Microbes to Convert Coal to Methane and Algae Fuel are Both Close to Industrial Scaleup

Microbes to Convert Coal to Methane Scale Up Announcement Soon

At Synthetic Genomics, the San Diego startup he co-founded in 2005, Venter said scientists are using such techniques to create new microbial species with enhanced and even unique capabilities. For example, he said Synthetic Genomics has created new species of microbes that grow on the surface of coal particles—and produce methane by consuming the coal.

He displayed a black-and-white image of a piece of coal that appeared to be carpeted with a mossy substance, saying it’s an organism that eats coal and makes a cleaner-burning fuel. “We and BP think we can scale this up substantially,” Venter said, referring to the global energy giant that became a development partner and investor in Synthetic Genomics two years ago. “We’re not too far away from making an announcement to scale this up.”

Venter says the team at Synthetic Genomics also has created new types of cells that consume carbon dioxide and hydrogen and make methane and long chains of organic molecules with as many as 18 carbon atoms “in a pure form.”

Algae Biofuel Prospects
Sapphire Energy’s algae fuel process has been used successfully to make the three most important fuels, gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel, Pyle says, and all three products have been independently certified to meet fuel standards set by the American Society for Testing and Materials. In September 2008, Sapphire Energy raised $100 million in a second venture round from Bill Gates, Arch Venture Partners and others.

Biofuels technologies appear capable of someday producing 200,000 barrels of jet fuel a day—enough to supply the needs of the U.S. Air Force—from algae grown on less than 800,000 acres. [10-11 gallons per day or 3650-4000 gallons per year] “It’s not crazy to imagine that by the year 2050 we (the United States) could become an oil exporter again,” Briggs said. 80 million acres would replace the current oil demand of the United States. 3% of total land in the United States. Other estimates are 1-2% or less as the processes are improved. Light pipes allow for deeper algae ponds and over ten times more efficient land usage.

H/T and references at Alfin

There are algae fuel companies that are targeting near term (5 years or less) production costs of $1.50/gallon of algae produced biofuel.

The tantalizing quality of algae is that some algal species contain up to 40 percent lipids by weight. And therefore, according to some sources, an acre of algae could yield 5,000 to 10,000 gallons of oil a year, making algae far more productive than soy (50 gallons per acre), rapeseed (110 to 145 gallons), mustard (140 gallons) jatropha (175 gallons) palm (650 gallons) or cellulosic ethanol from poplars (2,700 gallons).

More optimistic data from less informed people indicate the theoretical biodiesel yield from microalgae is in the range of 11,000 to 20,000 gallons per acre per year.

But according to Dr. John Benemann, a cantankerous algae consultant whose research is widely cited in the field, the realistic potential production level (despite claims to the contrary) is about 2,000 gallons of algal oil per acre per year.

At the 20,000 gallons per year level that is 16 million acres to replace the current US oil demand. At 10,000 gallons per year that is 32 million acres to replace the US oil demand.

Biofuels Compared and Land Use

Here is comparison of some biofuel sources

Unmodified Miscanthus has been found to be 2.5 times more efficient than corn and switchgrass.
9.3% of cropland equivalent to grow Miscanthus to offset 20% of fuel. 23.25% to offset 50% of fuel. Genetic modifications can boost Miscanthus efficiency by 300%. Modified Miscanthus 8% of land to offset 50% of fuel.

So algae and Modified miscanthus should be pushed for biofuels. Plus the other stuff as stopgap.

The cropland argument against biofuels is not correct

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I don't agree with all of Lovins's conjecture either.

But one of the main arguments is highly valid: that the oppertunity cost of nuclear are higher than many Negawatt improvements.

That doesn't mean no government investment in nuclear. It just means more government investment to stimulate those cost-effective Negawatt applications, than for nuclear power. We should still invest significant amounts in nuclear power because it's of strategic importance to diversify the solutions portfolio.

Private investors should be allowed to do whatever they want. It's their money, after all. But governments do have to justify their subsidy budget, and oppertunity costs is a good method to base that on.