closed thanks to slips (one was a hundred meters wide of fallen rock from a hill) and trees knocked over by the wind. Being stuck there would be an experience, especially since the place is basically unpopulated. If you want to see the wild, you tend to be short of facilities. Some were quite upset about this, but my question to them was, this cyclone was predicted for about three days in advance. If you really could not put up with it, why go there? One grump was recorded as saying, “This sort of thing would not happen in . . . ” (I left out the country – this person did not define them.) Well, no, it would not. They don’t get tropical cyclones, hurricanes typhoons, or whatever you want to call them, and they don’t have this difficult terrain. One way or another, we have to put up with weather.

However, the real point of this is to note there is still glacial progress being made to do anything sensible to hold global warming. There is a lot of talk, but most of it is of the sort, “We have to do . . . by the next fifty years.” No, we have to start a more determined effort now.

Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, What next?

By now just about everybody on the planet will have heard of Hurricane Harvey, and we all feel deeply sympathetic to the people of Houston. This was a dreadful time for them, which raises the question, why did this happen? As the disaster abates, the words “Global Warming” keep coming up. Global warming did not cause that Hurricane, it did not cause it to land on Houston, and with one reservation, it almost certainly did not cause hurricanes to be more common. However, global warming would have made the ocean a little warmer than usual, and that will have increased the intensity of any hurricane that was generated, made it more expansive, and more powerful. While it might have been the most newsworthy event, it was by no means the worst event attributable to an effect of global warming.

Hurricanes and Typhoons are just local names for tropical cyclones, and they originate because the earth is a rotating sphere, and because surface temperatures are uneven, therefore in places air rises because it is warmer, and in other places it falls. In the former you get low pressure, while in the latter, high pressure, and because there are pressure differentials, air flows towards and away from these systems respectively. Air moving in the north-south directions has different velocities in the east-west directions because of the different rotational velocities, and this generates some circular air motion (the Coriolis force) the direction depending on whether the air is being sucked in or being pushed out. In the normal course of events this would generate modest circulation, which would affect nobody badly.

However, there is an additional aspect. When the circulation goes over water, it evaporates moisture, and when this is sucked upwards in a low pressure event, eventually the air gets colder and the water comes out as water droplets, which generate clouds, and if there is enough moisture, rain. Of course, this is somewhat oversimplified, especially in mid-latitudes where you get fronts, etc, to complicate matters as air at different temperatures starts to mix, but the above, while oversimplified, at least lets us see what happened with Harvey. The reason the tropical storms are so bad, when you get away from the equator so as to get some effect from the Coriolis effect, is that the warmer the water, the more moisture gets sucked up. Water has a rather high latent heat of evaporation, so when it condenses out, that energy has to go somewhere. The warmer air rises, generating lower pressures below, and hence more suction, which means more water sucked up, leading to even more air being sucked in, leading to the extremes of rotational kinetic energy that we see.

So, the warmer the water, the more energy is available to power stronger winds, and more rain comes down. Harvey was particularly bad because it stalled over Houston. Normally, tropical cyclones run out of strength as they cross land, because there is no further moisture to power them, but Harvey had half of itself over land, and half over the Gulf of Mexico, so it was able to keep itself going longer than you might expect. So the hurricane would have been a little stronger than without the global warming, it would have dropped much more rain than without the global warming, but its path greatly accentuated the damage. Irma will do the same wherever it hits.

What global warming will also do is increase the number of tropical cyclones around the world. That is simply because by increasing the surface temperatures of the seas, there is more energy available for a weather event, hence more of the systems that would normally just qualify as storms or cyclones get upgraded to the tropical cyclone status. Worse, they do not have to be in the tropics. In Wellington, where I live, this winter the Tasman was 1.5 degrees C hotter than usual for this time of the year, and when a resultant system somehow met some colder sub Antarctic air, we got a storm with wind speeds that qualified for a category 3 hurricane, with a lot of rain, but it was cold. So, what we can expect in the future is many more of these storms, and not just in the tropics. The storms do not need to be hot; they merely need to have been powered initially with warmer seawater.

