CJ Warner was at the top of her game when she saw the writing on the wall. Twenty years into a glass-ceiling-busting career at BP, she had risen to the rank of Head of Global Refining for BP, making her one of the highest ranking executives in the oil industry. That was when she realized that she was running towards a dead end. “I had a slow but growing realization that the industry was maturing, the current fields were falling off in volume more quickly than anticipated, and the feats required to find new oil were becoming more and more heroic.”
Prophetic words perhaps for someone who left BP a year before the Deepwater Horizon disaster, but she wasn’t so much running away from something bad as she was running towards something better.
Warner became president of Sapphire Energy, a well-funded upstart in algal bio-fuels in 2009. Sapphire produced what it says were the world’s first drops of 91 octane gasoline made from a renewable resource in May 2008.
“I had an epiphany that if I was going to put so much personal energy into making something happen, it was a lot better to create the key to the future than to nurse along the dying past. What I want to do is leave a legacy for my kids — I don’t want to leave them a world where we’re fighting for the last slice of the pie, but one where we’re baking new pies.”
Algae pie, anyone?
According to Cynthia Warner, speaking at the Web 2.0 Summit in 2009, algae is 40 times more efficient at photosynthesis than any other plant, which makes it the potential king of bio-fuels.
Last year, 4% of the US transportation fuel supply came from corn based ethanol. It took 23 million acres to achieve that. Warner says that if we had committed the same land area to growing algae instead, it would have produced 50% of our supply. This suggests that less than 50 million acres, an area about the size of the state of Nebraksa, would be sufficient to grow enough algae to power our current transportation fleet. That’s a little over 2% of the total land area of the US.
The second great thing about algae, Warner tells us, is the fact that it is a “drop-in fuel,” which means that it can directly replace gasoline without any modification to the cars, the pipelines, pumps, refineries, etc. That’s a pretty big deal. Our current fossil fuel infrastructure represents a $12 trillion investment.
As for the cost, Warner says that they are projecting that commercial algae-based oil will be available for $80 per barrel, a price that is competitive right now and will only become more so, as oil supplies dwindle.
“When I heard about algae,” Warner said in an interview with Fast Company, “I had that state of readiness that enabled me to recognize that it was the solution. It’s not going to compromise food production, it’s not going to compromise potable water, it doesn’t require land that is in high demand for alternative uses, and it’s very low carbon, so it’s not creating a negative environmental footprint.”
Is it sustainable? Warner says it is. Algae requires CO2 to grow productively, thus becoming an effective source of carbon sequestration, capable of pulling 14-15 kg of CO2 per gallon of algae-based fuel produced. While this scenario is not carbon-free, it does represent, on a lifecycle basis, a reduction of as much as 70% in greenhouse gas emissions when compared mile for mile with conventional diesel fuel, or 61% when compared to gasoline.
While this sounds like a tremendous opportunity, the folks at Energy Justice are concerned about the prospect that this might encourage continued use of fossil fuels like coal, which, even if stripped of its substantial CO2 emission, still represents major environment challenges in its extraction and waste disposal. Additionally, the CO2 must be much purer than what comes out of a smokestack, which means that elaborate and expensive processing will be required. This sounds to me like a significant hurdle, but not a showstopper.
But don’t bio-fuels compete with the production of food for land and water? More good news here: algae likes to grow in the desert, where other crops won’t grow, because it gets the most sun there. It also prefers salty water, which means it wouldn’t necessarily compete with other water uses.
Sapphire’s Pilot program, due in 2011 will be capable of producing one million gallons of algae oil per year. That will grow to 100 million gallons by 2018 and a billion gallons by 2025. That sounds like a big number, and it certainly is, though to put it in perspective with our enormous appetite, Americans currently consume one billion gallons of gasoline every two and a half days. Still, it’s a good start, and the ten million tons of CO2 eliminated annually by substituting this fuel for gasoline would be significant.
Another advantage of algal fuels over oil, is that it is hard to imagine a scenario where it could spew out of containment for months at a time, discharging hundreds of millions of gallons into the ocean (though super tanker ships might still be used to transport it). It could potentially be grown in numerous locations, though, somewhat reducing the need for transportation.
Other concerns about algal bio-fuels raised by Oilgae tend to be more cost implications than anything else:
- Harvesting algae is much more difficult and energy intensive than most people realize.
- Random natural algae tend to start taking over from artificially seeded algae fairly rapidly unless the pond is covered, and covering ponds costs money.
- Ponds often have to be lined to meet groundwater regulatory requirements, which adds quite a bit to cost.
As bio-fuel technology continues to develop, a distinct advantage will go to companies with the capability to rapidly optimize the organisms used to produce the fuel. Stay tuned for an upcoming piece on just such a company, Colorado-based OPX-Bio.
To learn more about algal biomass you can also visit the Algal Biomass Organization.
RP Siegel is the co-author of Vapor Trails, a story about an oil company, a spill and the awakening of a man who had the power to do something but never used it.
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