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November 18, 2011

The Wall Street Journal had a glowing article about the latest development for using algae to produce ethanol.

A casual reader would assume that the age of “algae” was at hand, possibly to replace the age of “oil”.

The article said that 25,000 gallons per year of ethanol could be produced, at low cost, from one acre of algae.

My earlier article, The Ethanol Problem, pointed out that Congress has mandated that 35 billion gallons of ethanol be mixed into our gasoline by 2022. Of the 35 billion, 15 billion gallons are to come from corn ethanol and the remaining 20 billion from cellulosic ethanol.

Since cellulosic ethanol is still experimental, and most probably a pipe dream, we have a problem.

While we can use approximately 40% of our corn crop to produce 15 billion gallons of corn ethanol, we can’t produce another 20 billion gallons from cellulosic materials, such as switch grass and poplar trees – and we certainly can’t use our entire corn crop to make ethanol.

Ergo, algae to the rescue.

A little arithmetic, however, quickly dispels the vision of algae as the white knight.

Only 68.5 gallons per day of ethanol are produced from one acre of algae.

To grow enough algae to produce 20 billion gallons of ethanol requires a land area slightly less than one-and-a-quarter (1 ¼) times the size of Rhode Island.

Granted that the land mass of Rhode Island can fit nicely into the state of Arizona, it’s still no trivial matter to carve out this much land in Arizona, or Texas, or any other large, sunny state, when environmental issues will come to the fore, such as endangered species.

Joule Unlimited Technologies Inc., the developer of this process, plans on building a demonstration facility in New Mexico.

It’s no question that their SolarConverter bioreactor prototype is an interesting concept, but there is a long way to go before ethanol from algae is produced in sufficient quantities and at a reasonable price to solve the problem created by Congress. The current price of ethanol from Algae is somewhere between $17 and $25 per gallon.

The easiest way to solve the problem created by Congress is to change the law, and cancel the mandate for the additional 20 billion gallons of ethanol over and above the 15 billion produced from corn.

This will save tax payers a lot of money.

While there may be a breakthrough someday that will allow algae to become a viable producer of ethanol, that day is not in sight.

Besides, there’s enough oil in North America to supply all our gasoline for decades.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 18, 2011 1:59 pm

    From my reading the Navy is supporting the algae program as a means to provide security to its fuel supply. I think this is part of a program by government agencies to do anything possible to promote renewable energy sources in order to gain favor from the Obama administration. If you don’t do this you are not a team player.

    All renewable energy programs are uneconomical and should be abolished. We have unlimited petroleum products for the Navy to use at relatively cheap prices for most likely centuries. For the Navy to pursue ethanol from algae is a waste of money and criminal.

    The 2007 Act mandating the use of 15 billion gallons of ethanol by 2013 and 35 billion gallons of ethanol by 2022 should be abolished. This bill added more teeth to a similar bill in 2005. These bills came from a Republican administration and show the gullibility of Republicans in their inability to resist lobbyists. Our national debt was on its way to infinity back then and Congress needs to get its act together and eliminate programs that cause harm and add to the National Debt

  2. November 18, 2011 2:13 pm

    I agree, and thanks for your comment.
    My comments about VC’s a few articles ago, made it clear that government bureaucrats shouldn’t be trying to choose winners. It seems as though they are good at choosing losers.
    Secretary of the Navy Mabus, is pushing algae and other renewables. He proposes a Task Force that runs on biofuels to support nuclear carriers.

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