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Book Review: Green Algae Strategy

Robert Rapier, The Oil Drum
End Oil Imports And Engineer Sustainable Food And Fuel
by Mark Edwards]


I love to read. I particularly enjoy books about energy, sustainability, and the environment. One of the benefits of reviewing books is that I end up getting a lot of free books on these topics. One thing about getting free books, though, is that I have to be careful that it doesn’t impact my objectivity. After all, the publisher or author was nice enough to send me this free book. How do I then approach the matter if I sharply disagree with some aspects of the book?

I am on record as being very skeptical about the ability of algal biodiesel to scale up and contribute significantly toward liquid energy supplies. Mark Edwards, a Professor of Strategic Marketing and Sustainability at Arizona State University recently saw one of my essays, and said that while he agreed with my points that many algal producers have been overly optimistic, he also felt like I had glossed over algae’s potential. He offered to send me a copy of his book Green Algae Strategy: End Oil Imports And Engineer Sustainable Food And Fuel.

The first thing I thought when I saw that title is “Either Mark Edwards is dead wrong, or I am dead wrong.” But I believe it is important to read and understand a wide range of viewpoints, because I just might change my mind. Maybe I am dead wrong. This book won the 2009 IPPY award for the best science book, so there are definitely those who think Mark makes a good case.

Mark Edwards writes that he has three goals:

1. Create Green Independence for America and the world

2. Halt and reverse climate change

3. End American and world hunger

While I can certainly get behind those goals, the devil is always in the details. And I think in the details we are going to run into some very challenging problems. Of course this is something I wouldn’t mind being dead wrong about. In fact, a few years ago I was very optimistic about the possibility of algae to produce large amounts of fuel without utilizing large amounts of good crop land. The prospects for algal fuel certainly sounded too good to be true. But a series of articles and discussions since then has swung me increasingly to the belief that the stories were too good to be true.
(8 June 2009)

Mining “Ice That Burns”

Christopher Mims, Technology Review
Newly discovered methane hydrate reserves deep in the ocean show promise for mining.

Trapped in molecular cages resembling ice, at the bottom of the ocean and in terrestrial permafrost all over the world, is a supply of natural gas that, by conservative estimates, is equivalent to twice the amount of energy contained in all other fossil fuels remaining in the earth’s crust. The question has been whether or not this enormous reserve of energy, known as methane hydrates, existed in nature in a form that was worth pursuing, and whether or not the technology existed to harvest it.

Last Friday, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) announced the discovery of suitable conditions for mining methane hydrates 1,000 meters beneath the seabed in the Gulf of Mexico. Together with Chevron and the U.S. Department of Energy, the USGS discovered the reserve of hydrates in high concentrations in 15-to-30-meter-thick beds of sand–conditions very much like terrestrial methane hydrate reserves, which have already yielded commercially useful flow rates. These deposits are substantially different from the gas hydrates that have previously been discovered in U.S. coastal waters, which exist in relatively shallow waters at the surface of the seabed and have become a concern for climate scientists because of their potential to melt rapidly and release large quantities of methane into the atmosphere.

… Increased interest in naturally occurring methane hydrates has been driven by the desire for energy independence from the Middle East and Russia and by the need to find energy sources with less of a potential impact on the climate than coal. (Natural gas produces half as much carbon as coal per unit of energy.) This is reflected by an exponential growth in the number of scientific papers published on the subject per year, …
(8 June 2009)
The article glosses over the tremendous climate danger posed by methane hydrates: “their potential to melt rapidly and release large quantities of methane into the atmosphere.” -BA

Human sewage to power thousands of homes

Murray Wardrop, The Telegraph
The £4.3 million scheme will see enough methane gas extracted from human waste to provide fuel for heating and cooking for up to 5,000 homes by 2011.

The project is the first of its kind in Britain and the biomethane is being hailed as a “fuel for the future” because of its green credentials.

It will be run from the city’s Davyhulme waste water treatment works, which is Britain’s second biggest sewage works, and the gas will be supplied through the local pipeline network.

Further plants are expected to be built in the future, bringing the renewable fuel to hundreds of thousands of British homes…
(16 June 2009)