I mentioned that Harvey was not the worst event. At the same time, the monsoon over parts of India and Bangla Desh, thanks to increased sea temperatures, gave record rainfall that put about half the country under water, thus probably wiping out a large fraction of the country’s crops. It also killed about twelve hundred people and severely affected the lives of forty-one million people. And Bangla Desh in one of the poorest countries on the planet. There may be a tendency to think Houston, being part of the richest country on the planet, will get over this, and it probably will, but these changing events are going to happen everywhere, and as with Bangla Desh, many places will not be able to cope easily. It is the richer countries that have to start doing things to control these disasters, if for no other reason than they are the only ones with the means to make an impact. We really need to work out how to deal with such events, because they will occur, but better still, we need to take real action to minimize the number that do happen, and that means really doing something about global warming. Those who deny its existence should be made to exchange positions with people in Bangla Desh

Liquid Fuels from Algae

In the previous post, I discussed biofuels in general. Now I shall get more specific, with one particular source that I have worked on. That is attempting to make liquid fuels from macro and microalgae. I was recently sent the following link:

In this, it was reported that ExxonMobil partnering Synthetic Genomics Inc. have a $600 million collaboration to develop biofuels from microalgae. I think this was sent to make me green with envy, because I was steering the research efforts of a company in New Zealand trying to do the same, except that they had only about $4 million. I rather fancy we had found the way to go with this, albeit with a lot more work to do, but the company foundered when it had to refinance. It could have done this in June 2008, but it put it off until 2009. I think it was in August that Lehmans did a nosedive, and the financial genii of Wall Street managed to find the optimal way to dislocate the world economies without themselves going to jail or, for that matter, becoming poor; it was the lesser souls that paid the price.

The background: microalgae are unique among plants in that they devote most of their photochemical energy into either making protein and lipids, which in more common language are oily fats. If for some reason, such as a shortage of nitrogen, they will swell up and just make lipids, and about 75 – 80% of their mass are comprised of these, and when nitrogen starved, they can reach about 70% lipids before they die of starvation. When nitrogen is plentiful, they try to reproduce as fast as they can, and that is rapid. Algae are the fastest growing plants on the planet. One problem with microalgae: they are very small, and hence difficult to harvest.

So what is ExxonMobil doing? According to this article they have trawled the world looking for samples of microalgae that give high yields of oil. They have tried gene-editing techniques to grow a strain that will double oil production without affecting growth rate, and they grow these in special tubes. To be relevant, they need a lot of tubes. According to the article, if they try open tanks, they need an area about the size of Colorado to supply America’s oil demand, and a corresponding lot of water. So, what is wrong here? In my opinion, just about everything.

First, you want to increase the oil yield? Take the microalgae from the rapidly growing stage and grow them in nitrogen-starved conditions. No need for special genetics. Second, if you are going to grow your microalgae in open tanks (to let in the necessary carbon dioxide and reduce containment costs) you also let in airborne algae. Eventually, they will take over because evolution has made them more competitive than your engineered strain. Third, no need to consider producing all of America’s liquid fuels all at once; electricity will take up some, and in any case, there is no single fix. We need what we can get. Fourth, if you want area, where is the greatest area with sufficient water? Anyone vote for the ocean? It is also possible that microalgae may not be the only option, because if you use the sea, you could try macroalgae, some of which such as Macrocystis pyrifera grow almost as fast, although they do not make significant levels of lipids.

We do not know how ExxonMobil intended to process their algae. What many people advocate is to extract out the lipids and convert them to biodiesel by reacting them with something like sodium methoxide. To stop horrible emulsions while extracting, the microalgae need to be dried, and that uses energy. My approach was to use simple high pressure processing in water, hence no need to dry the algae, from which both a high-octane petrol fraction and a high-cetane diesel fraction could be obtained. Conversion efficiencies are good, but there are many other byproducts, and some of the residue is very tarry.

After asking where the best supply of microalgae could be found, we came up with sewage treatment ponds. No capital requirement for building the ponds, and the microalgae are already there. In the nutrient rich water, they grow like mad, and take up the nutrients that would otherwise be considered pollutants like sponges. The lipid level by simple extraction is depressingly low, but the levels that are bound elsewhere in the algae are higher. There is then the question of costs. The big cost is in harvesting the microalgae, which is why macroalgae would be a better bet in the oceans.

The value of the high pressure processing (an accelerated treatment that mimics how nature made our crude oil in the first place) is now apparent: while the bulk of the material is not necessarily a fuel, the value of the “byproducts” of your fuel process vastly exceeds the value of the fuel. It is far easier to make money while still working on the smaller scale. (The chemical industry is very scale dependent. The cost of making something is such that if you construct a similar processing plant that doubles production, the unit cost of the larger plant is about 60% that of the smaller plant.)

So the approach I favour involves taking mainly algal biomass, including some microalgae from the ocean (and containing that might be a problem) and aiming initially to make most of your money from the chemical outputs. One of the ones I like a lot is a suite of compounds with low antibacterial activity, which should be good for feeding chickens and such, which in turn would remove the breeding ground for antibiotic resistant superbugs. There are plenty of opportunities, but unfortunately, a lot of effort and money required it make it work.

For more information on biofuels, my ebook, Biofuels An Overview is available at Smashwords through July for $0.99. Coupon code NY22C