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Gas crunch: Jatropha, kudzu, algae and magic to rescue

American ingenuity and exceptionalism transforms weeds into, er, pork

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It was a remarkable thing to print since the consumption of any carbon-based fuel, whether it comes from algae or kudzu, produces greenhouse gas. One could actually make similar grand claims about miscellaneous weeds in your yard, if you could squeeze enough oil or starch from them. Plants produce oxygen and bind carbon in different compounds - basic science for the delight of young children. Johnny raises his hand: "Couldn't we use potatoes to make biofuel, too?"

At this point, this journalist should admit to growing algae in a water bucket on the porch for the last ten years and also running a public swimming pool as a college student. For the latter, the job was to filter the water and minimize, if not eliminate, the growth of microalgae. The filtering properties and general benefits of man-made cultivation of it, whether accidental or purposeful, are exaggerated for the sake of the current renewable energy script. If one can imagine each algal cell in the porch water bucket producing a microdroplet of oil, the one gallon pail is still a long way from being full, no matter how green and filamentous.

The dynamic surrounding algae has also drawn in coal. The carbon dioxide emitted by coal furnace plants would be paired with an algae facility for carbon sequestration and production of still more fuel in vague schemes which smack a bit of the old plans for perpetual motion machines. There are, however, really big flies in the ointment, one being the staggering mass of carbon dioxide which must be processed (according to the Depart of Energy, the US produces about 2,000 million metric tons in power generation from coal per year), or the small problem of its temperature as a hot effluent gas and the impact on a microorganism. Basically, it's nuts to expect farmed algae to sop up any significant portion of the staggering figures on C02 production.

Left out of American dreams of renewable energy cutting the country loose from oil addiction are numbers. Published by the Energy Information Administration, they're merciless. Ethanol contributes about three percent to the supply of motor fuel and biodiesel is such a trivial contributor it's barely worth mentioning.

"And while biodiesel was supposed to reduce Americans' dependence on foreign oil and cut greenhouse gas emissions, the domestic market has not materialized," reported an eastern Washington newspaper in late May. Imperium, a local company which had provided biofuel that was part of the mix for the Virgin Atlantic 747 which flew from London to Amsterdam in February had let go some of its staff. Its CEO admitted the company faced "challenging times."

While the oil of castor, babassu palm and coconuts have all been explored, too, one "oil" has not been directly mentioned. The stuff that comes from snake farms. All it would take is a pinch of magic. ®

George Smith is a senior fellow at GlobalSecurity.org, a defense affairs think tank and public information group. At Dick Destiny, he blogs his way through chemical, biological, and nuclear terror hysteria, often by way of the contents of neighbourhood hardware stores.

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