April 20, 2008
Time To Think About Petroleum Oil Substitutes

With oil hitting $117 per barrel major media organizations are paying more attention to the future availability of oil. On the one hand, a New York Times discusses worries about future energy availability. On the other hand, the analysis still lends considerable credence to the idea that large increases in oil production are possible.

Today’s tensions are only likely to get worse in coming years. Consider a few numbers: The planet’s population is expected to grow by 50 percent to nine billion by sometime in the middle of the century. The number of cars and trucks is projected to double in 30 years— to more than two billion — as developing nations rapidly modernize. And twice as many passenger jetliners, more than 36,000, will in all likelihood be crisscrossing the skies in 20 years.

In all likelihood? How does that work? If the oil can't be found (and I do not believe it can) how can the number of passenger jetliners double?

CEOs of some major international oil companies (e.g. de Margerie of Total and Mulvey of ConocoPhillips) do not expect oil to go above 100 million barrels a day (we are at 85 million now). Russia looks like it has peaked. Mexico has peaked. Yet the International Energy Agency talks about a 35% increase in production.

All of that will require a lot more oil — enough that global oil consumption will jump by some 35 percent by the year 2030, according to the International Energy Agency, a leading global energy forecaster for the United States and other developed nations. For producers it will mean somehow finding and pumping an additional 11 billion barrels of oil every year.

Where is this going to come from? OPEC nations either lack the ability or the will to increase production. Even if they lack (we should be so lucky) the will why should they change their minds? The higher the price of oil goes the less they have to pump to make the same amount of money.

There's the highly dubious use of "proven reserves" to refer to reserves that OPEC countries claim to have against all evidence and logic. Unless OPEC countries want to provide enough evidence to the rest of the world for their claimed oil reserves why should the New York Times or the International Energy Agency take OPEC claims seriously?

The 13 members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries account for three-quarters of the world’s proven oil reserves.

OPEC countries inflated their reserves back in the 1980s in order to justify to each other their production quotas. They've kept their unrealistic reserve numbers ever since.

It is time to move beyond a discussion of why oil prices have gone so high and focus on the prospects for substitutes. In particular, a realistic discussion of the future liquid fuels ought to center around the costs of substitute liquid fuels such as algae biodiesel, cellulosic ethanol, and coal-to-liquid. We will be able to reduce the relative portion of transportation powered by liquid fuels by use of more electricity and batteries in transportation. But for at least a portion of our transport needs (e.g. airplanes, longer distance vehicles) we will continue to need liquid fuels.

If algae biodiesel can't be made to work then coal-to-liquid will take off in a big way. Maybe jatropha or cellulosic technology using trees or switch grass might work. But I fear the ecological footprint from planting and harvesting the huge areas such crops would need. Near as I can tell so far algae biodiesel has the potential to produce the most liquid fuel per area of land. So I'd like to understand better what problems must be solved for algae biodiesel to work and at what price points it could work.

A company called PetroSun that does conventional oil field development and also algae biodiesel development believes their approach using native algae (as compared to genetically engineered or otherwise specially bred) with natural sunlight can make algae biodiesel workable.

Ethanol (corn) and biodiesel (soybeans) are what we currently have available as alternative fuels. We accept that. However, at productivity levels ranging from 40 to 300 gallons per acre per year from these crops, why would algae not be acceptable even at a lower case production rate of 2,000 gallons per acre per year? Perhaps because the algae-to-biofuels community is mainly focused on super strains cultivated in photo bioreactors? So far, the economics prohibit this segment of the industry from moving forward today and is the primary reason behind the statements that algae-to-biofuels are perhaps five years away. It will probably require $250 per barrel of crude oil or more for these systems to be economically feasible. In time, the price of a barrel of crude oil will support the technology of the photo bioreactors, but why wait?

PetroSun's farming system will utilize native microalgae strains, so as to not disrupt local ecosystems. As stated previously, we will also use either saltwater, brackish or wastewater in our pond system, thereby limiting the impact on the fresh water supply. Our background in the oil and gas industry is the basis from which we developed our harvesting and extraction technology. Despite our stated lower case rate of production per acre being far less than the annual 20,000 gallon theoretical limit of algal oil potential, we are satisfied that we can compete with crude oil pricing and maintain a competitive pricing structure over other vegetable oil feedstocks. We intend to improve on these production rates as we move forward during the maturation of the commercial production of algae-to-biofuels.

Will we need to use closed systems to keep out contaminating organisms? The coverings up the costs. But genetically engineered algae might some day provide advantages that make the closed systems financially worthwhile. PetroSun's management think they can create a workable system sooner using existing algae and lower cost growing ponds.

