November 17, 2009

The Battle of Algaes

Last night I attended a conference on nonvascular polyphyletic plantlike organisms, alternately eukaryotic and prokaryotic. These are commonly known as algae, which is useful to those of us who mostly took classes like “Nonproliferation and the International Trade in Nuclear Materials” or “War and the Nation-State.” The event was part of a CNA series called The Energy Conversation, which bills itself as “a network of 'energy-smart' advocates working together to build the foundation for horizontal communications and whole of government solutions to complex energy problems.” Noted.

There were plenty of national security types in the room, including some in uniform, along with engineers, alternative energy entrepreneurs, and one memorable oceanographer (more on him later). The first speaker, Chris Tindal, the Deputy Director for Renewable Energy in the Naval Energy Office, gave an overview of the Navy's energy profile (25% of DoD's total energy use, which is itself 93% of the U.S. government's consumption). Like all the other services, the Navy is now keeping three considerations in mind with regard to energy, as he explained: lifecycle costs, the fully-burdened cost of fuel, and the energy footprint of any contractors receiving Navy money.

Because of these considerations, the Navy is in the (very) initial stages of researching algae-based biofuels. The Navy currently only has five gallons of algae fuel, which is obviously a tiny amount, but expects another 50 gallons to be ready by the end of December, and then another 50,000 gallons by the spring of 2010. Tindal pointed to the pros and cons of current algae fuels: they can fortunately yield more output per acre than other biofuels, like those derived from camelina (pdf), but there is currently very limited algae fuel production and the costs are high. In fact, the businesspeople in the room all seemed to have the same questions: how can we make algae scalable? When will it become cost-competitive?

Another speaker, Bill Harrison, represented the U.S. Air Force as its Acting Deputy Director of Air Force Energy Policy in the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Energy, Environment, Safety, and Occupational Health (a job title notably spanning three lines of text). Harrison spent the most time talking about Air Force experimentation with various fuels made via the Fischer-Tropsch process, which can convert coal, natural gas, or other energy sources to liquid fuels. Harrison was concerned that algae fuel production could end up with an order of magnitude higher carbon footprint than petroleum fuels, because algae will have to be “fed” additional carbon dioxide beyond what's in the atmosphere in order to be grown at commercial scale. (Note: I and my fellow bloggers don’t necessarily agree with that calculation – just conveying the speaker’s message for you.)

Up last was Jonathan Trent, the oceanographer working with NASA on farming algae in the world's oceans while simultaneously cleaning wastewater. Not being a scientist, it's hard for me to judge how farfetched (or not) the plan is, but Dr. Trent presented his ideas very well and fielded questions convincingly.

Conferences like this one are crowded, perhaps partly because mainstream media is starting to catch on to the algae trend. Popular Mechanics may not be exactly mainstream, but it has featured a good story on five companies that are working hard to make fuel out of slimy green water. And in September, the very mainstream New York Times published a lengthy profile of Sapphire Energy, one of those five companies. The Times story raises a good point: algae has no natural Congressional backers, unlike ethanol, which is favored by Representatives and Senators from corn-growing states. This makes the political fight more uphill for algae advocates, who already face questions of cost at every turn. However, perhaps some political backing will sprout up in relation to the National Labs, several of which are actively working on algae and other biofuel sources.

Will the wars of the future feature Air Force tankers pumping algae into unmanned aerial vehicles while airborne? After last night, it doesn't seem impossible, but my takeaway is that some mechanism—whether governmental or entrepreneurial—needs to bring down the cost and difficulty of large-scale algae growth for this to happen.