Oil companies watch out. Biofuels are on the verge of a breakthrough that will transform the oil market. Not only that: it will also green the planet. In an exclusive interview with CleanTechnica.com and Energy Post, Darrin L. Morgan, Director Sustainable Aviation Fuels and Environmental Strategy at Boeing, reveals that researchers at the Masdar Institute in Abu Dhabi, funded by Boeing, Honeywell and Etihad Airways, may have achieved “the biggest breakthrough in biofuels ever”. Alarmed by the poor quality of fuel made from shale oil and tar sands and frustrated by the blunt refusal of oil companies to provide fuel of better quality, Boeing and its partners have over the past four years sponsored research into alternative fuels that has led to spectacular results. They found that there is a class of plants that can grow in deserts on salt water and has superb biomass potential. “Nobody knew this”, says Morgan. “It is a huge discovery. A game-changer for the biofuels market.” Karel Beckman has the story.
We are sitting on a shaded patio in Masdar City – the famous sustainable living project in Abu Dhabi – with a small group of people and listening to what seems a truly sensational story. It is Wednesday 22 January, we are in the middle of Abu Dhabi’s Sustainability Week – Siemens is about to open its new Middle Eastern headquarters for 800 employees that same afternoon right next door in Masdar City – and Darrin Morgan of Boeing takes the opportunity to reveal to two journalists and a science writer a new development in biofuels which he is convinced will change the world. “The 20th Century saw Norman Borlaug’s Green revolution”, he says. “This is the next step after that.”
Morgan is not some green dreamer. He is Director of Sustainable Aviation Fuels and Environmental Strategy at The Boeing Company in Seattle in the US. He has worked on Boeing’s biofuels program for 10 years. And he is convinced that researchers at the Masdar Institute, sponsored by Boeing, Honeywell’s UOP and Etihad Airways, have achieved a breakthrough in biofuels that will make it possible for countries all over the world to turn their deserts into biofuel-producing agricultural lands. We are on the verge, says the Boeing man, of a totally sustainable solution that does not require any arable land and that is going to replace a very big chunk of the oil currently used in transport.
But before we come to that, Morgan tells the story of how it got that far. A story that’s fascinating in itself as it reveals some troublesome facts about the existing oil market, increasingly based as it is on unconventional oils like tar sands and shale oil.
Ahead of the game
For a number of years now, says Morgan, Boeing has been actively looking at how to help develop the biofuels market. They learned a lot as they went along. Morgan: “One of the lessons of early generation biofuels was: ignore stakeholder consequences at your peril.” He mentions corn ethanol as a “perfect example” of how NOT to do things. “There were policies in place before there was a clear understanding of the system. Look what happened. This is not a good environmental story and it is not a good economic story. This is so not what we’re looking at.”
“The biofuels that are now approved for use in aircraft are technically superior to kerosene jet fuel. There is no question about that”
“We took a play from that book and realized that is not the play we want to have”, he continues. “We realized we need to get ahead of the game in terms of understanding the right paths.”
To do so, Boeing realized that they needed to involve stakeholders – “to help us direct our thinking on where to go, to learn how to use sustainability as the criterion to drive us.” The company entered into various partnerships around the world, with NGO’s like WWF, and with agricultural and biological researchers and developers. “We have partnerships around the planet now. Some are formal research collaborations, like this one with the Masdar Institute. Some are more like stakeholder engagement processes.”
Morgan says Boeing and its partners have “a common goal: we want to have a strong market for sustainable biofuels”. There are two good practical reasons why the company takes sustainable biofuels seriously, he explains. First, they have discovered that the biofuels that are now approved for use in aircraft are technically superior to kerosene jet fuel. “There is no question about that”, says Morgan. “It surprised us. We had not expected that. We had expected the opposite. But the hydrotreated fuels we now use work very well for us. The biological sources of these fuels end up making jet fuels that are much better than petroleum jet fuels.”
Shale oil and tar sands
At the same time, Boeing found that while biofuels turned out to be much better in quality than expected, the quality of the existing oil supplies was going down. This, says Morgan, is the result of the poorer quality of the new types of unconventional oil that are coming onto the market like shale and tar sands – and the unwillingness of the oil companies to do anything about it.
“There is a trend going on in parts of the world, especially in North America, where there are alternative forms of crude being produced. The backpage story out there is that there is stuff in those fuels that appears to be causing problems in terms of contamination of jet fuel. There are additives that go into those types of crude that are getting through the refining system and into our supply and are actually causing problems for us. Our existing supply chain is increasingly being fed by these heavy forms of crude that are less jet-friendly, to put it simply.”