How much land to produce biodiesel to substitute for all oil used in transportation in the United States?One US government report from 1996 says 15,000 square miles would be required.

NREL itself said in its 1996 report that an area around the size of the U.S. state of Maryland -- approximately 15,000 square miles (3.8 million hectares) -- would be enough to cultivate enough algae to serve the entire transportation needs of the U.S.

That would represent around 140 billion gallons (530 billion liters) of biodiesel it said, working out at around 140,000 liters per h/y. Achieving production levels of such a scale in theory is one thing however; being able to do it in reality is another.

In 1996, the DoE estimated that it would cost twice as much to produce algae-sourced biodiesel than it would gasoline.

Today, the University of New Hampshire's (UNH) Biodiesel Group estimates it could cost as much as $308 billion to build enough farms across the U.S. to meet these production levels and another $47 billion to run them.

Physicist Michael Briggs of the UNH Biodiesel Group says that 15,000 square miles if used for algae biodiesel is pretty small compared to what we now use for agriculture.

To put that in perspective, consider that the Sonora desert in the southwestern US comprises 120,000 square miles. Enough biodiesel to replace all petroleum transportation fuels could be grown in 15,000 square miles, or roughly 12.5 percent of the area of the Sonora desert (note for clarification - I am not advocating putting 15,000 square miles of algae ponds in the Sonora desert. This hypothetical example is used strictly for the purpose of showing the scale of land required). That 15,000 square miles works out to roughly 9.5 million acres - far less than the 450 million acres currently used for crop farming in the US, and the over 500 million acres used as grazing land for farm animals.

Even if the amount of land needed turns out 3 times greater it is still small compared to current agricultural land uses.

Further, these yield estimates are based on what is theoretically achievable - roughly 15,000 gallons per acre-year. It's important to point out that the DOE's ASP that projected that such yields are possible, was never able to come close to achieving such yields. Their focus on open ponds was a primary factor in this, and the research groups that have picked up where the DOE left off are making substantial gains in the yields compared to the old DOE work - but we still have a ways to go. But, consider that even if we are only able to sustain an average yield of 5,000 gallons per acre-year in algae systems spread across the US, the amount of land required would still only be 28.5 million acres - a mere fraction still of the total farmland area in the US.

Needing 3 times as much land would triple costs. But what would those costs be?

The problem of energy prices looks set to get much worse before it starts to get better. China will eventually become the biggest consumer of energy with the US becoming a distant second. The Chinese are getting excited about larger cars. China could surpass the United States in number of cars sold per year by 2015 (though with smaller numbers than currently projected since declining oil production will cut into usage). If we do not come up with workable substitutes for fossil fuels then Asian economic growth, world population growth, and dwindling fossil fuels promise to make for a grim future. Vigorous attempts to slow population growth would really help too.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2008 April 20 09:17 PM  Energy Fossil Fuels

averros said at April 20, 2008 11:53 PM:

It is not oil which is getting more expensive. It's pretty much within the normal range of oil/gold price oscillations.


It is dollar which is getting cheaper.


This means that oil is not getting significantly more expensive compared to the "alternative" sources of hydrocarbons.

James Bowery said at April 21, 2008 12:31 AM:

By the way, I believe I've got a solution the downdraft condenser problem cited in the Solar Updraft Tower Algae Biosphere the brief proforma for which I previously posted here in response to the (needless) food vs fuel dilemma.

Basically, you increase the diameter of the tower to allow 3 concentric cylindrical air columns, each with decreasing temperature toward the center:

Outer: The updraft.
Mid: Downdraft condenser.
Inner: Downdraft heat-sink.

The updraft and downdraft condenser columns are insulated from each other but connected to each other at the top.

The downdraft heat-sink column is open to the high altitude air and is not insulated from, but is sealed from, the downdraft condenser column.

To start the condenser, air is drawn from the base of the downdraft heat-sink column until the column of air is colder, hence heavier than the ambient air. This should start a low-power "air fall" that can be allowed to escape to the ambient air from the base of the tower. This continual downward flow of cold air from high altitude can absorb enough of the heat from the humid air in the adjacent column to cause its contents to condense, if not rain, down.

If the construction costs are in the ballpark of reality, the carrying capacity of Earth at energy, water and food consumption levels comparable to the US, can be multiplied many times over with no net expansion of human land use.

cancer_man said at April 21, 2008 5:03 AM:

1) Few imagined we'd be able to get oil 10,000 feet down in off shore drilling back when Carter said "the world is running out of oil" but in the last couple of years, quite a bit was discovered off of Brazil and in the Gulf of Mexico with cutting edge technology. There will be more such discoveries and cheaper ways to use the tar sands.

