Algae BioDiesel Report Card : Fail

The New York Times blog asks, plaintively, when algae biofuels will be economically viable :-

“January 25, 2011 ; The Future of Algae Fuels Is … When? : By TOM ZELLER JR. : As I write in Tuesday’s Times, a new study from the Rand Corporation, the global policy think tank based in Santa Monica, Calif., and formed more than 60 years ago to advise the American government on military issues, suggests that Department of Defense is wasting its time exploring alternative fuels. It raised particular questions about the near-term viability of algae-based fuels, which the study’s authors considered to be more or less laboratory-level stuff — and certainly not likely to scale up to any significant extent in the next 10 years. Given that the military has gone to great lengths to publicize its ongoing efforts to go green, and in particular, algae-green, the report did not sit well with with everyone…”

The eagerness around algae biodiesel seems to stem largely from those who want something to invest in, now that fossil fuels are starting to look like a liability :-

“…Certainly a number of investors continue to bet on the promise of squeezing oil from algae in amounts substantial enough to put a dent in the use of petroleum-based fuels. And dozens of companies and academic labs are busy chasing that dream. Despite all this, the Rand study’s lead author, Jim Bartis, remained steadfastly skeptical that the technology would be ready for prime time within the next decade — and certainly not ready for widespread military use…”

Highly crucially, hypothetical research has shown that the return on investment may not be very high :-

“…What Colin discovered was that the EROI of the Reduced Case and Literature Model were 0.13 and 0.57, respectively. This shows that we have much to learn for the potential of making viable liquid fuels. Additionally, Colin’s calculations for the experimental setup (and Reduced Case analysis) show that 97% of the energy output resides in the biomass, not the bio-oil For his idealized Literature Model, 82% of the energy output was in the biomass. While these results seem discouraging, we do not have much ability to put these results into context of the rate of development of other alternative technologies and biofuels. How long did it take to get photovoltaic panels with EROI > 1 from the first working prototype in a lab? We have somewhat of an idea that it took one or two decades for the Brazilians to get reasonable EROI > 1 from using sugar cane for biomass and biofuel production (Brazilian sugar cane grown and processed in Sao Paulo is estimated near EROI = 8)…”

Can it be that venture capital is chasing an imaginary rabbit down a virtual warren ?

For just $250 (ker-ching !) you can purchase a copy of an informative report, that just might explain it all :-

Interestingly, it is noted, “The yields of oil and fuels from algae are much higher (10-25 times) than competing energy crops”. Those “energy crops” would be the genetically modified food crops that are intended for the BioEnergy agri-industry, then.

And what at the food crops that the GM scientists want to splice with ?

I think we need to understand who has intentions for which crops :-

“Gene stack increases biofuel crop productivity : Thursday, January 20, 2011 : By Jim Lane : In Illinois, Chromatin announced the successful first demonstration that genes can be assembled, stacked, and expressed in sugarcane using the company’s mini-chromosome technology…Developers, however, want to insert genes that offer improvements in multiple traits – when an organism has more than one gene inserted in this process – for example, for disease resistance, insect resistance, herbicide resistance – this is called a gene stack. In 2007, for example, Monsanto and Dow introduced an eight-gene stack (SmartStax) that contained eight herbicide tolerance and insect-protection genes, including Dow’s Herculex I and Herculex RW; Monsanto’s YieldGard VT Rootworm/RR2 and YieldGard VT PRO, Roundup Ready and Liberty Link tolerance genes. Gene stacking, thereby, is foundational in the drive for higher productivity from land crops…”

