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Biofuel Shooting Stars

March 27, 2012

Last month, ethanol from algae was the shooting star that lit up the media and enthralled the public.

Unfortunately, at $15 to $25 per gallon, ethanol from algae has a long way to go before being competitive with gasoline.

Earlier, the hype was about diesel fuel from Jatropha and palm trees.

Unfortunately, it turned out that Jatropha needed large quantities of water to produce small quantities of diesel fuel, while palm oil caused forests to be decimated to make room for palm trees.

Then there is ethanol from corn which has been an economic disaster for tax payers because of large subsidies, combined with higher food prices caused by using a food crop for fuel. And, there is also the moral issue.

Against this backdrop of shooting stars, was the successful production of ethanol from sugarcane in Brazil. It was effective at the time it was introduced because of Brazil’s shortage of oil, but as Brazil develops its newly discovered huge oil reserves, time will tell whether ethanol from sugarcane remains popular.

This month, we had the latest shooting star streaking across the firmament: Ethanol from seaweed.

A new process developed by BioArchitecture Lab., Inc. (BAL) and the University of Washington in Seattle can produce ethanol from kombu, a widely available seaweed. The secret, as it were, is a new E. coli bacterium that can turn the sugars in edible kelp (kombu) into ethanol. Supposedly, the new E. coli will not harm the environment when it is introduced into the ocean to mix with kombu.

As we are all aware, some strains of E. coli can cause serious food poisoning so there needs to be certainty about the safety of the modified E. coli before it is released into the environment.

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory indicates that the United States could produce enough ethanol from kombu to replace 1% of the nation’s gasoline usage by using 1% of the nation’s territorial waters to produce ethanol from Kombu.

The corollary to this is that it would require using 100% of our territorial waters to replace all the gasoline we use with ethanol from seaweed. Since that’s obviously impossible, ethanol from seaweed can never significantly reduce our use of gasoline.

There is no information about the cost of ethanol from Kombu, so that part of the equation is still unknown.

There is, of course, the question of why we would make the effort to produce ethanol from kombu when we have enough oil in North America to supply all our needs for decades.

If it turns out that ethanol from kombu is financially viable, it could be used by countries, such as the Philippines, where there is a shortage of oil resources and an abundance of territorial waters in which to grow kombu.

For us, it’s probably another shooting star, or will of the wisp, that’s talked about as the new alternative to oil, but that will never have any real effect on our energy usage.

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