2)solar and other alternatives will keep improving significantly by 2020. The IEA predicts little technological change all the way to 2030. Who believes this?

3)transportation estimates usually say nothing about what virtual reality in 2015 and 2020 will do the demand to drive or fly. And those cars and planes will be far more efficient in 15 years.

There is no crisis.

Perry E. Metzger said at April 21, 2008 6:49 AM:

The Fischer-Tropsch process and similar chemistry can be used to produce long chain alkanes for jet fuel and industry if we can generate enough power by other means to run it. The real question is therefore how to get enough usable energy, and not whether specific sources currently used for alkanes are going to be around long run. Given that photovoltaics are already commercially available at 22% conversion efficiency, I think in the long run we don't have any real problem. (I'd say "just use nuclear" but the politics there seem to be a big obstacle.)

jb said at April 21, 2008 7:44 AM:

My predictions, for the US:

As the price of oil increases, the political distaste for nuclear power will diminish, probably exponentially. As the price of oil increases, the exploitation of harder-to-reach oil will increase significantly as well. The cost of rail transport will decrease vs. truck transport. The cost of longer-distance vacations will increase, and so you'll see more local touristry.

The cost of the Internet, of movies and radio and tv and music and video games will remain the same relative to other forms of entertainment (restaurants, clubs, etc) and we should expect to see more money spent at grocery stores and less eating out.

The cost of energy will increase, which is where we'll see increases in Nuclear power - at the end of the day, I suspect most anti-nuclear people are even more anti-coal, and they'll have to choose their battles.

Increases in the price of oil will eventually make larger-scale solar power projects feasible, if not desirable. And wind projects will overcome NIMBY issues.

The value of homes on mass-transit routes will skyrocket, vs homes farther out. This will be counterbalanced by increases in telecommuting, but only somewhat. Demand for insulation (and insulation services) will increase significantly. People will wear more sweaters.

Some companies will make it easier and more convenient to bike to work, but I don't expect that many people will take advantage of that. Instead, expect to see a lot of smaller cars and motorcycles on the road. People driving motorcycles to work will further erode the expectations of formal business attire, except at places that want to look prestigious.

Big box retailers will crush everything in their path - their economies of scale and one-stop shopping are a one-two punch to the smaller boutique stores.

It is possible that the ongoing conversion of farmland to subdivisions will stop, as the cost of distance-shipped food increases relative to the cost of local food. Also, if this insane subsidization of biofuels continue, the farmer will benefit there as well.

Reality Czech said at April 21, 2008 10:07 AM:
Will we need to use closed systems to keep out contaminating organisms? The coverings up the costs.
Halophytes (extremophiles) grow in conditions that the contaminants and predators cannot. If enough salt water can be obtained from sources like farm runoff or coal-bed methane brines, the problem fixes itself.
Jonathan said at April 21, 2008 2:29 PM:

Let's invent a new form of energy production that provides cheap and continuous power. That way we don't have to worry about oil.

Wolf-Dog said at April 21, 2008 3:07 PM:

Basically, it has already been demonstrated that the molten salt reactors that use a mixture of thorium and uranium (or a mixture of nuclear waste), actually consumes almost all the long term nuclear waste, essentially leaving short term waste with half-life less than 300 years. In particular this means that the molten salt reactor needs between 60 to 100 times less uranium or thorium since it is a breeder reactor. But given the slow financing, the Japanese-American-Russian project is only expecting to commercialize it by 2015. This kind of reactor does not have an expensive and complicated core like the pressurized water reactors, since it uses low pressure molten radioactive salts in a very small reactor core, and this makes it very safe also. But the proven design takes time to make commercial, if money is scarce.


But seriously, with only half the money spent in this war, we could easily commercialize these improved reactors within 5 years, provided that the new government commits at least $100 billion per year for nuclear research and development, and another $100 billion per year for other research like solar, algae oil, batteries, etc. Thus $800 billion spent in 4 years instead of war, would solve the problem, and $200 billion per year would not be impossible.

Cervus said at April 21, 2008 4:39 PM:

A German company, Choren, just opened up a Biomass-to-Liquid plants. If it works out they plan to expand production to 200 million liters/year.

I'm doing everything I can to reduce my oil use for personal transportation. I own a Suzuki Burgman 400 scooter that gets great freeway performance will getting 60+ mpg, better than a Prius. I'm certain it won't be enough, though. Shortages and rationing are just around the corner. It's going to get really, really ugly.

