Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/06/26/magic_biofuel_boom/

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

American ingenuity and exceptionalism transforms weeds into, er, pork

By George Smith, Dick Destiny

Posted in Science, 26th June 2008 13:38 GMT

Read the daily reports on what to do to counter high gas prices, and you'll see the importance of magic in US energy strategy. A rich variety of schemes have been put forward, literally within weeks of the gas crunch, delivered with the traditional slogan that occurs to every editorial writer who believes children's fairy tales about American ingenuity and exceptionalism.

There must be a new Manhattan Project!

A sampling, identities omitted because although geographically separated, they're alike in groupthink: "The United States needs to organize a Manhattan Project for alternative energy... [We] need a Manhattan Project for renewable energy ... [Let's] put some real money to work and get another 'Manhattan Project' up and running, this time for a simple solution to the energy crisis."

The Manhattan Project solved one problem by dropping bombs on Japan, but it led to a host of more complicated ones. Staffed by Nobel laureate scientists, it was in no sense magic. But the latest calls for Manhattan Projects show no recognition of this, jumping to the conclusion that the effort was the equivalent of a reproducible magic wand of technical wizardry. So, simple, we should apply this magic to make cheap fuel. The option of facing facts and making do with less, much less, just isn't part of the picture unless another brutal escalation in prices starts emptying the highways.

The best of the current crop of magical solutions come from the biofuel sector, an industry prone to desperate exaggerations now that corn-to-ethanol has acquired a coat of tarnish. For the moment we'll pass over offshore drilling and the phenomenon of hydrogen car leases for Hollywood celebrities.

Um... so what about weeds, then?

Since corn-to-ethanol is expensive, rather inefficient, tough on food prices and itself vulnerable to price fluctuation due to commodities speculation, there has been a casting around for other crops, choices thought not to vulnerable to price fluctuations which would wreck businesses.

So what about Jatropha, a pest tree that produces seed pods, as an oil source for biodiesel? Literally hundreds of stories have been written about it, all generally the equivalent of counting chickens before hatching. All of these stories must contain a line like "The plants require an occasional watering and virtually no fertilizing." This is to plant the idea that one is getting a lot of something for virtually nothing.

But problems of scale aren't mentioned, nor the complication of separating oil from seeds and converting it to usable diesel at some reasonable return on energy input. It does no good to mention that all of, let's say Florida, Texas or a couple other states, would need to be turned over to it. Theoretically, of course. Any reasonable discussion of processing cost is also off the table.

But perhaps even better than jatropha is, wait for it, kudzu!

A trash vine that is common in the US south, kudzu contains starch. Kudzu's starch is claimed to be a better source of bioethanol than corn by its boosters, who are mainly experts looking for the equivalent of subsidy scientific welfare. Again the hook is a lot of something - starch which might lend itself to ethanol production - for nothing in the growth of a pest plant. Figures are bandied about, most often with the phraseology that kudzu is equivalent to corn, energy potential-wise, but with much lower water and fertilizer requirements.

Both the jatropha and kudzu hypes are partially, hmmm, fueled by Brazil's reliance on sugar cane-to-ethanol for automobiles running on blends of fuel. Sugar cane won't grow in most of the US, ergo the casting about for a cheap equivalent from the plant world, one that needs little water. This almost seems reasonable until one compares the scale of Brazil's vehicular use to that of the United States. In terms of miles-per-vehicle-per-capita, in a country to country comparison, Brazil isn't even on the chart of the US Department of Transportation. If it suddenly acquired the auto-load and driving habits of, for example, southern Californians, Brazil's energy strategy would collapse under the weight.

Paradoxically, a big company that farmed hundreds of thousands of acres of sugar cane in Florida, US Sugar, is having its plantations bought from it by the state because it is considered a gross polluter of the Everglades and a user of too much water. In essence, US Sugar and its cane farming are being put out of business because of gross inefficiencies which have led to local environmental ruin. With this in mind, it is difficult to take seriously arguments that mass-harvesting various trash plants as potential substitute energy fields offers something better other than the opportunity to collect investment until development plans inevitably crash upon the rocks of reality (see Federal Highway Administration, miles per vehicle per capita data).

Green slime will save us, honest

But it gets better, and the magic grows stronger. One of the best quotes this writer has seen comes from the thicket of stories on start-ups pushing algae as a cure-all for everything: carbon sequestration, water purification, automotive fuel and energy, you name it.

"This gasoline [from algae] doesn't create greenhouse gases..." reported the Copley News Service a couple of weeks ago. "Its byproducts include oxygen and filtered water."

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.