The high price of oil is not the problem – it is the solution to the actual problem of anthropogenic climate change

Photo Credit Future-PhD

Chris Morrisson has a post on the VentureBeat blog extolling a heavily self-funded startup called Algenol Biofuels which is using algae to produce ethanol for use as a fuel.

The company is about to build a refinery in Mexico to produce:

a jaw-dropping billion gallons a year of ethanol by the end of 2012

In the article he mentions two other algal biofuel companies Sapphire Energy and Aquaflow Bionomic both of whom are working on fuels produced from algae.

All very well but these companies are solving the wrong problem. The problem these companies are trying to solve is the current high price of oil. The high price of oil is not the problem – it is the solution to the actual problem of anthropogenic climate change!

In fairness to Chris, he also mentions work on getting algae to produce hydrogen:

Separately, talk in some quarters is picking up about using algae to produce hydrogen, a process being perfected by, among others, the University of California at Berkeley in conjunction with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Now, if this came to fruition, Honda’s announcement today that they are going to start selling cars based on hydrogen fuel cells this coming July (2008) could be seen as very prescient.


  1. says

    Algae also have a pretty good carbon profile — they suck in a lot of CO2 in the process of growing. Still not quite as much as would be released from burning the oil and/or ethanol, but it’s a lot closer to carbon neutral than even most renewables.

    I agree that hydrogen-producing algae sound great, but I don’t get the impression that it’s something that can be effectively done today. Maybe a decade out.

  2. says

    Hey Chris, thanks for stopping by and commenting.

    While I agree that algal biofuels are less evil than many of the alternatives, I fundamentally believe we have to get off the carbon economy. Fast.

    Algal biofuels are a possible short-term fix, what we need are long-term solutions.

  3. larry Nicholls says

    After reading the Algenol Biofuels website, I believe that they have done their homework very well, and they have my best choice award for developing a simple, high volume ethanol production system that we need to get on with life. We need to get off imported oil quickly, and fossil fuels in all forms.
    There system recycles all of it’s carbon in a continuous loop and on a 8:1 energy ratio
    The Algenol Biofuels system doesn’t use food crops or farm land and that is a postive factor.
    I hope enough pressure can be put on Governments and the fuel distribution industry to get companies like Algenol Biofuels solidly into our fuel networks.
    The reality is: NO FUEL = NO FOOD = NO FUTURE

  4. Kevin Parsons says

    “they suck in a lot of CO2 in the process of growing. Still not quite as much as would be released from burning the oil and/or ethanol, but it’s a lot closer to carbon neutral than even most renewables.”

    I fail to see how algae fuels could emit any net carbon given the fact that all the carbon in algae has been sequestered from CO2. The only way it could even be considered neutral is if you found some way to use all of the carbon in the cells (something we are unable to do at this point). Any fuel produced from photosynthesizing organisms will more then likely be carbon negative. More impressive then algae based ethanol is the recent work being done on genetically modified algae and bacteria which can produce biodiesel or even gasoline.

    While getting off carbon is an admirable goal (and it will happen eventually) it is not something we will most likely see happen in our life time, IMO. In the end switching over to an entirely different fuel source would take a decade at the minimum (irregardless of what source it is). Most likely it would take upwards of 30 years if this new fuel source requires the development of a nation wide infrastructure and the replacement of all current ICE automobiles. We also have to remember that this conversion CANNOT begin in earnest until we have a suitable thoroughly tested replacement. Specifically we would have to be 100% sure that we could supply enough of the fuel source so that no shortages would be experienced, it would only take one or two serious shortages for most of the public to lose faith.

    At this point we should be more focused on converting from a petroleum fuels source to a renewable carbon fuel source, specifically one which does not use a food source and or high yielding agricultural land as a feed stock. This renewable fuel source will most likely be used in a hybrid (electic/ICE) that is able to use high ethanol/butanol content biofuels. These biofuels will most likely be either biodiesel or gasoline that are being produced from bacteria or more likely algae. This would allow for a carbon neutral fuel source which can be utilitized in the very near future and which takes advantage of the already extensive infrastructure that we have in place.

    While switching completely off of a carbon fuel source is extremely attractive we have to realize that it is not something that will be done quickly, just look at the conversion from horses to the very first ICE and you will get an idea of just how long it will take for an entirely new fuel source to become wide spread.

  5. says

    When looking at potential new sources of energy, and algae seems a promising prospect at present, I always want to see two things, the Energy Return on Investment of the whole system and the sustainable scalability. It is not clear to me at the moment what the system inputs and outputs are for algae. I have read that one of the current stumbling blogs with large scale algae production is the need for phosphates, which are currently mostly mined from finite sources. Now I don’t know if this is a real limitation of whether it has not been thought through, after all we have an oversupply of phosphates in some areas such as management of sewerage. Are there any other factors potentially limiting the scale that algae can sustainably be produced?

  6. says

    Great article… and don’t forget the benefits of planting a tree. If we all just plant a few we can really make a difference, each one will soak up 20kgs of CO2 every year and put enough Oxygen back in the atmosphere to support 2 people.Peace