Spot The Fatal Flaw #1 : Oil From Algae

ExxonMobil have a plan : harness the natural lifecycle of billions of little photosynthetic critters and make oil, oil, lots of lovely, slimy, rainbowy algal oil.

“Exxon to try to develop biofuel from algae : Tue Jul 14, 2009 : By Tom Bergin and Anna Driver : LONDON/HOUSTON (Reuters) – Exxon Mobil Corp will invest $600 million over the next five to six years on trying to developing biofuel from algae, even though the oil major has said renewables will be only a small part of global energy supply. Exxon, placing its largest financial bet on renewable fuels, is forming a research and development alliance with Synthetic Genomics Inc, a privately held company that focuses on gene-based research, the company said on Tuesday. The project, which would cost billions to fully develop, is in its initial stages, so commercially viable biofuel made from algae would be many years away, Exxon told reporters on a conference call. “We need to be realistic,” said Emil Jacobs, vice president of research at Exxon. “This is not going to be easy, and there are no guarantees of success.”…Biofuel from algae would have a key advantage over existing biofuels in that it would not compete with food crops for land, thereby meeting energy needs without pushing up food costs. To make biofuel from algae, sunlight and a large source of carbon dioxide would be needed. Exxon said it could source its carbon dioxide for the research product from power plants, natural production or refineries. In the past, Exxon has been skeptical about green energy such as wind, biofuels and solar power and has supported research that questioned the scientific basis of man-made climate change…”

But, you’ve guessed it from the title of this post, there is a fatal flaw, and it flows from that little mention of “a large source of carbon dioxide”.

You see, the birth and growth and death rates of algae in normal atmospheric concentrations of Carbon Dioxide are unlikely to yield more than a trickle of car juice. So more dense flows of CO2 are required.

If this method of making liquid fuels takes off and dominates the vehicle fuel market in the future, it would force us to continue to burn Coal and refine Petroleum to create the kind of quantities of Carbon Dioxide-rich gas that the process needs.

Put it another way : algal oil will be used as a justification for Coal-fired power plants. “Ah”, the CEOs will say, “algal oil sucks up all that CO2 to make fuel. What a wonderful way to sequester it !” And the driving public will be bowled over.

But what will happen when the fuel is burned ? Why, naturally, all that Carbon Dioxide will be released into the air once more. What an omission about emissions !

Yes, algal oil would give us more Energy per tonne of Carbon Dioxide emitted. It will give us a greater Carbon “intensity”, doing more with less, but it won’t halt emissions and it won’t reduce them.

One thought on “Spot The Fatal Flaw #1 : Oil From Algae”

  1. I do not believe the point of Algal Oil is to halt emissions. It is simply to find an alternative source of energy to propel cars.

    But in the case of removing emissions, as of now it is better than the alternative. If you take CO2 generated from a local powerplant to make the Algal Oil, and that oil is burned. You get nearly twice the power from one CO2 emission (both generate electricity and power a car).

    I do agree though, if we do away with the coal power plants and such, where will the massive amounts of CO2 come from?

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