I’ve got a lengthy feature in the Toronto Star this weekend about the recent wave of activity around algae as a source of renewable fuel. Now, in the past there has been no shortage of algae-to-biofuel startups — some have already failed, others have managed to raise money and continue to work away. But the new wave of startups — Algenol Biofuels, Catilin, Synthetic Genomics and others — have two things going for them. One, they’re overcoming one of the biggest economic obstacles, which is the difficulty and cost involved with harvesting algae so that they can be processed for their oils. Instead, these new startups are developing strains of algae that continuously produce and actively secrete oils and ethanol. By turning the algae cells themselves into microscopic refineries, several process steps can be eliminated along with costs. Second, these startups are also hooking up with some big partners in industry to demonstrate that their technologies can be scaled to a size that matters. Algenol has hooked up on a massive demonstration project in Texas with Dow Chemical, while Synthetic Genomics (Genomics pioneer Craig Venter’s company) recently snagged $300 million in funding from ExxonMobil, which has committed $600 million to algae fuel R&D and says it will contribute billions of dollars more if efforts over the next few years prove successful. Honeywell, by the way, is leading the charge in turning algae oils into green jet fuel, and it’s working with Boeing, Airbus and several major airlines to make it happen. Dow, Exxon, Honeywell — these are no corporate pansies. These are serious companies putting flesh in the game.
My feature, by the way, starts out focusing on Florida-based Algenol. Many don’t realize the company’s technology emerged out of research at the University of Toronto, and that founder Paul Woods is a Canadian who was born, grew up and ran a natural gas marketing business in Toronto before heading south at age 36. Algenol’s chief science officer, John Coleman, is the U of T professor who worked with Woods over the past 25 years to perfect the Algenol process.
I’ve said this in many posts before, but I’ll say it again: These are exciting times people. The engine of innovation is in high gear.
During a recent round-table session I attended with British scientist and Gaia author James Lovelock, it was easy to walk away feeling helpless about the climate problems humanity faces. But when pressed, Lovelock said he does believe there’s potential in “biochar” — that is, converting some of the world’s biomass (e.g. forest slash, agricultural residues, fast-growing grasses grown on depleted soils, farmed algae) into charcoal and sequestering the black mass in soil or under the ocean. This is done through a process called pyrolysis, which when creating the charcoal locks in about 60 per cent of the biomass’s carbon. Charcoal stays inert and chemically stable for hundreds of years. Best to turn some of the world’s biomass into charcoal instead of letting the biomass rot and release methane into the atmosphere. At least that’s the thinking.
In the end, it’s the rough equivalent of making coal, but doing it in a few hours instead of a million or so years. It’s considered better — and likely cheaper — than the capture and sequestering of fossil-fuel CO2 emissions because it doesn’t just avoid the release of emissions; so-called charcoal sequestration can lead to the extraction of CO2 from the atmosphere. This makes it carbon negative. Turning some of the biomass into charcoal prevents new emissions, but the new generation of biomass that grows also absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere. Over time, the cycle of charring biomass and growing new biomass can act like a big global carbon vacuum.
The trick is doing it on a large enough scale to matter. EnCana researcher Subodh Gupta, a big believer in charcoal sequestration, recently argued at the Canadian International Petroleum Conference in Calgary that the best way to demonstrate that the approach works is to start with the organics and even some plastics collected from municipal solid waste. It solves many problems. Continue reading Creating a carbon vacuum: turn MSW into charcoal and bury it→
My Clean Break column today takes a shot at the Canadian government for repeatedly touting carbon capture and sequestration as a panacea for the oil sands, while at the same time refusing to recognize — and support — the role that renewable energy can play. It comes on the heels of an appropriately critical National Geographicfeature on the oil sands called “Scrapping Bottom,” and the recently yet repeatedly expressed belief of Environment Minister Jim Prentice that technology will save the day.
Perhaps technology will helps prolong our days on this planet, but it won’t be carbon capture and sequestration, which is too expensive, unproven, inefficient and, in some applications, ineffective to tackle the ghost in Canada’s climate-change closet. By refusing to acknowledge the major role that other renewables can play to avoid these carbon emissions in the first place, and to do it more quickly and economically, Stephen Harper is sending Canada’s economy down a path that’s unsustainable. Continue reading CCS worth pursuing, but not to the exclusion of surer bets→
Okay, as far as the concept of carbon capture and storage goes, the idea — technologically — is intriguing. What many readers of this blog don’t like is how the industry talks about this technology like it’s here today so, hell, let’s drill for even more oil and burn more coal. We’re a decade away from seeing even just a small number of large-scale CCS projects in operation, so talk today of coal plants or oil-sand operations being “CCS-ready” is nothing more than greenwashing. I would imagine most people don’t mind the Canadian government supporting R&D into CCS, but what they perhaps don’t like is that the investment is being made to the exclusion of everything else. Why, it’s reasonable to ask, take a silver-bullet approach to a technology that’s a decade away? Would it not be better to balance it with near-term measures and investment in technologies that are here today?
But let’s assume, a decade out, that all the promise of CCS pans out. Let’s assume it takes hold, that a vast network of pipelines is built, that we’re certain sequestration sites won’t leak, and that the percentage of CO2 we can capture from coal plants and industrial sites continues to improve. Let’s assume that two decades out we start to see a number of acquifers and old oil fields filled to capacity with CO2 and, finally, capped shut.
I just had to point this out to my readers because I think it’s a clever, well-targeted campaign.
A group called The Reality Coalition is running ads on buses and other public transit points that attempt to debunk industry claims that clean coal will be a cost-effective reality anytime soon. The ads show bigfoot, an alien and a mermaid holding a piece of coal, accompanied by the words: “The coal industry is spending millions advertising clean coal, but not a single clean coal power plant exists in the U.S. today.”
The ads are reportedly running in Washington, D.C., just in time for the flood of people heading to the capital for Barack Obama’s inauguration.
Here’s a TV ad released in early December the coalition has also produced. Pretty funny.
The how, what and why of transitioning to a post-Paris world