Latest on Biofuels

The Wall Street Journal had a glowing article about the latest development for using algae to produce ethanol.

A casual reader would assume that the age of “algae” was at hand, possibly to replace the age of “oil”.

The article said that 25,000 gallons per year of ethanol could be produced, at low cost, from one acre of algae.

My earlier article, The Ethanol Problem, pointed out that Congress has mandated that 35 billion gallons of ethanol be mixed into our gasoline by 2022. Of the 35 billion, 15 billion gallons are to come from corn ethanol and the remaining 20 billion from cellulosic ethanol.

Since cellulosic ethanol is still experimental, and most probably a pipe dream, we have a problem.

While we can use approximately 40% of our corn crop to produce 15 billion gallons of corn ethanol, we can’t produce another 20 billion gallons from cellulosic materials, such as switch grass and poplar trees – and we certainly can’t use our entire corn crop to make ethanol.

Ergo, algae to the rescue.

A little arithmetic, however, quickly dispels the vision of algae as the white knight.

Only 68.5 gallons per day of ethanol are produced from one acre of algae.

To grow enough algae to produce 20 billion gallons of ethanol requires a land area slightly less than one-and-a-quarter (1 ¼) times the size of Rhode Island.

Granted that the land mass of Rhode Island can fit nicely into the state of Arizona, it’s still no trivial matter to carve out this much land in Arizona, or Texas, or any other large, sunny state, when environmental issues will come to the fore, such as endangered species.

Joule Unlimited Technologies Inc., the developer of this process, plans on building a demonstration facility in New Mexico.

It’s no question that their SolarConverter bioreactor prototype is an interesting concept, but there is a long way to go before ethanol from algae is produced in sufficient quantities and at a reasonable price to solve the problem created by Congress. The current price of ethanol from Algae is somewhere between $17 and $25 per gallon.

The easiest way to solve the problem created by Congress is to change the law, and cancel the mandate for the additional 20 billion gallons of ethanol over and above the 15 billion produced from corn.

This will save tax payers a lot of money.

While there may be a breakthrough someday that will allow algae to become a viable producer of ethanol, that day is not in sight.

Besides, there’s enough oil in North America to supply all our gasoline for decades.

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