Algae to the Rescue?

Today WGY introduces guest columnist Dave Aakhus, a fellow Gallatin student concentrating in globalization and sustainable development. This post, about a promising new concept for biofuels and carbon sequestration, is in line with Dave’s focus on the economics of renewable energy.

AlfeaI’ve always wondered about how quickly we went from the Western Frontier to the Final Frontier, snubbing the good ‘ole ocean along the way. It seems a British researcher, though, is reclaiming those unknown bounds for the seas again. A recent Economist article reports that John Munford has proposed to scatter iron particles around the ocean in an area the size of the North Sea, in an effort to induce saltwater algae growth. Since algae naturally captures carbon dioxide, it could have great potential in reducing global warming. Mr. Munford also proposes to harvest the algae and utilize its densely-packed energy as a biofuel, perhaps to replace mineral oils.

The obvious disadvantage to such a project is that we are messing with nature, and that carries potentially disastrous consequences. Similar projects have been tested in freshwater ponds with positive results, but oceans, on the other hand, are quite big. A project on the scale that Munford imagines could transform entire ecosystems, causing a rippling effect throughout the seas. Who knows what all that extra algae would do to oceanic food chains? Or how being in the North Sea would affect nearby glacial melting? To add to all that doubt, how often would we have to sprinkle iron fillings on the water to maintain the algae? Would it evolve to human dependency?

These are just a few of the basic questions that Mr. Munford and the scientific community must answer before even thinking about implementation. Yet, this idea – generally called biofuel aquaculture – is exactly the kind of innovative thinking we could use in combating global warming. The limits of wind turbine size, the current solar silicon scarcity, and disillusionment of ethanol are showing that there is no silver bullet. And with other solutions still finding their practical role, like carbon emissions trading, it’s best to have another option on the table.

That being said, biofuel aquaculture is not ideal. Greater energy efficiency, more renewable sources, and electric/hydrogen vehicles are the primary goals to strive towards. But not knowing what choices are available, we find ourselves following too narrow of a strategy, putting too many eggs in not enough baskets. We should pursue our slimy green friend and its prospects, but focus our main efforts on those strategies mentioned above that aren’t so out-of-the-blue.


The Biofuel Blues, with a Hint of Hope

by Nelson Harvey

There’s a good article on biofuels this week in National Geographic Magazine. It explains in simple terms why ethanol and biodiesel, in the forms we now know them in the U.S., aren’t the answer to our concerns about global warming. I think this is particularly important to understand because biofuel is the renewable energy that politicians have rallied behind most enthusiastically, passing a Renewable Fuel Standard that will require 7.5 billion gallons of the nation’s fuel supply to be ethanol or biodiesel by the year 2012.

There has long been controversy over the “energy balance” of biofuels: the question of whether they take more energy to process then they produce when burned. Even if they are not net energy losers, its unlikely that they’re big winners either. That’s because both corn and soybeans produced by industrial farms require tons of nitrogen fertilizer to grow. Furthermore, many biofuel plants run on coal or natural gas, and corn must be refined into sugar before it is fermented into fuel, a process which releases a great deal of carbon dioxide.

Emissions aside, the real political obstacle for soy or corn-based biofuels is that they compete with the food supply. For the U.S., the most elegant way around this would be to make cellulosic ethanol from plant waste, but right now, existing cellulosic ethanol refineries are only 45 percent efficient, compared to about 85 percent for the average oil refinery.

The numbers on soy and corn fuels are particularly sobering for me, as I’m currently designing a project to run one of NYU’s vehicles on biofuel of some sort. Reading the National Geographic article helped boost my confidence in using Waste Vegetable Oil (WVO) as fuel. Like energy efficiency or freeganism, using WVO is a way of sustaining ourselves off of the excesses of our current system. It requires no new fuel production, but is merely providing a second life to a substance that was already headed to the rendering shop or the landfill. Until cellulosic ethanol comes along, you’ll find me pillaging WVO out by the loading dock, the smell of french fries wafting on the breeze.


Energyville 1

By Adam Brock 

First, there was BP’s carbon footprint calculator. Then came Shell’s “Real Energy,” a collection of games, stories and videos about human ingenuity. Now my roomate Dave has alerted me to the latest and greatest Big Oil web PR stunt: Energyville, a Sim City-esque flash game put out by Chevron and the Economist Group.

The premise of the game is simple: you decide how to balance the pressures of economics, sustainability and security in crafting the energy mix for your city. What that amounts to is clicking on buttons representing different energy sources, reading factoids about the benefits and downsides of each, and deciding which ones you want to use. In the interests of being fair and balanced, you’re not allowed to power your city entirely with renewables (at least in the first level), and you’re required to use a certain amount of oil to run vehicles.

Chevron, with the best web designers (oil-stained) money can buy, has done what the scientists keep refusing to do: make our energy future fun and easy to understand. And as a means of educating the public about the most basic pros and cons of currently available energy sources, I gotta admit that the game is well designed.

WGYneedspetroleumBut, like the old-school Sim City graphics it rips off, Energyville’s about ten years too late. At this stage in the game, most people already know that nuclear is dangerous, coal is dirty and solar’s expensive. What we’re getting into now is the down and dirty phase, where we work out all those overlooked details that are gonna make or break our 21st-century economy.