Randall Parker said at April 21, 2008 6:28 PM:


A friend drives a Vespa and gets 67 mpg. Frankly I was disappointed. He thought a 50cc scooter might get 100 mpg. Anyone know about higher mpg figures for scooters?

Perry E. Metzger,

I would like to find a good source of cost data for using electricity to produce synthetic liquid fuels. I can already reason about it this way:

A gallon of gasoline might have 125,000 BTU (depends on the season but close enough for our purposes). Well, 1 kwh has 3413 BTU. So it takes about 37 kwh to get as much energy as a gallon of gasoline. If you are paying 10 cents per kwh then it only costs $3.70 per gallon. Affordable. But there's energy lost in the conversion process.

So what is the ratio of electric energy in to liquid hydrocarbon energy out for a synthetic fuel generation process? 2 to 1? 3 to 1? 4 or 5 to 1?

Seems to me that the cost of a plant driven by nuclear power or wind power used to run liquid hydrocarbon synthesis puts an upper bound on the long run cost of liquid fuels once hydrocarbons go away. Maybe algae biodiesel can be cheaper. I do not know.

We can operate a pretty modern industrial civilization on $10/gallon gasoline. Can we make synthetic gasoline for that price?

aa2 said at April 21, 2008 7:51 PM:

I read US oil use is down 4% from march 2007 to march 2008. If that was total oil use they were refering to it would be 800,000 barrels of oil less. As America uses about 20 million barrels of oil a day.

Some interests facts, America uses 950,000 bpd as process heat for factories and industry. Most of that can be substituted as factories are retrofitted.

America use another 930,000 bpd as heat for homes, water and offices. That can also be substituted. To natural gas, electricity heat or wood. And they use about 8 million bpd in cars, and 1.9 million bpd in transport trucks. And 1.3 million bpd in airlines.

aa2 said at April 21, 2008 7:53 PM:

Another factor to consider; If the US managed to cut oil use for car driving in half it would be a giant step. Moving from say 16mpg vehicles to 32mpg vehicles.. that would be from 8 million barrels per day, down to 4 million barrels per day.

On the other hand going from 32mpg to 48mpg only saves 1.33 million bpd(at the current annual miles driven).

Cervus said at April 21, 2008 8:04 PM:


Only 67mpg for a 50cc machine? Sounds like there's something wrong with the scooter, frankly. I went from a 250cc Reflex that got 63-68... to this Burgman 400cc that will get the same mileage once broken in, despite having a larger engine size.

Randall Parker said at April 21, 2008 9:05 PM:


No, his Vespa is 200cc I think. He's saying a 50cc scooter will get 100 mpg.

So I want to know the mpg for lower cc scooters. Any idea?

Wolf-Dog said at April 21, 2008 10:19 PM:

Here is a new diesel German car with at least 120 mpg fuel economy. This car will be manufactured by the end of 1029 or 2010. There will also be an electric version with range well over 100 km per charge. This car's excellent mileage is due to its weight being close to 50 kg. Very light advanced new materials were used to make the car very light and at the same time very robust for collisions.



But separately, Google just invested over $100 million in eSolar:


Within a few years the price of solar electricity will become competitive with coal.

Wolf-Dog said at April 21, 2008 10:21 PM:

Sorry for the typos, I tried to write that the car will be manufactured at the end of 2009 not 1029, and that the weight of the war will be 50 kg, not 50 kg.

Fat Man said at April 21, 2008 11:16 PM:

"Algal Biodiesel: Fact or Fiction?" by Robert Rapier at R-Squared Energy Blog on Monday, May 14, 2007

"Let's invent a new form of energy production that provides cheap and continuous power. That way we don't have to worry about oil."

Wow! What an idea. What heretofore unknown physical process would you like to exploit?


I will repeat a point I have made before:

As I have studied the energy problem, I come to the realization that there are no magic bullet solutions. Every form of mechanical energy has some downside to it. The cases against fossil fuel, bio-fuel, nuclear, solar and wind have been gummed to death.

Maybe we will find technological manna. Maybe we will find a way to build solar power stations in space that will safely transmit their power to earth. Maybe we will anchor zeppelins in the jet stream to harvest inexhaustible wind energy. But, I think that we will discover that every energy source has costs as well as benefits.

My friend, the former utility consultant, wonders why I am interested in energy issues. While I do have a certain boyish fascination with technology, the real appeal to me is the inexhaustible human comedy that the subject seems to engender. Environmentalist Kennedy's sabotaging projects advocated by Greenpeace. Hollywood princesses explaining that the real solution is for you peasants to give up your automobiles, your central heat and your toilet paper, but that they have purchased indulgences from Al Gore.

