Monday, February 23, 2009

Does Algae Plus Wind Power Equal Biofuel

Use of algae for generating fuel is one of the leading edges of thinking about alternative energy. Some of the benefits and problems have been pointed out in other comments at the New York Times (http://greeninc.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/02/23/does-algae-plus-wind-power-equal-biofuel/). I have been on the roof of the MIT co-generation plant, where there is a small-scale pilot algae project for extracting CO2 from exhaust. Because I was there on an overcast wintry day, I saw it at a time when I would be skeptical that production would be very high or that very much CO2 would be extracted. On the other hand, production and extraction should be quite high on a hot summer day when the sun is burning down. One might draw from this that the effectiveness of such approaches would depend on environmental factors, although one might conceive of algae that are very active without much sun. Of course, the warmth can come from the exhaust, but for ocean-based algae will require some other source of heat.

I would be concerned about the fate of these large vats for algae, and possibly for the wind turbine towers to which they are tethered. Those who work with the ocean have universally come to be humbled by its power. It does not take a major storm to destroy ships that are much more seaworthy than any large vat that can be readily designed and built. Their very size makes them very vulnerable. At the same time, indeed, there are better uses for farmland than growing corn for ethanol. Farmers have benefitted financially in important ways from the ethanol initiative. However, there are better ways to offer farmers economic opportunity and fairness in the larger economy. I applaud the willingness of some to invest their private resources to address the challenge and, if it goes to a pilot, will be interested to see how it comes out.

A key bottom line that we approach is one that I have stated to many people over the past two decades. It is fine to live in a world dominated by engineering and science rather than by nature, but we had better know what we are doing. Proposals like this make me nervous that we know enough of what we are doing. At the same time, we need not get too nervous about it, because the ideas have now entered the bright sun of day. Time and effort will determine whether they are realistic.

1 comment:

Tara said...

Nicely put - I enjoyed reading your blog and agree that we better know what we are doing.