“We are such a small market, the oil companies are not particularly motivated to help us with our problems”
The new forms of crude “cause inefficiencies and problems in the system”, says Morgan. “That’s not a good trend. But we can’t do anything about it. The crude is where the crude is.” The aviation industry did ask oil companies to help them with their problem, but the oil suppliers, Morgan says, were not very helpful. “We are such a small market, the oil companies are not particularly motivated to help us with our problems. That’s fine. That’s their decision. So we realized we got to get ahead of this.” Later, Morgan says: “You know Shell, in the Netherlands, is just not supportive of biofuels. That’s fine, they don’t have to be, they have their own interests. But we have ours. We are going to move this.”
So Boeing decided to enter upon a different path: a search for biofuels with higher sustainability and lower cost. “Those two things are really the same”, notes Morgan. “The things that are causing first-generation biofuels to be expensive, like the use of valuable arable land and water, are also making them less sustainable. The leadership of the company decided we would go down the road of decreasing costs and increasing sustainability.”
“We are not going to go into biofuels”, he adds. “But we are going to steer those partnerships, those technologies, more towards aviation than they would otherwise be, because our incumbent energy providers wouldn’t do that. If we do nothing, the outcome will be tar sands and shale oil and that’s not a good outcome. But if we do something we can drive the technology towards a more sustainable pathway and get something that will be cost-effective and will cause biofuels to be better than they otherwise would be.”
Talking with NGO’s “and others who are deeply concerned about the effects of biofuels”, says Morgan, “we realized we need to get serious about sustainability. We need to live it. We actually need to use this as design criteria. Biofuels are not hurdles to be overcome, they are design criteria.”
In 2008, Boeing and others set up the Sustainable Aviation Fuel Users Group (SAFUG) of which by now a-third of all airlines are members of. The CEO’s of these companies “signed up to a pledge which states that they will work through strong sustainability criteria for their sourcing”. The sustainability standards used by SAFUG are “probably the strongest out there”, says Morgan. “They are recognized in the EU as a legally applicable standard. We have set the bar very high. We do this for sustainability reasons. But also to get lower costs.”
Which bring us to the research that has been going on at the Masdar Institute in Abu Dhabi. “It is probably the best example of what we are looking for”, says Morgan.
“These plants tend to liberate these sugars relatively easily, so you need relatively low temperatures in the production process. Nobody knew this. It is a huge discovery that was made here”
What researchers at the Masdar Institute have been studying is a category of plants called halophytes. These plants have naturally evolved to be able to live on salt water. Not only that: they are also able to live in arid lands, in deserts. “If you look around you here [in Abu Dhabi], most of the plants you see are halophytes.”
Clearly if it is possible to grow plants in deserts around the world, and use them for biofuels, that would be an ideal solution. It would solve the major problems of traditional biofuels – use of fresh water and arable land – at one stroke. “Twenty per cent of the world’s land is either desert or becoming desert through overuse or mal-use”, Morgan notes. “And 97% of the world’s water is salt water. So if you can use those two factors that turns the scarcity problem that plagues all biofuels on its head.”
Boeing and its partners Honeywell UOP and Eithad Airways founded a research consortium called the Sustainable Bio-Energy Research Consortium (SBRC) which was invited by the government of Abu Dhabi to set up shop in Masdar City. Since 2009, the researchers at Masdar have studied the possibilities of halophytes. Remarkably, the consortium discovered that not much work had been done on halophytes up to that time. “We started to ask, who is working on this, because there is a lot of biomass potential out there. The science was there. The science said this can be made into biofuels pretty well. But if you looked at the patents, who is doing this, not really anybody. It was a whole new realm that nobody was looking at.”
And the researchers made a very pleasant discovery. It turned out, Morgan says, “that the types of halophytes we are working on are very amenable to being converted into sugars.” This is crucial in terms of the potential the plants have to produce energy cost-effectively, Morgan explains. “Plants contain lignin that keeps them stiff. The cellulose in the plant has to be separated from the lignin to liberate the sugars. Production costs are heavily influenced by how easy or difficult it is to do this. This is the name of the game for next-generation biofuels.”
“What the scientists here have found”, he adds, “is that the halophytic family tends to be low in lignin and high in the right type of sugars, which can be converted into hydrocarbons. These plants tend to liberate these sugars relatively easily, so you need relatively low temperatures in the production process. Nobody knew this. It is a huge discovery that was made here. We found it and repeated it.” This was about six months ago.
Combination with aquaculture
The consortium then decided to set up a pilot production facility which is now being built in Abu Dhabi right next door to Masdar City. There is yet one more element to this to complete the story, because what the researchers decided to do in this pilot project is also unique: they decided to combine the production of biofuels from halophytes with aquaculture.
Morgan explains the reason behind this. “With the earth’s oceans increasingly being emptied of fish, aquaculture is growing fast all over the world. The problem with aquaculture, however, is the waste it produces. This goes right into the ocean and creates a lot of environmental problems.” This “fish waste”, he says, is essentially a fertilizer containing nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium suspended in salt water. “And guess what halophytes need to grow? Fertilizer containing nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium suspended in salt water.”