“…Not every plant genome is stable enough to support extensive cross-breeding in order to introduce desired genes. One of those is sugar cane. So, let’s say you wanted to introduce several genes, not just one – for example, insect resistance, herbicide resistance, disease resistance, higher sugar concentrations, and enzymes to enable better bagasse digestion. If you could do it at all in cane – and it would be a monumental, unprecedented achievement in cross-breeding, it would take, say 13 years or so to accomplish it. It has made changes at this level uneconomical. So that’s what the Chromatin breakthrough is all about. Creating a method to bring the sort of possibilities that have materially advanced yields in, say, corn and soy, to a whole new array of energy and food crops. Opening up the door for more rapid improvement of the underlying per-acre yields. Thereby reducing the amount of acreage needed to support, say, a cellulosic ethanol or renewable diesel processing technology. Increasing thereby the radius over which biomass can be transported at economically viable rates. Making the processing plants larger, and more cost effective. Speeding up the point at which a given technology can achieve parity with fossil oil. Pushing us faster towards the scaling of energy crops and biofuels…”

“Sugarcane and other feedstocks : Chromatin has wrapped itself into a worldwide exclusive with Syngenta in sugarcane – so, for improvements in the sugarcane genome, that’s where they will come from in so far as this technology is concerned. Meanwhile, Chromatin is pretty well wrapped up in terms of licenses for its technology in corn, soy, canola and cotton. And, Chromatin said last year that it would pursue opportunities in sorghum as a developer. But there are the energy canes, and the energy grasses like switchgrass and miscanthus. Or the woods like eucalyptus or poplar. Or the aquatic species, like algae. For those platforms, this is a licensable technology…”

Tampering with the genes of some of the most important crops in the world. That’s bold. Will we accept that ?

Syngenta are going to mess with sugarcane, all in the name of Climate Change alleviation.

And where will this sugarcane be grown ? In Brazil.

And who will be farming this sugarcane for BioEthanol use ? Dirt-poor people from the landless underclass, just as now.

So, corrupting the gene pool of one of the world’s most important food crops for some dubious possible gains in energy productivity, and still not resolving the human rights issues of how this is farmed.

What a revolution !

Work with me, James Delingpole

To: James Delingpole
Date: 25th January 2011
Subject: Dodgy science on the telly

Dear James,

Like you, I felt somewhat intellectually “tampered with” by Paul Nurse (“Science under Attack”, Horizon BBC 2, 24th January 2011), and I wondered if we should make some sort of common cause against the domination of faulty thinking of the scientific elite in the media.

As you know, I’m a fan of Climate Change Science, and everything I see, read and hear confirms the projections. In the end, you will come to believe, but the evidence for manmade Global Warming is not the source of my contention with the BBC today.

I disliked the incredibly scornful tone of the Genetically Modified research technologist, who when interviewed avoided the broader picture of the imposition of GM crops against the will of the people. He asked a question something like “…if GM crops are so bad, then why have millions of American farmers planted them ?…” and naturally, because you are a smart chap, you and I both know the real answer to that question.

It’s not the quality of the products that keep farmers hooked on GM, it’s the power of the sales force and the exclusivity contracts people sign up to. What people are really buying is not the GM seed but the herbicides, and Paul Nurse didn’t even touch on that subject (but if he had, he might have “interfered with” that, too).

Why is it that Paul Nurse could not distinguish between technology and science ? What blinkered him from separating the brute force of invention from the laboured acquisition of rigorous knowledge ?

Several top science advisers and commentators have made this mistake in the past, including John Beddington and Dick Taverne :-

So, James, can we stand shoulder-to-shoulder on opposing untested technologies ? Can we walk together under the same banner, protesting Frankenstein biofuels and gene poisoning ?

Can we find something to agree on, something to work together for ?

With my finest regards,

Jo Abbess

Words fail me

It’s not quite accurate to say that language has entirely failed me, in fact, I am as loquacious as ever, but for a few minutes back there, whilst watching Paul Nurse present the Horizon “Science under Attack” show on iPlayer, I was definitely gobsmacked :- (UK TV Licence Payers only. Sorry. I don’t make the rules.)

How is it that even Paul Nurse has entirely missed the key point about why people resent and resist genetic modification of crops and animals ?

There is a very clear dividing line between technology and science. Just because you can engineer something with technology, doesn’t mean you should do it. And it doesn’t mean it’s scientifically sound.

The results are not in from GM crop testing, and in some cases, GM crops are being deployed without the full long-term testing that everybody would expect.