All of this is just to say that every source of energy has costs as well as benefits. In our current political condition, no one, not liberal environmentalists like the Kennedys (remember "pay any cost, bear any burden"), nor anyone else wants to bear any cost, even one as minor as having some wind machines on the horizon. And very few people advocate even sensible incrementalist policies like a carbon tax, or an increased gas tax.

The real problem is that our political and legal systems are now set up to make sure that anyone can block anything. Therefore we do nothing but bloviate. The political problem must be solved first, but it cannot be solved until it is recognized for what it is. People who carry on about technology as if any of it were a free ride are obfuscating, not contributing to a solution.

People who claim that all costs are unbearable, and that we should not have an industrial civilization may be sincere, but they are a tiny minority -- they can advocate their views, but they will not persuade the great majority of Americans to give up our material comforts. There is a good reason that the Amish are a tiny sect.

Like I said there are costs, they must be recognized and allocated fairly. New York, not only may you not shut down Indian Point, but you need to build about 15 more reactors. Whether the New York City metro area must host 32, 16, 50 or 10 new nuclear plants is not the point. New Yorkers cannot ask for the benefits of an energy intensive civilization and think they have no obligation to bear the detriments. Neither can people in any other area. LA wipe that grin off your face, it applies to you as well.

The detriments of using more nuclear energy, or more wind energy, or more horse manure, must be spread across the entire nation. This is a political, not technical issue.

Wolf-Dog said at April 22, 2008 3:25 AM:

"The detriments of using more nuclear energy, or more wind energy, or more horse manure, must be spread across the entire nation. This is a political, not technical issue."

After the feasibility of the integral fast reactor and especially the Molten Salt Reactor was demonstrated, the government funding was immediately discontinued. The detriment against the Molten Salt Reactor was that since it would burn practically all the long term nuclear waste (leaving only the short term waste with half-life less than 300 years, this enraged the anti-nuclear lobby since it would encourage a nuclear revival, and also, since the Molten Salt Reactor would require roughly 1 % of the amount of fuel pressurized water reactors use, this would enrage the uranium industry.


To be sure, the Molten Salt Reactor would take at least another 10-15 years to be fully developed to become commercial, because the funding is very limited, but if the funding is increased, then the R & D can be accelerated dramatically.

Paul F. Dietz said at April 22, 2008 7:37 AM:

The Molten Salt Reactor work was discontinued because it solved non-problems while introducing its own problems. What end customers wanted it?

Nuclear waste can be more cheaply handled simply by storing it, and there is no near-term shortage of uranium to justify moving quickly to breeding cycles. At the same time, MSRs have highly radioactive primary loops, since the nuclear fuel is dissolved in the liquid, not isolated in sealed fuel elements. MSRs would inevitably be more difficult to operate than conventional reactors; what utility wants to (in effect) operate their own continuous reprocessing plant when they don't have to, given the troubled history of high costs and fugitive radioactive leakage at existing reprocessing plants? KISS says just avoid the unnecessary complexity and inevitable visits by Murphy.

On the subject of coal-derived fuels: I suggest synthetic methane from coal will be the way to go. GreatPoint Energy's one-step gasification/methanation process converts coal to methane (and separated CO2) at 85% energy efficiency, considerably better than FT diesel or methanol from coal-derived syngas. The capital cost is also likely to be lower than syngas-based technologies. There are already hundreds of thousands of CNG vehicles around the world, and the natural gas distribution network is already extensive.

Syngas-based approaches would still be useful for exploiting unmineable coal, via underground coal gasification. China has 16 UCG projects in the works.

M. Simon said at April 22, 2008 7:43 AM:

If this works out it will change every thing.

WB-7 First Plasma

Davis said at April 22, 2008 8:19 AM:

Nice piece on Nuclear today over at The Oil Drum:


"Nuclear power is a step up in energy density from dung, wood, coal, oil...but its scaling has been controversial and uncertain. Here's an assessment of the nuclear fuel cycle and its energy return."

Brian Wang said at April 22, 2008 9:43 AM:

This year and next year what matters is new oil projects. Main new oil is from Saudi Arabia still and Brazil and the other usual places. The US should bring the Thunder Horse Gulf of Mexico oil online this year 250,000 barrels per day. Chevron and others should be bringing another 500,000 b/d from the Gulf by 2012. Brazils new discoveries should be 1-3 million b/d by 2015.