“Integrating those two systems you get sustainable acquaculture that does not pollute the oceans and biomass that can be used for fuels”
“So the concept we took up here”, says Morgan, “is to build a pilot facility that integrates aquaculture with the growing of halophytes. Integrating those two systems you get sustainable acquaculture that does not pollute the oceans and biomass that can be used for fuels. We are now figuring out the optimal combination of the two systems.”
Morgan expects that the two-hectare pilot facility will up and running in a year. If all goes well, they will then develop a plot of land of 500 acres in western Abu Dhabi for the initial scale-up. “After that, if the results are what we expect them to be, you will start seeing thousands and thousands of hectares being developed”.
He notes that while the technology is being developed in Abu Dhabi, it has potential for the entire world. In fact, everywhere where there are deserts.
Does this mean we could see the world’s deserts turn into agricultural land producing sustainable biofuels that will be able to replace oil in transport? “Yes”, says Morgan. “I believe this will be the big gamechanger for biofuels. Nobody has looked at this before.” And it would not just be relevant for the air transport sector. “It will be much bigger.”
So far, Boeing and its partners have not given much publicity to their expectations. They did announce the results of their research, but in fairly technical terms. “We have been quiet about it”, says Morgan. But he is too excited to keep quiet any longer. “To me this is the biggest breakthrough out there. The 20th Century saw Norman Borlaug’s Green revolution, this is the next step after that.”
Some more background information can be found here in this press release of 19 January 2011.
Here a presentation of some of the research.
William R. Edwards says
Have they projected a $/Gal cost for this fuel long range?
keith Woodward says
I don’t think we arte getting the whole picture here, the energy density from this solar fuel production facility combined with the energy needed to process/transport leads to a net efficiency too small to justify the effort. Maybe I’m wrong, but I’d like to see the calculation.
William Skol says
Nice copy paste reponse, but try reading the article next time. It’s not about solar.
Plants actually use solar energy. I think Keith was referring to that dynamic.
But the article does indicate Keith’s points are being considered, e.g.:
“… This is crucial in terms of the potential the plants have to produce energy cost-effectively, Morgan explains. “
Sigh… The photosynthetic reaction is roughly water + carbon dioxide + sunlight –> oxygen + sugar. The amount of mechanical work we get out of the reverse reaction has to be less than the energy added by the sunlight.
The “sugar” (refined into whatever fuel you like) is essentially a high-density battery for storing solar energy, and the leaves of the plants are cheap (but inefficient) solar panels.
The leaves of plants are the most efficient “solar panels” that exist. They are what some current researchers are trying to model their solar panels after. But you are right about the amount of energy we will get out of the reverse reaction.
Not even close. The theoretical max solar efficiency of photosynthesis is only around 11%, and one of the most efficient – sugarcane – operates at about 8% efficiency.
In contrast, research solar cell efficiencies have topped 44%. The average commercial solar panel today used in installations is running around 16%.
William Carr says
@Randy: leaves are limited to 10% efficiency not because of photosynthesis per se, but because the oxidative damage from high intensity sun starts ripping the plant’s structures apart.
That’s based on a single leaf, of course. On a real plant, the leaves shade each other.
And chloroplasts have a clever trick of lining up vertically to shade the lower ones, and thus reduce the oxidative damage.
Solar cells are expensive to make, install; to use halophytes we need to plant SEEDS.
They’re self-cleaning, have built in energy storage and self-throttling mechanisms, and even reproduce themselves.
That takes us out of the realm of theoretical efficiency to REAL WORLD efficiency.
And in real world efficiency; can you produce a liquid fuel using salt water, CO2, and a solar cell?
Now tell me how much it costs to accomplish it.
James Duncan says
In fairness, this is indirect solar ener…no, I can’t do that with a straight face.
True, photosynthetic solar energy conversion is less efficient than PV or solar thermal. But until batteries get even better, bio fuel will be useful for aviation. I think it can be made sustainably and more cheaply than the ridiculous unconventional fossil fuels we’re extracting now.
Sam Hill says
Yes, I suspect you are wrong about the net energy deficiency.
If you were talking about an organization like the Federal government then it would be correct to question the competence and even rationality of the people involved in this endeavor.
However, being that you have a very large corporation employing some of the best engineering minds in the world, all with the crucial requirement of making the endeavor net profitable, I’d say the chances of them ignoring the need for the bio-fuel production to also be net energy profitable are vanishingly small.
Unlike our chronically incompetent government, Boeing and other commercial entities like them are not capable of confiscating the funds demand but rather MUST produce something they can persuade others to buy. Thus, their efforts are almost always much more rationally and reasonably motivated.
William Carr says
Oh for cripe’s sake, can’t you turn it off?
The Government did the Apollo Missions, which created the Electronics Revolution.
Then they created the Internet itself. The payoff from that is tremendous.
