Audi's Joule of a Fuel?
By Bill Moore
Big Oil is in big trouble. Profits for the fourth quarter of 2013 at the likes of Exxon and Shell are off 27 and 48 percent, respectively. True, ConocoPhillips reported a 74 percent jump in fourth-quarter net income, but much of that came from dumping 'non-core assets'.
What's going on? Business Week has an answer:.
"The world’s cheap, easy-to-find reserves are basically gone; the low-hanging fruit was picked decades ago. Not only is the new stuff harder to find, but the older stuff is running out faster and faster."
Bottom line: it's getting harder and harder to make an honest buck in the oil business. The resource takes more investment to get at, recover, and refine. Of course, this isn't a new phenomenon. M. King Hubbert, the father of peak oil, predicted it over 40 years ago. Fortunately, if you're an oil company, increasingly expensive technologies have forestalled the inevitable and at the moment production seems to be keeping pace with demand, but just barely. As Business Week notes:
Just to maintain production rates, oil companies have to race to find new reserves faster than the old ones dry up. That essentially puts them on a treadmill at which they must run faster just to keep pace—a horrible problem in any business.
Which is why the collaboration between Germany's Audi and Bedford, Massachusetts-based Joule Fuels is so fascinating. The US company has come up with a way to turn flue gas CO2, brackish water and sunlight into diesel, ethanol and jet fuel.
Using genetically-engineered cyanobacteria - technically not algae - Joule claims its process can produce the equivalent of 15,000 gallons of alkane per acre, which unlike biodiesel can be mixed 50/50 with petroleum diesel and at a very competitive per gallon rate. Their Sunflow-e, is a direct substitute for corn-based ethanol and at a significant improvement in efficiency. An acre of corn will be fermented into 300-400 gallons of ethanol at an energy-returned-on-energy-invested ratio of, at the very best, maybe 1:1.7. Others claim it's actually a net loss of energy. Joule claims their system can, theoretically, produce up to 25,000 gallons of synthetic ethanol from that same acre of ground, but without using any food crops or agricultural waste.
What's their secret? Their cyanobacteria, which are genetic-engineered to absorb carbon dioxide and secrete either ethanol or alkane (synthetic diesel) depending on how they've been programmed.
The process works something like this.
A field of translucent plastic tubes filled with waste or brackish water (supposedly sea water could also be used) is inoculated with their special cyanobacteria, which differ from algae is several key ways, including not having any Mitochondrial DNA. Carbon dioxide is injected into the tubes which are bathed in sunlight. According to Joule's calculations, it takes about 10-12 photons to cause the bacteria to consume a molecule of CO2, which it converts into the specific fuel for which it has been tailored. Over the course of an estimated 8 weeks, depending on time of year and latitude, the continually circulating fluid produces the desired fuel, which is continuously extracted. At the end of 8 weeks, the tube system is purged and the process started all over again.
The beauty of Joule's system is that it is essentially one-step. Previous attempts to use algae not only resulted in lower yields, but required additional processes to produce a workable fuel substitute. Joule can tailor its organisms to make its fuels in just one step, which sounds pretty exciting and has the blogosphere buzzing.
There are couple of issues that in their excitement, they seem to be ignoring.
Besides lots of sunlight and empty land - the American southwest (New Mexico, Arizona, etc.) has the highest level of Photosynthetically Active ground Radiation or PAR in the continental US - the process also needs two other key inputs: water and carbon dioxide.
As for the first, Joule's pilot plant in Hobbs, New Mexico - on the border with Texas - relies on what it calls brackish water, of which the state has an abundance. Some 75 percent of the groundwater underlying it is too salty to drink and requires some form of desalinization to be considered potable. Joule's bugs have been engineered to tolerate this, which clearly is a good thing, especially, if in the end, they could also desalinate it. But for now, it sounds like the goal is to eventually recycle the brackish water through the system.
The point is, wherever you do this, you'll need water. Fortunately, it doesn't have to be fresh, potable water, shortages of which are beginning to be a global concern. Some 15 cities in and around the San Francisco Bay area, including up into Napa Valley, are now being warned of looming water shortages in the coming years.
The other key ingredient is carbon dioxide or CO2. At present, the world creates billions of tons of the stuff. It spews from our automobile tailpipes at roughly a rate of one pound every 20 miles. There's something on the order of a quarter of a billion motor vehicles on American roads, so that's a lot of CO2 being belched into the atmosphere. Unfortunately, its not very practical to capture it after the fact.
Switching over to electric cars, however, would facilitate the process since the biggest single source of CO2 are coal-fired power plants, or what critics like to call the electric car's real tailpipe. After coal plants come cement kilns and oil refineries. Iron and steel production are also huge sources, as is, ironically, the fermentation of corn-ethanol. And yes, livestock…. and human beings.
While we create lots of what President Obama is now calling a 'pollutant,' much of it is highly dispersed. If it is centralized, it is in the form of a power plant, cement manufacturer or steel mill, which tend to be located in heavily populated areas, meaning land is dear. The challenge then becomes how do you affordably capture and transport all that CO2 from where we create it to where we convert it? A CO2 pipeline? Besides the cost and politics of building it is the threat of it rupturing. Google Lake Nyos [http://mhalb.pagesperso-orange.fr/nyos/nyos.htm] if you want to better understand the danger CO2 poses if it accidentally 'spills.'
Here's some quick numbers to consider before you get all that excited about synthetic diesel and ethanol. Joule Fuel's web site says they are going to focus scale-up production on making Sunflow-d, their synthetic diesel alkane. According to government statistics, in 2006 the US consumed 50 billion gallons of diesel fuel. Assuming Joule's optimistic 15,000 gallons per acre per year, that translates into needing 3.3 million acres of land for their solar tube system, to say nothing of the CO2 and water needed.
More manageable is the need for jet fuel, also a kerosene-based distillate. According to the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA), in 2012 US commercial and business jet operations consumed 35.6 billion gallons of jet fuel. Assuming 15,000 gallons per acre, producing enough synthetic Jet 8 would required just under 1 million acres (395,971 hectares) of ground or the equivalent of more than 1,500 square miles (3,960 km2).
That's just jet fuel for the US commercial fleet. There's all our trucks and buses, off-road heavy equipment and trains, not to mention ships at sea and work boats plying the the nation's rivers.
For all its promise, synthetic fuels like that produced by Joules' nifty little biological refineries won't easily replace all that cheap oil to which the world has become accustomed over the last century. The transition won't be easy, but we have little choice. Just ask the management at Exxon and Shell.
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