My favorite is Coskata

Solar will not amount to much for a while but the best current option is concentrated solar power balloons from Coolearth

As mentioned by Wolfdog there are good nuclear power options. Plus vastly improved uprating potential for current reactors using new thin films on fuel and new fuel configurations.

On the question of scooters, all electric ones are better for the environment and for the fuel situation. 60 million of them in China.

There are high mileage cars and scooters
Including a 173 mpg Vespa
Piaggio MP3 HyS
(available late 2008)

Fat Man said at April 22, 2008 11:34 AM:

As I said above:

People who carry on about technology as if any of it were a free ride are obfuscating, not contributing to a solution.

Wolf-Dog said at April 22, 2008 12:34 PM:

People who carry on about technology as if any of it were a free ride are obfuscating, not contributing to a solution.

Nobody said that technology will be a free ride. R & D and construction cost money, and money is earned by means of hard work (for most normal people). The obfuscation is when the funds are being cut. If half the war money had been spent on the above mentioned projects since 2003, we would have had something concrete now. For instance, it is estimated by one of the conservatively written research reports mentioned in Randall Parker, that it would cost $310 billion to build the algae farms all over the US to replace all the oil. But this is only a small fraction of the war money.

Fat Man said at April 22, 2008 12:55 PM:

"War money" is an obfuscation. 100G$ is a trivial sum in a 14T$ economy. If it is worth doing (i.e. if the project has a return in excess of the +/-4%), it can be paid for by tax increases or debt financing, and it will contribute to economic growth. The real issue is that no one wants to incur the slightest cost, financial or political, to solve the problem. Until that bridge is crossed, debating technology is a time waster.

TTT said at April 22, 2008 2:58 PM:

""War money" is an obfuscation. 100G$ is a trivial sum in a 14T$ economy. If it is worth doing (i.e. if the project has a return in excess of the +/-4%), "

YES. And I think Iraq does have a good ROI. Replacing Saddam with a friendly democracy, while shaking up the stagnant pond of the Middle East is well worth the cost...

Was the Marshall Plan a positive ROI in the long-term?

James Bowery said at April 22, 2008 3:31 PM:

The real difficulty isn't "the cost" but the PRESENT cost of not solving the problem. At $120+/bbl there is plenty of PRESENT cost to not solving the problem.

Part of "the problem" is defining "the problem" as something more than just oil price. Getting sustainable supplies of the enumerate essentials: food, energy and water -- all in the right ratios and amounts -- is "the problem". This boils down to optimizing the cost of creating carryig capacity where "carrying capacity" must realistically be defined in terms of something like the US per capita consumption of the above-enumerated essentials, or we are simply begging for war with countries undergoing the "demographic transition".

The solar updraft tower algae biosphere linked above is the closest I've seen to an integrated system that provides the requisite carrying capacity at reasonable technical risk and cost:

= 44333.3 $/person

This is taking the $3.5B net present value of a solar updraft tower algae biosphere's products, which is several times the estimated cost of a solar updraft tower.

Nick G said at April 22, 2008 3:37 PM:

"We can operate a pretty modern industrial civilization on $10/gallon gasoline. Can we make synthetic gasoline for that price?"

Probably. But it would be infinitely cheaper (well, about 10x cheaper) to use electricity directly.

You'd lose about 2/3 of your energy in the first conversion, and you'd lose another 2/3 in combustion in an ICE, for a loss of 8/9's of the energy.

An extended range EV like the Chevy Volt will allow a fuel reduction of 80-99% (depending on your driving pattern). It's battery range can expand as batteries get cheaper.

Batteries are good enough. A123system's batteries are likely to be down to $300/KWH in 3 years (they're cheaper to manufacture than conventional small-format cobalt li-ion batteries, which are currently at $400/KWH), and as a practical matter they last indefinitely. The Volt's 16KWH should cost about $5,000, which is only $40 per month over 10 years (think in terms of capitalization with a cap factor of 10). That's more than cheap enough.

Biofuels, and the kind of synthetic fuels you're asking about, might be useful for aviation. OTOH, if you eliminate all coal for power generation, coal for CTL for this kind of very limited use would cost less than $1 per gallon (including the capital costs of the large plants required), the coal would last for several hundred years, and the CO2 emissions would be negligible.

I really see no future in such a high cost option.

Nick G said at April 22, 2008 3:39 PM:

" Replacing Saddam with a friendly democracy, while shaking up the stagnant pond of the Middle East is well worth the cost"

Sure, if possible. The problem is, we lied about our reasons for the war, so the war has no legitimacy in the ME, and we will not have a friendly democracy in Iraq any time soon.