This “The Government can’t do anything right” crap is just a Right Wing lie.
keith Woodward says
I don’t think we are getting the whole picture here, the energy density from this solar fuel production facility combined with the energy needed to process/transport leads to a net efficiency too small to justify the effort. Maybe I’m wrong, but I’d like to see the calculation.
Wow – you really are just a bot, or a paid up big oil troll, aren’t you? I’ve always been a little sceptical about claims relating to such, but feeling less so now, so thanks.
I don’t think we are getting the whole picture here, the energy density from this solar fuel production facility combined with the energy needed to process/transport leads to a net efficiency too small to justify the effort. Maybe I’m wrong, but I’d like to see the calculation.
Ian Lynch says
Snag is mass conversion of large deserts to greenery will almost affect climate and could well cause some sort of devastation somewhere else.
William Carr says
Yes, greenery reflects less heat up into the sky, reducing the “heat island” effect that makes Deserts grow bigger. Rainfall might increase on the periphery.
And the evaporating fresh water from the plants will increase humidity very slightly on a local basis.
The sequestered salt from the plants will have to be disposed of, but you can just throw it back in the ocean.
I can’t come up with any negatives.
The aquaponics would also reduce stress on the Ocean, and if they can grow Rainbow Trout, I’ll kiss the feet of whoever thought this up.
Karel Beckman says
Some more background information can be found here in this press release of 19 January 2011: http://www.masdar.ac.ae/component/k2/item/5563-masdar-institute-completes-first-sustainability-as-21-01-2011
Here a presentation of some of the research: http://www.eugcc-cleanergy.net/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=pNru9_ouRzQ=&tabid=296&mid=1026
Should have included those rightaway, sorry.
@William, I think it is a bit too early to talk about $/Gal cost, but they will not scale up unless it’s competitive
@Ian, I know there are conservative people out there who never want to change anything but to object to deserts being turned into greenery … really.
Hugh Sharman says
Oh dear! Oh dear! Please only tell me what Boeing, Honeywell and WWF won’t do and say for Masdar’s “research” money?? I hardly know where to begin.
Yes, it is likely that a technically superior fuel can be synthesized from plant materials. But the fuels synthesized from crude oils are not causing aircraft to fall from the skies and in any case are constantly being improved. On the whole, the quality of shale oil crudes are so good that they are actually problematic for the sophisticated and hugely costly heavy oil refineries on the US Gulf Coast that are designed for heavy crude oils.
It would have been nice to hear a little more about the “problems” caused to aircraft engines by the fuels delivered from global refineries and their distributors. Mr Morgan’s special pleeding on behalf of a “neglected” aviation industry may have been directed at the ever voracious, cash-hungry environmental lobby. The airline industry is one of Big Oil’s most important single sectors.
Then take the Shell’s hugely over budget, Pearl gas-to-liquids plant in Qatar, next door, specifically targetted at producing superior aircraft fuels!
Did you ask Mr Morgan when these biofuels would/could ever become cost-competitive with fuels refined from crude oils in the vast quantities they are required? If there is no such prospect, even with crude oil at (say) $150/b, this is a boondoggle.
However, thanks for the story and keep up the good work!
Best wishes, Hugh
Bradley Laney says
In the last paragraph you’re asserting the validity of research relies on it resulting in immediate economical results. Almost the whole of mathematical research is invalidated by that standard, but its applications in scientific fields years after its conception shows that it is necessary. The point is that we have to start going somewhere or we are always nowhere. When fossil fuels are on the brink of running dry, no matter how long from now that is, or when the earth is near death from choking on our fumes, a solution will be necessary – and if we start now, we’ll have it then. The validity of research doesn’t rely on it’s immediate impact but on the progress that is made to finding a long-term solution, and I’d say this is pretty good progress – and not one I’d complain about having my hand in.
Alex Schmalfuss says
Regardless of the price I think one of the bigger points of the article are the location and source of water available. Could be 10,000 acres or 10,000,000 but eventually they’ll be able to harvest enough plants to begin turning a larger profit.
Now if BIG OIL decides to purchase and regulate the output in order to influence the markets is the question.
Frank Lee says
Where are we going to put the excess fish?
Jeremy Smith says
I think the idea is that we eat them. You turn the deserts into massive fuel and fish producing areas, to address our energy and food issues.
h8rs gon h8. keep at it boeing homie
Gama Xul says
Yes. Okay. So now there is profit to be made with using salt-water in the desert to grow plants that can be used as a potential biomass fuel source. Interesting.
I really hope the science works out because desert is cheap, and I got a whole lot of saltwater. If I can take a look at the patents, I can make it work too. We must get away from classic oil.
R P Bird says
Doesn’t even have to be near the ocean. One of the many limiting factors to development of deserts or semi-arid regions isn’t the lack of water, plenty of ground water in some locations, it’s the availability of fresh water. Brine or saline groundwater is common in many deserts around the world.
