Issue: Sep 2009


New Liquid Fuel



WILL ECONOMIC BIO FUEL LIMIT MARKET FOR ELECTRIC VEHICLES?

by Bob Brooks

The electric utility industry has high hopes for large scale use of electric fuel for expensive battery powered vehicles for which massive changes must be made in vehicles and fueling infrastructure. This hope however may be dimmed by petroleum industry progress with new economic, environmentally favorable bio fuel for which no vehicle, fueling infrastructure or vehicle operation changes are needed. This, however, is only one aspect of the bigger picture in which new bio fuel has critical environmental and U.S. energy independence implications.

In a classic example of what can happen when a big industry is faced with new competition and compelling national needs, no less than the largest oil company, ExxonMobil along with fellow oil industry firms and by some counts, up to 200 smaller development companies and organizations are charging ahead with advanced bio fuels that have a long list of advantages. The new bio fuel meets the US Department of Energy definition for “drop in” fuel, i.e., no changes needed for engines or fueling infrastructure.

Of particular interest is the recent announcement that ExxonMobil Research Engineering Co.(EMRE) has joined forces with Synthetic Genomics In. (SGI) whose CEO, J. Craig Venter, is credited with decoding the human genome in the 90s. In recent years Venter has been carrying on the search for organisms that can be turned into fuel of which algae is widely considered the best biological system using sunlight, to capture and convert carbon dioxide into fuel.

The SGI firm has stated that it has achieved production of lipids (oil from algae) in a continuous process (secretion) rather than via expensive batch harvesting and processing
to extract the oil. With yet faster acting algae production of oil, the potential for economically viable transportation fuel with low net carbon emissions is the target sought by ExxonMobil. The algae oil growth process consumes CO2 thereby providing a productive use for large quantities of CO2 otherwise emitted to atmosphere by coal fired electric utilities and others who burn high carbon fuel. An example of algae oil’s advantage is diesel fuel’s reduction said to be up to 82% in exhaust particulates when mixed with 50% petroleum (JB Hunt trucking company tests of algae based diesel fuel made by SunEco Biofuels) Algae oil can be processed into gasoline, diesel and Jet-A as well as plastics and chemicals.

Additional advantages of the algae oil system are use of salt water rather than fresh water and land that has no value for growing crops. It also provides a use for animal waste as algae growth nutrients and SGI points out that the extremely fast growth characteristic of algae speeds up evaluation of new genetically modified strains in the research stage.

ExxonMobil has announced initial funding of $600 million for the project of which $300 million is earmarked for EMRE development of algae oil production systems and related logistics and what is stated to be $300 million and potentially more for R&D at Venter’s SGI firm in San Diego, CA. where the technical staff and facilities are being expanded. It is evident from the information provided by EMRE and SGI that the program is being fast tracked although the two firms are publicly cautious in their statements about the time it will take to reach volume production. SGI is granted the right to sub license algae technology it develops which has implications for widespread adoption (BP has been working with SGI on bio projects)

Among significant unknowns about the program is the question of whether algae will best be grown in open ponds or closed bioreactors (such as plastic bags used by Algenol,
or in tanks by Solazyme). Also unknown are favored locations for production whether in the U.S. or elsewhere but with requirements for solar energy, C02, nutrients and ability to use salt water, some idea of location choices are apparent.

AUTOMOTIVE INDUSTRIES observes that a number of new start companies who have been developing algae based fuels are already beginning to crank up production on a modest scale for distribution in local or regional areas and since algae fuel is interchangeable with petroleum fuels, it is already at its beginning as a marketable product. Also driving algae fuel forward is intense interest from the Department of Defense for energy security reasons and by the air line industry for its potential economics and low carbon footprint.


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