Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2011/11/22/synthetic_hydrocarbons/

Superhero oil-burping algae will save the world

No more war, no more tree-hugging hippies lecturing you

By Andrew Orlowski

Posted in Science, 22nd November 2011 12:49 GMT

"Rely on the sun and the other eco-friendly things that Mother Earth has given us. We need to stop being dependent on the corrupting effect that is oil now!" – HuffPost Super User "ProgressivePicon86"

The next energy revolution is coming - and promises the biggest disruption since the industrial revolution.

Today we assume that oil is a finite resource. The "Peak Oil" argument, for example, is not that it runs out, but that conventional sources run down, and it becomes prohibitively expensive. This obliges us to think about re-ordering society. The other assumption is that the exploitation of fossil fuels creates the rapid release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, changing the climate. Along with this, too, are arguments for re-ordering society. But with the next generations of fuels, these assumptions go out of the window. Policies based on these assumptions lose their relevance and appeal.

This promises a fundamental change in how we think about man, industry and nature. Just as Karl Marx anticipated a future of machines, where manual labour had been replaced by automation, we need new political thinking.

Replacing oil, however, isn't so simple. The problem is that oil is a terrifically energy-dense material, and useful in many other ways. Entire industries are founded on the byproducts alone, such as fertilisers and plastics. We tend to take this for granted.

But what if oil could be created in your backyard? Or by your children as a school project? What if we thought of oil as a renewable energy? What if it was a low-carbon renewable? With cheap hydrocarbons it becomes just that, and within 15 years much of our oil will be produced this way: it's simply an open bet on who'll get there first.

Algae: the new bio-engineering workhorse

“We can engineer, humbly, like we have been domesticating plants for a long time," one scientist told me. “We engineer the algae to do biochemically something quite different to what they’d be doing in the wild: they still take photons from the sun, and via biology, turn it into a useful captured molecule. We have them doing something similar but with stunning efficiency: it’s 40 to 100 times more efficient,” says Elbert Branscomb, chief scientist to the US Department of Energy.

There are (at least) around 60 startups hoping to produce oil and diesel biologically, with accelerated fermentation or photosynthesis techniques to produce an end product that is 100 per cent compatible with the existing infrastructure. Some, for example, tweak the algae to make them do photosynthesis anything from 40 to 100 times more efficiently. LS9 received $30m in funding and has a one-step process to convert sugar to create renewable petrol. It expects production within five years. If oil prices remain high, say over $40 or $50 a barrel, then it's viable.

Craig Venter is proposing an even more radical way of creating biofuels. He's genetically modifying algae to take CO2 and convert it to renewable, compatible fuels. The algae can't survive in normal conditions, but need around 20 times the concentrations of the trace gas to start work. The idea is that CO2 will be pumped out from power stations directly into his plants.

After years of watching synthetic hydrocarbons with suspicion, Exxon has put substantial funding behind Venter to the tune of $600m. Venter doesn't see a return within 10 years, but it has obvious appeal to those still concerned with climate change, and who realise it's a low priority for BRIC countries (including China and India) that are determined to industrialise as quickly as possible. Venter's renewable oil kills two birds with one stone: removing CO2 and creating a low-carbon renewable alternative to excavating the stuff.

What the synthetics revolution means

The quote you see at the top of the article could have been picked from any of the thousands of comments left on message boards and in comments sections every day, urging us to "wean ourselves off our oil addiction". It's a potent substance that creates quite a passion, and some strange alliances. You'll find people who'd normally cross the road to avoid each other suddenly breaking out into agreement. Tree-huggers who hate our technological consumer culture find themselves allying with red-blooded free market capitalists who want economic independence from the Middle East.

There are several fascinating consequences of a world in which oil is created in tanks, rather than shipped around the world, which are quite dramatic.

Ending the world's problems

Firstly, one of the key reasons of conflict is resource contention, and conflicts over oil in particular. The consequences of these conflicts include famine and migrations. A lot of human misery can be attributed to the desire for oil. But renewable oil is local, and so there's no need to ship it around the world. And since it's no longer "finite", there's no reason to squabble over it.

So we're looking at major consequences for foreign policy and defence policy. The palette of nations we feel comfortable with changes; and the nature of what we feel we have to defend changes, too. Anyone who has made the call for "energy independence" will be thrilled, since two-thirds of the energy we use comes from oil and gas. Shale gas, too, is a local resource for many countries, and is already changing geopolitical dynamics.

Secondly, it has major consequences for business – and not just in nations who today bank on excavated hydrocarbons. The 10 largest companies in the world are all oil companies – and all are privately owned.

Thirdly, it will bring about a fairly profound change in the political debate. Synthetic hydrocarbons are not some magic bullet that suddenly catapults society into a future of boundless prosperity, although they don't half help. Everything has costs and consequences, and the sheer value of oil doesn't change. In the short term, oil companies will be faced with large cleanup costs from conventional extraction.

But the greatest challenge cheap hydrocarbons poses is for people whose outlook is founded on what I call "End Times logic". The most successful political movement in recent years is environmentalism, which expanded from specific concerns about pollution and conservation into an all-encompassing worldview, complete with very preachy appeals to changing parts of our lifestyles.

These ranged from "Don't flush the loo too often", to "Don't fly for a weekend break", to "Eat less red meat". Very few politicians have felt courageous enough to contradict this. And the movement has achieved its ascendancy through urgent, apocalyptic appeals, rather than using calmer methods of rational persuasion which involve costs and benefits to be totted up. These new energy sources pose a profound problem: they saves the planet, and we carry on with minimum disruption.

I expect that one effect will be that environmentalism will become much more about everyday concerns such as pollution, and conservations again, back to where it started. But it grew into a vacuum, after the end of the Cold War, when great political ideas seemed to lose credibility. As a way of driving the political agenda, it will become currency without value. Buzzwords such as "sustainability", founded on a resource-constrained view, will no longer be credible. People will simply laugh at them.

So, then. Oil as a low-carbon renewable energy source, one your children can grow. And planet saved.

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