Love the innovation! @Alex: There is simply too much desert land for big oil to own and control the production of this biofuel.
Doesnt matter about how much desert land there is, look at what Monsanto does with its GE crops. Patented and protected and people using their seeds are aggressively sued. I imagine it will be exactly like that. If it works, they will be the richest company in the world overnight.
Victor Malmberg says
If the deserts turned green it would certainly have a climatic effect. The desert area turned into greenery itself would seem more hospitable to us due to the change in microclimate, which would get more humid. However, if a large enough amount of deserts go through changes like this it will impact global weather patterns as well as the albedo of the planet, for long term effects that will be difficult to anticipate. Might not be all to sustainable after all.
R P Bird says
Some of the world’s deserts weren’t originally deserts or were much smaller than they are now. The Sahara is a good example. It’s growing at the expense of the Sahel and neighboring savanna. So reversing this trend would be a good thing. We humans managed to make the Aral Sea disappear. We replaced it with a chemical desert. So I’m not too worried about the greening of deserts, since we’ve mostly been doing the opposite for the past fifty years. You can worry about it all you want, but you’ll be the only one.
Jim T says
Good point RP. And anyway we need all the carbon capture sinks we can provide especially with the amount of greenhouse gasses we are pumping out. If the seas continue to warm up there is the risk that CO2 will not be absorbed so easily. Not sure of the effect on the albedo though, climate science is so complex.
Gerard Rego says
“Like China in solar, India can be a world leader in bioenergy”
– See more at: http://www.sustainuance.com/like-china-in-solar-india-can-be-a-world-leader-in-bioenergy/#sthash.d6dSLnv5.dpuf
Gerard Rego says
CARBON CAPTURE AND STORAGE (CCS) – AN ELITE INDIAN TREE CREATING A GLOBAL SUSTAINABLE SOLUTION!
Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) is a topic that is a critical component of every company, community or country. The reason is that today the core challenge is the scale of pollution that exists around the world.
Gerard Rego says
WHAT IF EVERY CARGO SHIP, TRUCK AND AIRCRAFT CONNECTED TO A COMMODITY EXCHANGE & GREEN?
What is every cargo Ship and Aircraft connected to a Commodity Exchange & Green?
Should all the deserts turn green, there would definitely be a worldwide change in climate that cannot be foreseen and in no way predicted,but we all know that climate change is gonna come sooner or later anyway cause everything is always ever changing! The point is we do not know how much the use of this new technology would change the climate in deserts, but used in a carefull way there should be no harm that cant be amended and the possibility to use those two things of which we`ve got enough in the world, deserts and saltwater is a great chance.
Secondly I think that the airlines are using this stuff to build up the pressure on the oil companys like Shell to let them see that they can find other ways to fill the tanks of their airplanes without being dependent on the oil companys, if those dont whant to coorporate in behalf of the quality of jet fuel.
At least these companies are trying something new. Let’s give it a chance before we dump it. I believe they have done more research into this project than was done prior to the production, marketing, and release of ethanol fuel. I think we all know what a disaster that has become. There are always naysayers whose motivations are to stop projects that might result in the demise of their own agendas. What if the Wright brothers never went ahead with their flyer because everyone was saying man wasn’t meant to fly. I say, you can’t win if you don’t enter. Let’s keep working and researching this possibility.
Craig King says
If it works without requiring us to pay more in cash and comfort then it will make its own way into the market. Ideas that “big oil” will stop it are baseless as are any concerns that we individuals can affect this project in any way.
I for one though will delay investing any of my hard earned savings until there is a tangible actuality about this.
Anonymous Bio Fuels Expert says
It’s very disheartening to hear a company like Boeing show such a blatant disregard for something they are well known for, Supply Chain. Biofuels just don’t work according to 1 basic rule, scalability, which probably does speak to Boeing’s understanding of supply chain, it’s NOT about scalability, and it’s about timing.
Yes, but what about Corn Ethanol? Time will be the judge of Ethanol and IMO, time will judge it harshly. In the US we grow more corn for fuel, today, than we do for food. It got an environmental node from California who banned MTBE, which ethanol is a direct replacement for, still unproven to cause any real human health effects, and what has it done? Been good for the food conglomerates, not so much for farmers, and pushed corn commodity prices up, “its true intended purpose” with a “green” bow on top, but it’s made exactly ZERO meaningful impact into scalable requirements for transportation fuel.
Yes, but what about Sugarcane? IMO the same judgments made about corn will befall sugarcane. Biofuels is a gallon per acre per year game, with the fundamental driver for investment being, how many years does it take to get to production? Sugarcane is better than corn, yes, but for the world to live at the quality of life of America, it’s a dismal solution.