That's why we succeeded in Afghanistan, and didn't in Iraq: Afghanistan had legitimacy, and Iraq didn't.

TTT said at April 22, 2008 3:58 PM:

"The problem is, we lied about our reasons for the war, so the war has no legitimacy in the ME, and we will not have a friendly democracy in Iraq any time soon.

That's why we succeeded in Afghanistan, and didn't in Iraq: Afghanistan had legitimacy, and Iraq didn't."

Wrong. The 'lie' view is held only by self-loathing Homocrats seeking to ensure a defeat for America. The first person to point out Saddam's ties to terror and WMB programs was..... Al Gore in 1992!! Fortunately, in the YouTube era, it is easy to dig un Inconvenient Truths that Homocrats don't want people to know.

Iraq has legitimacy for Iraqis and for all proponents of democracy. That is why violence is down 70% since the Surge began. The Bush-haters have far less importance than they think.

Victory in Iraq is already upon us in 2008. That is why it has slipped down to fourth on the list of voter concerns, down from #1 just months ago.

Nick G said at April 22, 2008 4:22 PM:

Al Gore in 1992 is irrelevant, and so are opinion polls of US voters.

There's no question that Saddam Hussein wanted WMD, provided some support for terrorists, was a tyrant, and was breaking UN resolutions by not cooperating in various ways. That's also irrelevant.

The facts are that: 1)Iraq never threatened the US, 2)had nothing to do with 9/11, and 3) didn't have WMD. The US government 4) lied about WMD, and 5) invaded without sufficient provocation.

There isn't anyone in the Middle East who doesn't believe the 5 points above, and in fact they are correct to do so.

That is why, even if we manage a military "victory" in Iraq, that we won't have a "friendly democracy" in Iraq anytime soon. In fact, we have set back enormously in the M.E. both the cause of democracy, and the moral legitimacy of the US.

The parallels with Vietnam are very real, and very depressing: we're in the middle of a civil war, we have no legitimate reason for being there, and we have no good way to get out.

TT said at April 22, 2008 4:35 PM:

"The facts are that:

1)Iraq never threatened the US,
Wrong. Saddam's hands were all over the 1993 WTC bombing. Ramzi Yousuf had ties to Saddam.

2)had nothing to do with 9/11,
9/11 was not the only terrorist attack on the US, you know. In addition to the 1993 WTC bombing, there were several other in the 1990s (USS Cole, Khobar Towers, Kenya/Tanz. embassies). Saddam also paid $25K to families of Palestinian suicide bombers. Hence, Al Gore's correct statement on Saddam as far back as 1992.

and 3) didn't have WMD.
Wrong, he used them against the Iranians and Kurds. Where did they go? Why did Saddam act like he had WMDs? He could have come clean, and avoided invasion, no?

The US government 4) lied about WMD,
Wrong. See #3.

and 5) invaded without sufficient provocation."
Wrong. The US passed a resolution to remove Saddam in 1998. Clinton bombed Saddam at that time, killing thousands of Iraqis.

Go educate yourself on the above.

'Facts' in the mind of a Homocrat are based on the belief that world history began in March 2003. No event regarding Iraq ever happened before March 2003. Increasingly, being a 'Democrat' is simply an excuse for intellectual/factual laziness. This is why Democrats continue to repel high and average-IQ voters.

Furthermore, the 'no WMD' lie is just homocrats acting prissy. If WMDs were found, would your opinion on the war change? No, it would not, so quit being a liar about that being your reason. Democrats are jealous of military officers, that is the real reason. They are masculine, and Homocrats are not. That is why Gov. Arnold correctly calls them 'girlie-men'.

Fat Man said at April 22, 2008 5:54 PM:

Focus people. If we have a real problem, and I think we do, it needs to be solved. Solutions impose costs. The costs must be borne by everyone in our society.

"New York, not only may you not shut down Indian Point, but you need to build about 15 more reactors. Whether the New York City metro area must host 32, 16, 50 or 10 new nuclear plants is not the point. New Yorkers cannot ask for the benefits of an energy intensive civilization and think they have no obligation to bear the detriments. Neither can people in any other area. LA wipe that grin off your face, it applies to you as well.

The detriments of using more nuclear energy, or more wind energy, or more horse manure, must be spread across the entire nation. This is a political, not technical issue."

Nick G said at April 22, 2008 5:55 PM:


I'd answer, but your irrational comments about masculinity suggest that you're either mentally ill or a 12-year old playing a prank. I see no point in continuing.

TT said at April 22, 2008 6:07 PM:

Nick G,

"I see no point in continuing."