This is worse than the presumptions of the pharmaceutical industry, pumping out Thalidomide and then having to say sorry (or not) to a generation of people born without limbs.

The reason we, the vast majority of people, don’t want genetically modified foods and fuels, is because the science is not complete. We don’t actually know yet the full scale of the impacts of GMOs on ecology, wildlife and human beings.

Technology is building the atom bomb and dropping it. Science is following up the cancer distribution in the Japanese population and making recommendations that this kind of weapon should never, ever be used again, as its effects have profound genetic implications.

Genetically modifying organisms is technology. It’s not science, and we shouldn’t have to accept it if we don’t want to.

It’s instructive to look at the research that is being done into “biosciences” (one of a bunch of phrases used to cover the practices of genetic modification of plants and animals). In the UK, the BBSRC is a prime example of the cooperation between technology and industry, where undercover of some pretty decent research, gene splicing carries on. If only people outside the research establishments knew more about this. Remember, it’s all about increasing the sales of herbicides :-

“…Development of resistant crops could provide a good way forward. If the genes responsible for resistance to pests could be identified, they could be bred into specially selected crops by either conventional or GM methods. GM crops that are resistant to pests have already been proven to be an important tool in developing sustainable alternatives to chemical pesticides. GM is not the only option we have available for crop protection, but given the challenges we face in securing future food supplies all technologies need to be considered, keeping possible social, economic and policy implications in mind…”

“…Herbicide-tolerant crops are engineered to enable crops to withstand doses of herbicides that would otherwise kill them. These crops are generally developed by the manufacturers of the herbicide with the hope of increasing the sale of that herbicide. Roundup ReadyTM crops, for example, are produced by the Monsanto company, the producer of the herbicide Roundup, a billion-dollar product that generates about 40 percent of the company’s annual revenue…”

In the United States, John Podesta, formerly somebody I considered one of the good guys, has joined Joule Unlimited to make fuel from genetically modified microorganisms. Tell me this is a good idea, and I’ll tell you that it could be decades after the technology is implemented before the full facts of contamination of the environment with gene fragments is in the scientific literature :-

Later that same day…

Having watched the BBC broadcast in detail, I have to answer the question posed by the good gene technology scientist. He asks something along the lines of “…if the GM technology has failed, why have millions and millions of farmers planted millions and millions of acres of GM crops ?…”

The answer is, of course, the salesmanship of the agricultural chemical companies in selling their herbicide-tolerant, GM crops.

It has nothing to do with the validity of the product, or even its viability. It has everything to do with the sales of chemicals.

Paul Nurse asks for scientists to be more present in the media and make their evidence more widely available.

So, Paul, where are the publicly available copies of all the GM crop science then ? Or is that too commercially sensitive as “intellectual property” to be shared with us ?

“Can Genetically Modified Crops Feed the World? : Genetic modification has been touted as a solution to hunger, but does it really boost yields? David Biello reports : April 16, 2009 : Humans have been genetically modifying crops for millenia the old-fashioned way – selective breeding. But new techniques that insert foreign genetic material, say bacterial genes to produce insecticide in a corn plant, have raised health and environmental concerns. And that has prompted European countries, most recently Germany, to ban genetically modified, or GM, crops.”

“Proponents argue that GM crops can help feed the world. And given ever increasing demands for food, animal feed, fiber and now even biofuels, the world needs all the help it can get. Unfortunately, it looks like GM corn and soybeans won’t help, after all. A study from the Union of Concerned Scientists shows that genetically engineered crops do not produce larger harvests.”

“Crop yield increases in recent years have almost entirely been due to improved farming or traditional plant breeding, despite more than 3,000 field trials of GM crops. Of course, farmers have typically planted, say, GM corn, because it can tolerate high doses of weed-killer. And the Biotechnology Industry Organization argues that GM crops can boost yields in developing countries where there are limited resources for pesticides. But it appears that, to date, traditional plant breeding boosts crop yields better than genetic modification. Those old farmers were on to something.”