Ethanol exists because of a HUGE lobbying effort by the Corn and Soybean lobby, because the Soybean lobby is funded by the corn lobby, indirectly and we the People, US Tax payers are paying $.52/g to food conglomerates for the feel good of burning moonshine in our tanks. It’s the stuff of Al Capone if you ask me, Chicago in the house?
I spent years chasing the dream of biofuels, bio-diesel/renewable-diesel specifically, and once passion was replaced with pragmatism, which can be a VERY difficult exercise for those with “Green Dreams”, I had to come to the realization; biofuels just isn’t a viable long term solution. Truly feedstock is the challenge and I seriously doubt this mystery plant is the solution.
Algae is the best thing we have going, speaking on a planetary scale, to make scalable bio-fuels and that it’s a lovely theoretical idea, but incredibly difficult in reality. Want to learn more about Algae, read about the Aquatic Species Program that was a 15yr R&D effort by NREL completed in the late 90s.
Regarding Jet Fuel, first it was Canola (Rapeseed), in the EU (Primarily Germany), then Soybean the US, let’s not forget Palm from Indonesia and the everlasting potential, I’m not going to be the one to make that happen, of West Africa. Wave the Red, White and Blue for Soybean! Only about 10B Gallons per year are farmed globally and that should all be food. America alone, consumes over 60B gallons of Diesel per year.
Well then what about Jatropha? Yes, Jatropha, that is it, it can grow in the desert and isn’t a food source, same claim being made here. Its 10yrs later and there are no meaningful installations of Jatropha anywhere and those that exist are probably under performing and underfunded.
Yes, but what about Algae? It’s the FASTEST growing biomass on the planet? At the nudging of the Rockefeller family office, Exxon invested $600MM in Algae research and what was the outcome? That it’s too difficult and TOO expensive. I’m sure John D. was looking down from above shaking his head… oh my… The Rockefeller great grandchildren taught us all a valuable lesson, good intentions and passion, do NOT make reality and I’m sure they are in for a harsh talking to when they meet up with John D in the afterlife.
Want to read about one of the best bio-diesel train wrecks of the 2000s? Read about Willie Nelson and Earth Biofuels, where Forbes magazine called for the SEC to arrest the CEO for deceptive business practices and Willie and Morgan Freedman lost a LOT of money. What fueled that penny stock debacle? Press releases like this…
The make wrong that is shale oil exploration is not lost on me either in this article, nice tie in to hook scared, upset and frustrated environmentalist, another clear example of when good intentions are easily steered. Looks like the Park Foundation, who started the anti-fracking conversation to avoid oil exploration happening in upstate New York, which now every mis-informed environmentalist has jumped on the band wagon, funded, really understand how to blow the environmental pide pipe. Pennsylvania and NYC have now outlawed fracking; I’m sure to the behest of land owners and operators who now have missed their black tea moment because of environmentalist misinformed righteousness. Is Washington State next? Probably… Don’t confuse me with the facts; I’m in a crowd chanting here…
If foreign investors want to throw huge piles of cash at R&D to help address the insatiable worldwide desire for transportation fuels, I would suggest that they look to the source of what does all the work in Hydrocarbons that is plentiful, abundant and renewable. When it comes to biofuels, if you’ve read this, you can’t say, I wasn’t warned…
Hugh Sharman says
Karel, please insert a “like” icon to save me from having to do this. I do like “Anonymous Bio Fuels Expert” even if I don’t understand nor appreciate him being anonymous for such a well formulated comment!
like any other technology: alot of trial and error. biofuels are no different. been following this for a while.
For the disillusioned biofuel poster, in fact there are jatropha projects now up and going, and doing quite well–the next gen of players in the jatropha space haven’t been very vocal–more keeping noses down and plugging away. You cannot google it and figure out the picture but some of their work is discussed publicly. Yes lots of hype, but just like the dot com bubble: the bursting of that bubble did not end the internet. Same line of logic is playing out in biofuels. flash in pan types went away, leaving serious players to make it work
Point of fact, Brazilian cane ethanol is cost competitive without any subsidy–and the scale is +-10B gallons annually, which being overly simplistic, is roughly 15% of global aviation fuel–one country, one feedstock. So, no scale? Well, for aviation, thats scale.. aviation cannot use ethanol, but the science around going from sugars to hydrocarbons and skipping alcohols is ramping up. Serious parties are doing it. Parties with the legs and stamina to make it happen, which, by they way, XOM’s failed algae effort was totally a lack of both. They gave it one year and only a tiny fraction of that claimed $600M was spent before they claimed defeat. Was never a serious effort. TOTAL, on the other hand, mean it and are doing it.
The main new thing in this domain is biology: the micro organisms needed to cause conversions are now getting cost competitive and the cellulosic biofuel arena is finally coming into being–after a long effort. As one poster points to, If you do a literature search you do see some of the system modeling and science done on this effort in UAE–looks like they did a lot on energy-balance of the entire system and that tracks to cost. I suspect they do have an idea of where they are on that. Masdar Institute is JV w MIT—some serious talent on this problem.
