Mass balance analysis of algal biodiesel

Physorg.com reports on a recent paper in which the authors analyze the sustainability of algal biodiesel from a mass balance perspective. The paper, Bioresource Tech. 102, 1185, essentially highlights one of the tradeoffs with algal biodiesel. The low tech route of large containment ponds limits the total output of dry biomass per hectare, as evidenced by the author’s computation that even 11 square miles of algae ponds, at a growth rate of 50 g of bone-dry biomass per square meter per day, would only be sufficient to replace 0.1% of the US consumption of diesel.

Of course, there are many ways to increase the output per hectare. One of these are vertical tubes, or bioreactors, for algae growth. The issue with this approach is that it is capital intensive, requiring not only the tubes, but cooling systems to prevent algae death from overheating and requires higher overhead, since the tubes must be scrubbed occasionally to reduce fouling.

If I were to be looking at this area for technology breakthroughs, I’d be looking at people applying anti-fouling or other surface chemistry applications to reduce the maintenance costs, or clever engineers designing passive cooling systems for these reactors. I can imagine a system where the bioreactors were built to exchange heat with an HVAC system in cooler environments, or with their own ground-sourced heat pump in warmer times. The cost of the cooling is a major barrier and it would be a win to spread that cost around amongst several different systems.

Investment in R&D for sustainable technology

I just finished Common Wealth, by Jeffrey Sachs. The book is a fairly dry layout of why we aren’t meeting the UN’s Millennium Development Goals and what the consequences of that failure may be. I can’t recommend the book to the casual reader, because of its incredible denseness, but it does contain a fair amount of useful data for those of us who are thinking in the Bright Green mode.

One tidbit that I found interesting was Sachs’ estimation of the required investment in research and development in sustainable technology in order to address the issues in climate change, water and food security, disease, et al. that the book covered. This required investment was set at 0.2% of GNP of the developed world. By his calculations, which were likely made in 2007, this amount is equal to 70 billion dollars. While his estimation methodology was unfortunately not clearly disclosed, lets run with it for the time being.

By comparison, the 2007 NSF budget was 5.9 G$ (source: NSF.gov), the NIH budget was 29 G$ (source: NIH.gov, and the Department of Defense research budget was 72 G$ (source: Defenselink). Exclusive of other smaller research programs, such as the Department of Energy research programs and NASA, this represents around 107 G$ in funded research. By comparison, the 2007 cost of the Iraq War (specifically excluding Afghanistan and other “War on Terror” expenditures) was 123 G$ (source: CBO)

The implication of these numbers is that it appears to be quite feasible to fund the required research and development in sustainable technology, perhaps even unilaterally. Further, investing that 70 G$ above and beyond current research funding would at least partially address the “green jobs” development that President-elect Obama has been advocating. While some portion of this money would go to academic grants, some non-trivial portion of the funding should be made available in a SBIR/STTR program. Additionally, some technology-driven small business development funds, something like an angel investment fund for sustainable technology, would encourage green job growth while meeting these sustainable technology R&D goals.

It also seems reasonable that such an initiative would incentivize growth in the science and engineering fields. Despite a lot of ado about the need to train more scientists and engineers, many technical fields are and have been producing a glut of students with advanced degrees (as Daniel Greenberg and various industry publications, such as Physics Today and C&E News, have pointed out.) It also goes without saying that once a technical professional transitions from science and engineering to business or law, they do not return – the disparity in pay scales is generally insurmountable, at least in my experience. Driving the demand for technical professionals with these R&D incentives could absorb at least part of this glut, preventing the loss of the most talented individuals from the technical fields.

Above all, the goal of this funding is worthwhile: many of the challenges facing the world have solutions that are either in whole or in part technological. While I am always skeptical of throwing money at problems, I find a world of difference between things like funding direct food aid to developing countries and funding research in drylands agriculture and permaculture in order to improve cropland yields while reversing soil degradation. The former is simply spreading the wealth while the latter so very clearly creating new wealth for the entire world. When these Millennium goals are met, political scientists and economists argue that conflicts over scarce resources in the developing world will dwindle. It seems reasonable , then, that the best investment in foreign aid and development should start here. Hopefully, President-elect Obama’s advisors will encourage him to champion this opportunity to make such an investment in sustainable technology.

Worldchanging on Walkscore

The folks at Worldchanging point out the critical flaws in Walkscore. I had a similar take on the site about a year ago, though one that was a lot less in depth. Check out the Worldchanging article for a very insightful take on why WalkScore’s approach is outdated (terrible business model), as well as some commentary on the Second Life tool called Carbon Goggles.

My take on Carbon Goggles is something between “obvious” and “pointless.” Second Life has utterly failed to impress me in the suspension-of-disbelief department, thus I’m much more likely to be moved by data on carbon impact than on something that gimmicky. I suspect that while such gimmicks do tend to be effective in getting points across to folks who are not intimately familiar with the subject at hand, the Second Life audience is one that is not ill-educated on climate change.

Designing for a Green Society

I just read this piece by Alex Steffen on the WorldChanging blog and highly recommend it. The key quote from the piece, in my opinion, is this one:

[I]f we’re going to avert ecological destruction, we need to to not only do things differently, we need to do different things.

What he’s saying here is something that I’ve pointed out to my colleagues in the innovation community: sustainability is not about making things with less stuff, or that last longer, or that aren’t toxic, or even that can be infinitely cradle-to-cradle recycled. Sustainability requires us to invent things that make it possible to live more sustainably. If the things, the stuff, that we have and use make it easier to live sustainable lives than to not do so, then we will live sustainably.

Its not an easy problem to solve, for the same reason that truly groundbreaking innovation is not easy. It is pretty straightforward to imagine a novel solution for a market that already exists. It is much harder to invent a new market. I think that the kinds of products that will help people live sustainably are products for a market that doesn’t exist yet. Our business strategists don’t know how to value them, so our market analysts can’t compute a return on investment, so no investment is made. And truthfully, our scientists and engineers don’t always have the global perspective necessary to understand what types of solutions are necessary.

The point of Steffen’s article was to underline the importance of community in making these changes in our systems. I think that it is also important to understand the systems themselves. As we grow in our understanding the network of interactions and dependencies in our economy and our society, this understanding will allow us to break out of unsustainable patterns and replace them with ones that are equally understood, but are sustainable to the best of our knowledge. And because we’ll be building from a base of understanding, we’ll be able to look at them in a rational fashion 40 years from now when we understand the ways in which the new patterns are not sustainable.

It may be that at first, these more-sustainable patterns will be obvious. Things that folks like Steffen have been telling us for years, like community gardening, reducing sprawl, and increasing bike transport. But as with everything else, the low-hanging fruits will be quickly exhausted. At that point, progress will only be made by deeper understanding. It will be interesting to see how the tools for gaining that understanding develop.

More on the biofuel controversy

I posted an article earlier critiquing the media reaction to the recent reports on biofuels and land use management. Worldchanging has just posted a similar, fairly in-depth, critique as well. Their analysis goes more in depth into the specifics of each report, so I highly recommend it. What they do point out is that the Science articles are nuanced and that it was clear that the media in general either missed the nuance or ignored it.

More on biofuels vs. greenhouse gases

In regards to my previous post on the recent studies on biofuels, WorldChanging has posted an article about the issue, citing a study released by the Sierra Club as well as the Science report. The WorldChanging blog post mentions that the Science report “reinforced the urgency of moving to second-generation biofuels.”

In considering this topic, I think something else extremely valuable is coming out of the biofuel boom. We’re learning how to quickly estimate environmental costs.

Technorati Tags: , ,