15 June 2008

There’s (black) gold in them there algae

Yesterday’s Times carried this article about Makoto Watanabe and his life’s search to find a species of algae that efficiently “sweats” crude oil. It seems that his quest for this Oily Grail has been successful.

Given sufficient light and carbon dioxide Botryococcus braunii excretes oil. The tiny globules of oil that form on its surface can be easily harvested and then refined using the same “cracking” technologies with which the oil industry now converts crude into everything from jet fuel to plastics. The Japanese Government has supplied him with hefty grants to work on ways of industrialising the algae cultures. The professor admits that there is much work to be done to bring the financial and environmental costs of creating algae oilfields down to reasonable levels: to meet Japan’s current oil needs would require an algae-filled paddy field the size of Yorkshire.

But – in laboratory conditions at least – the powers of Botryococcus braunii are astonishing. A field of corn, when converted into biofuel ethanol, may produce about 0.2 tonnes of oil equivalent per hectare. Rapeseed may generate around 1.2 tonnes. Micro algae can theoretically produce between 50 and 140 tonnes using the same plot of land. The discovery of Botryococcus braunii and its precious excretions has taken years.

The professor has given himself a decade to effect this seemingly implausible conversion: Japan’s export-led economics have always been shaped by their near 100 per cent dependence on foreign energy. In the present world economic climate, those economics are looking especially fragile. “I believe I can change Japan within five years,” the Professor told The Times from his laboratory in Tsukuba University. “A couple of years after that, we start changing the world.”

There remain, however, substantial obstacles before cars and aircraft are all running on algae. Although field tests have proved that there is little technical difficulty in breeding or harvesting the algae, the sums do not add up. A prospective algae-breeding oil concern would either have to invest billions of dollars in expensive breeder tanks – at a cost of around three times what the oil would sell for on the international market over the lifetime of the tanks – or find an enormous expanse of well-irrigated land in a country where labour can be bought very cheaply. It is for this reason that Professor Watanabe believes the world’s first algae farms will be constructed in countries such as Indonesia or Vietnam.

An interesting development for sure, but the final paragraph shows wherein lies the rub. While the growth of corn or other crops for conversion to bio-ethanol will almost certainly have disastrous consequences, sourcing the huge area of irrigated land to grow the algae will probably have a serious effect too and not provide much in the way of financial benefit to the local economy. On the surface it sounds like a great idea but I can’t help thinking that the disbenefits will outweigh the benefits. I would like to be proved wrong.

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