Thats the key: serious efforts, serious science, long term commitment. Thats whats going on there in UAE it appears.
shale oil ranges the gamut, which the one commentator who was claiming it to be of high quality, failed to share. Much of it is heavy, very problematic. some is better. tarsands, however, are universally problematic–never mind the exploding railcars and broken pipelines flooding texas towns. I love the latest line of logic coming from the tarsands and shale oil crowd, I paraphrase: “build pipelines, and we wont have to blow up your towns with railcar explosions”. The tragically flawed logic there: none of the pipelines where these explosions occur would have been built now!! Whats worse: in many cases, the pipelines will create demand for MORE rail transport to feed them. Job creation: thats a joke and a half and even the pipeline people admit it in moments of honesty.
The trend however, is: more of this heavy, expensive, and unconventional stuff, unless that bubble bursts or partially bursts.
Much of the shale oil industry, like some of the oft-criticised corn ethanol industry, doesn’t make economic sense. Its becoming clearer that the predominant players in that shale field, who are mostly mom and pop shops, are living on ponzi-scheme cashflow, whilst losing money and pumping their covanent-driven non economic production, while also continuing to get good ratings of credit/equity analysts. Wait, those things should not all go together if that industry made sense and was being looked at properly by regulators? Sound familiar from 2008?. Good article on that here:
One other interesting piece, if you google (or bing for MS centric people) around, Abu Dhabi National Oilco is involved in this effort–same of Petrobras in Brazil. Thats kind of interesting, as these sovereign oilcos now control significant percentages of the worlds reserves as well as being a large refiners themselves. Seems like if the folks who actually own the oil, and can also process these fuels, are getting into biofuels’ next wave, the western integrated oilcos may not need to get involved–it can happen without them.
Stephen Leon says
I find articles like these incredibly misleading to people who are not in the biofuels industry. There always seems to be a claim that “the biofuels problem is solved”, which is completely false. Also, important details about the process are usually left out – for example, in this case, the author doesn’t specify why the sugars in halophytes are easily accessible. This isn’t true for any plants, and in fact, goes against evolution. A plant never wants to get rid of it’s precious sugars, otherwise it wouldn’t survive. So, what makes these plants so special? Is there some magical way to isolate the sugars by themselves without having to do an expensive, laborious treatment? At least some reasoning behind why halophytes are going to “save” the biofuels industry would be nice.
As for the “Anonymous Bio Fuels Expert”, there’s no need to be so negative, a lot of cool technology and ways to manipulate microbes has come out of biofuels research. Obviously, there is no solution yet, but there won’t just be one, there will be many.
Iron Knee says
Wow, so many trolls willing to make attacks when it doesn’t seem like they have even read the original post. I guess as long as there is so much money to be made from oil, we have to expect that. Sad, really.
Anonymous Bio Fuels Expert says
I wasn’t being negative, I was being honest. Ethanol is a bad idea, environmentally, HUGE amounts of land and water and its well-known that in the US, Corn ethanol requires 1.5-2bbls of crude oil to make 1bbl of corn ethanol. Sugarcane isn’t much better. Please explain to me how that is being green or scalable or negative? Why I sited the Rockefeller Family office debacle, because folks have to get REAL about energy. Being positive and passionate has NOTHING to do with the reality of the situation. This isn’t about politics, it’s about molecules. Swapping 1.5-2 crude oil hydrocarbons for a crude oil produced corn based hydrocarbon makes ZERO SENSE and is a sham. The sooner US Taxpayers, consumers and investors get that, the better.
US Corn ethanol is a farm subsidy locked into place by collusion of lobbying, politics and funny enough, the co-opting of environmentalist, it is NOT a viable solution to impact transportation fuel. If you are part of the Cargill family or an investor in ConAgra or Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), yea, you LOVE ethanol, but for the average American, it’s a huge house of cards built on lies that has only promoted mistrust of the market around anything green. The ONLY reason is has market share is because of lobbying and regulation, which costs tax payers, NOT because it is a better solution or makes any meaningful impact and was put there by preying on positivity, not reality. If there are 10B gallons of corn ethanol used in the US and it cost 15B gallons of gasoline to produce, explain to me how that makes any financial or practical sense? It just makes the 15B of gasoline MORE EXPENSIVE. Corn ethanol, like 99% of green marketing stories that use words like “sustainability”, only provide incumbents a good reason to charge more for their commodities, generate false hope and promote fear, while making little to no impact in the actual supply chain and distract funding into R&D that could actually win the day.