It is merely because you have lost. Your set of views are 100% dependent on the belief that World History began in March 2003. Only then can one hold the shockingly uninformed views that you hold, which are really only held in order to be 'fashionable' without putting in any effort into gaining knowledge.

Rob said at April 23, 2008 1:42 PM:

Variable T,

Since you think Saddam was connected to terror and wanted WMD, and the Homocrat Al Gore did too, doesn't that make you a homo?

Randall Parker said at April 23, 2008 7:17 PM:

Fat man claims:

"War money" is an obfuscation.

I disagree for a few reasons:

1) Expenditures on the war are optional and of questionable value.

2) We have a huge deficit. In the current fiscal year the United States government is on track to run up a deficit of between $400 billion and $600 billion. We need to cut in some areas to make money available in other areas.

3) Comparing expenditures is a way to get people to think about trade-offs and ranking of relative value of different endeavours.


I am not a Democrat. I think the Iraq war is a massive waste. I think we are in huge trouble with fossil fuels depletion that will some day make people wonder why the majority ever let itself be persuaded to invade Iraq.

Fat Man,

This was interesting: "Algal Biodiesel: Fact or Fiction?" by Robert Rapier at R-Squared Energy Blog on Monday, May 14, 2007.

Though it reads like one long assertion. If that guy (who is not Robert Rapier though Robert (who I find a highly credible person btw) published it for (John Benemann) is correct then algae biodiesel is going to be a hard nut to crack. Will we need genetic engineering of algae to make it practical? I wish I knew. Declining oil production will create a great need for for liquid fuels substitutes.

James Bowery said at April 24, 2008 1:59 AM:

Rapier's complaints just don't apply as much to the solar updraft tower algae biosphere -- which isn't all that sensitive to percent-weight of biodiesel output:

$150M for live fish
$ 70M for biodiesel
$ 50M for fresh water
$ 25M for electricity
$ 8M for salt


Moreover, its an inland system using a marine species and its enclosed -- so the likelihood of contamination isn't that great. The enclosure -- most likely a Tefzel greenhouse -- isn't much more expensive than the open pond ($10/m^2) and its oil-production use is cost-shared with the other uses of the greenhouse. Seriously, with the financial support of other products, the greenhouse could probably be made of more expensive materials.

The separation of algae from the water has been industrially solved by centrifugation, which isn't inherently energy intensive since you can recover the angular momentum after separation. Getting the oil out of the algae also isn't all that critical for the same reason that the percent-weight of oil output isn't all that critical.

TH said at April 24, 2008 2:55 PM:

Hoping, thinking, fictionalizing, deluding oneself that Exxon-Mobil will be replaced with algae or fungus or leaf rot almost insures the extinction of the species. While grass carp and kudzu will thrive, people will have become way to stupid to survive anything.

Fat Man said at April 24, 2008 6:59 PM:

"We have a huge deficit. In the current fiscal year the United States government is on track to run up a deficit of between $400 billion and $600 billion."

Not in comparison to a 14T$ economy. It is in line with post WWII recession year deficits. There really isn't a financing problem. Besides, nothing that is funded now will actually begin being a project for a couple of FYs. The economy will recover, the GDP will grow and the deficits will change. The real issues will remain to be tackled.

Kralizec said at April 26, 2008 11:02 PM:

In my limited acquaintance with the speculation on means of producing diesel from algae, the writers have seemed to limit themselves to imagining plants built in the United States. However, plants built at sites under equatorial sunlight and near populaces who can be hired at lower rates seem likely to have economic advantages that may offset the cost of shipping diesel to consumers. Moreover, the hours of peak solar energy are the hours shortly before and after solar noon, and while the peak hours don't last for long anywhere, it's always solar noon somewhere. Thus, if an algal bloom occurs, the distribution of sunlight seems to favor the algae plantations' being concentrated near the equator and around the world.

sanjosemike said at May 26, 2008 3:30 PM:


I may be in the minority of those who REJOICE at the increase in the price of oil! I say let it go north of 200/bbl. The U.S. has been seduced by the Saudis and other Arab suppliers with low-cost energy. This has not benefitted us at all. Neither political party is willing to sustain the necessity of increased auto mileage or CAFE standards. Instead, we have been driving (unsustainable) large behemoths on our streets and highways. We waste emergy profligately.

The sooner we get to 9/gallon, the better. Only then will Americans take energy issues seriously. Our scientists and techology people KNOW how to proect us from the burden of foreign energy addiction.

But cheap oil has prevented this from happening. Ithas finally ended. The new "reality" will drive us to where we need to go. I'm delighted that it has finally happened.


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