Maybe one reason we’re not seeing something like Energyville coming from the James Hansen posse is that scientists, unlike oil corporations, are after the pursuit of truth. And the truth of the matter is, our energy future isn’t simple. In fact, as Nelson discussed yesterday, it’s actually enormously complex, and not even the experts can agree on much. A game that considered the dozens of essential variables that are at play – from the actual size of known oil reserves to climate tipping points to society-wide value shifts – would be a programmer’s nightmare, and a waste of valuable talent. It’s a good thing that our society is becoming energy literate so quickly… otherwise, we might be forced to endure a Second Life tutorial on biogas from ExxonMobil.

The Magic Schoolbus

by Nelson Harvey

Piling into a bus with a bunch of friends and hitting the road is a quintessential American fantasy, particulary for young and restless college students. But with gas prices approaching $3 a gallon and fuel economy standards stagnant, can young environmentalists enjoy the freedom of the road without excessively damaging their wallets or the planet?

For more photos, click here

For 11 students at Dartmouth College, the answer appears to be yes. The students are wrapping up an 11 week tour of the U.S. in “The Big Green Bus,” an old schoolbus converted to run on Waste Vegetable Oil (WVO) that they collect at restaurants along their route. I chatted with them last Sunday, when they stopped in NYC en route to Hanover, New Hampshire, for the start of school.

The bus was converted with grant money from sponsors, and most of their fuel is free, making the journey considerably less expensive than a petro-powered trip. At each stop, they hold events to spread the gospel about biofuels and show off their custom fueling system. The system takes waste vegetable oil from restaurants and uses a small, gas powered pump to run it through a custom onboard filtration system, which uses pillowcases and other filters to drain the largest impurities out of the oil before it is piped into a 120 gallon tank near the rear of the vehicle. The bus starts up and stops on petroleum diesel, and WVO is routed through lines near the engine to warm it up and lower its vicosity. The driver can switch from diesel to WVO manually at any time.

The journey has been far from problem free; mechanical glitches, mostly caused by low quality fuel, have plagued the students throughout the summer. Lucas, the student who completed the $7000 conversion of the bus, said they look for oil that is golden brown and contains little water, but they’ve had problems with a few sub-par batches.


The interior of the bus, and the filtration system

When I saw, them, their injection pump had recently failed, and leaky fuel lines have also been an issue. They once filled the bus with oil from McDonalds, but a chemical de-greaser that the restaurant uses in its fryers sparked a breakdown. Setbacks notwithstanding, the WVO is about as efficienct as diesel fuel when the system is running well.

But it seems likely that high performance was never the chief objective of the Green Bus project. And despite the purported environmental benefits of WVO over diesel, the value of the project isn’t chiefly about environmental impact either. Like any demonstration effort, the real payoff is educational. Making biofuel commonplace and working out the kinks will require continuing to spread the word, telling as many people as we can that another fuel is possible.

Small Projects, Big Lessons

 by Nelson Harvey

When I tell people that I’m working with a grant from NYU to convert one of their vehicles to run on biofuel, I often get the same reaction. “One!?” they chuckle, the way you would at a child who just showed you his fingerpainting. “How cute!” they seem to be saying. However small the project, though, I’ve recently realized that it presents several lessons that could come in handy in the larger efforts to address climate change that are cropping up in all corners of society.

The first parallell between our work at NYU and the broader battle is that, like society as a whole, we don’t really know what we’re doing. I’ve spent days in front of the computer weighing the merits of various approaches to the project, but there are certain things that we just won’t know until we put some fuel in the tank. We could take the safe route and use B20 (a blend of 20 percent biodiesel), but that would give us a 20 percent reduction in emissions at the most, and there are pressing questions about the impact of biodiesel emissions on human health. We could be daring and use straight vegetable oil or B99, but since we’d be using a new NYU vehicle, breakdowns could have some dodgy PR and budgetary consequences.

With a few exceptions, those of us working on this project have never done this before. Our uncertainty about the proper path is the same uncertainty that we all face as we try to tailor our response to climate change. Humans have never sequestered carbon on a large scale, or rolled out climate “stabalization wedges” significant enough to avoid doubling atmospheric carbon dioxide levels by 2050. All the research in the world can get us part way, but there’s no substitute for simply getting our hands in the dirt.

Like all environmental efforts, our little project has to please multiple parties if it will ever be successful. Administrators need assurance that the vehicle will be reliable, and that the tens of thousands of dollars they’ve poured into a new van won’t wind up in a smoking heap. At the same time, those of us behind the effort have to meet our own standards. If the project is too mild to have much of an environmental impact, after all, then why even bother?

Globally, attempts at greening are no different. It may seem abstract to talk about gigawatt scale solar or wind farms, new incentives for biodiesel, or restrictions on carbon, but all of these policy changes have real consequences once enacted. Jobs may be lost (or gained), industries may rise and fall, and companies may be forced to change. You can bet that consensus won’t come easily, nor should it.

As I’ve explored the specifics of this project and worked to please the different groups involved, I’ve noticed just how easy it is to lose perspective. Concerns about the viscosity of biodiesel or the amperage that a battery can handle often eclipse the reality of what we’re actually doing: converting a single vehicle! If we succeed, it certainly won’t change the world; in fact, it will hardly be a blip on NYU’s own radar. Similarly, no single initiative will take care of climate change for us, and its not clear that the sum of our efforts is even up to the task. As we try, though, I find that nothing eases the way more than a bit of much needed perspective.