Here is another great consumer example of how Corn Ethanol doopted the market, having a Detroit based flex fuel car. A $5k-$7500 option that is about 10 lines of code in the ECU from an O2 sensor that increases injector timing and retards ignition timing. Is that really worth $5k-$7500? No, it was great for Detroit, who was probably doopted like the rest of us, and consumers paid the price. Based on the promise that e85 would be widely available. Like the entire ethanol sham, there isn’t e85 available anywhere for 99% of people to use. The town I live in has 1 e85 pump and is in the top 15 largest towns in the US and is one of the “greenest” towns in the US. Never mind that even though e85 costs less, you get about 70% less energy density, so in the long run, you’re paying the same price if not more to go the same amount of miles, more of the same from the Corn Lobby. You won’t find 1 consumer in America that paid that extra $5k-$7500 for their flex vehicle that believes it was a good use of their money. I think they use to call that snake oil.
Biofuels is dismal at scalability and only works if Crude Oil is fueling it, always has been, always will be, no matter what the photosynthesis mode. My point is, if the average Joe investor is looking at this press release and has some immediate hope that biofuels will solve our dependency on Crude oil, bottom line, it won’t, even for Jet Fuel, and all attempts made at this point are just as dependent on crude oil as the average consumer. If one looks back on the entirety of investments made into biofuels by the entirety of investors, mostly it has been carnage, of course unless you’re a billionaire family or corporation with the capacity to move governments or penny stock player who knows how to play the ignorance of day traders who dig buzzwords. Buyer beware, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is…
Euan Mearns says
Karel, I’d like some pointers as to how sugars are converted to jet fuel. I’d also point out that when you build salt water lakes in the desert, the salt water evaporates leaving behind an extremely acrid salt pan – how are the fish to survive?
Ever read Salmon Fishing in the Yemen?
Ancient Geologist says
Anonymous Bio Fuels Expert is essentially right on the mark: Corn ethanol is a boondoggle, benefiting largely the farm lobby. Check out the recent reports from the Pacific Northwest Natinal Laboratory about their new hydrothermal algae-to-crude process, which has been licensed for pilot plant production. This essentially duplicates the natural process of the Earth for making crude, but it does it in minutes, not millions of years. Sounds to me to be a lot easier than trying to grow halophiles in the desert, and then fermenting them, and finally distilling the ethanol out of the resulting beer. I have not heard if anyone has yet developed an ethanol process that puts out more energy than it consumes. Everything I read about the process indicates ethanol has about a 20% negative energy balance.
Nice job done.
If this creates great impact in environment and consumption of CO2 too.
It will be highly appreciated if I could be linked in your mailing list.
I am a clean & Green earth Crusader.
Anonymous Bio Fuels Expert says
All of these claims were already made by Jatropha. Any plant or animal based oil will make fine biodiesel/jetfuel, THE issue is feedstock. Conoco Philips has the best thing going in refining, their Hydro Treated Renewable Diesel, but the problem is scalable feedstock. If you want to see how this claim will go in the future, look into Jatropha. It made the EXACT same claims and it never turned the corner in a meaningful way.
Robert Daigneault says
National Research Council of Canada as beaten Boeing in this race for biofuel with Agrisoma of Canada in October 2012 when a Falcon 20 was the first jet in the world to fly with 100% biofuel.
andy live says
well I am thoroughly uneducated when it comes to oil fuel and ethanol and biofuels in general. I am merely a poor ignorant musician trying to learn anything today and you folks seem so informed and educated on the subject. can I get you all your opinions on how soon the oil will run out? and is fracking as bad as environmentalists say it is?
Excellent piece of journalistic work but, regrettably, it misses the point. As far as I summarise the main comments correctly, this kind of biomass has too little scale to become a volume sufficient sustainable energy source. When something is too big, it’s becoming bad, especially when there isn’t balance between supply and demand. Instead of continuing consuming ever more, it’s time to look to the other side: make it happen that planes fly less..! But, as everybody can imagine, THAT’s a too frightful message for the aviation industry (look f.i. at their prolonged resistance against ETS).
But hey: keep up the good work, keep thinking out of the box and do present alternatives (even when they’re not viable at second sight). There are not many websites in Europe as well-written and good as yours…!
To claim that shale fuel was “low quality” is hard to understand. The
gunk that is extracted from shale is but the source of the raw molecules
from which the exact molecules of the target fuel product is made. If the
fuel is “low quality”, then it must be out of spec. Why not just reject the
batch and demand fuel that is up to spec? But the spec is not even
mentioned. And there is a regulatory issue apart from liability. The FAA
would strongly object to anyone delivering a batch of Jet-A that was not up
to spec and if the airline used out-of-spec fuel, it would render the
aircraft not airworthy. So the story line does not jive well with reality.
Karl W. Schwab says
Does anyone have a photo of halophytic algae actually producing oil droplets? Where in the algae is the oil produced and how is it expelled? Is it similar to what we see in the algal genus Botryococcus? Any help that could be provided would be appreciated because I am looking at fossil halophytic algae and I see what I think might be oil droplets being expelled from algal tube-like processes. They certainly fluoresce well in Blue Light Irradiation.