Monday, June 27, 2005


Biodiesel is a simple concept. Plants have oil in them. To get the oil out, you squeeze them. This oil, just like petroleum, is combustible and can be made to operate cars, lawnmowers and all the machinery we like in our 21st-century western world, yes even those nasty Hummers. If we could get enough of this plant oil, we could say good-bye and best-of-luck to the Saudi’s and the air would be full of the smell of French fries and donuts.

Some of the pro’s from singer-turned- (plant) oil baron, Willie Nelson’s website:

  • Biodiesel reduces carbon dioxide exhaust emissions by up to 80%.
  • Biodiesel produces 100% less sulfur dioxide than petroleum based diesel, and sulfur dioxide is the major component of acid rain.
  • Biodiesel reduces exhaust smoke (particulates) emissions by up to 75% so the usual black cloud associated with a diesel engine can be eliminated.
  • Biodiesel is much less dangerous to put in a vehicles fuel tank as the flash point of biodiesel is ± 150°C (300°F) as opposed to petroleum diesel which is at ± 70°C (150°F).
  • Biodiesel degrades about 4 times faster than petroleum diesel after spillage, with most of a spill broken down after just 28 days.
  • Biodiesel provides significant lubricity improvement over petroleum diesel fuel so engines last longer, with the right additives engine performance can also be enhanced.
  • Biodiesel does not require any changes to the existing storage infrastructure so can be used in any tank or storage facility right away.
  • A diesel-engined vehicle does not need to be modified in anyway to use biodiesel.

So what’s the hold-up? The problem has been that, depending on the plant, it would take a crop size larger than the country in question to meet the energy needs of that country.

From the translated article by Olivier Danielo, An Algae-Based Fuel[pdf], in the French Biofutur, No.255/May 2005. “Marc Jancovici, an engineer specializing in greenhouse gas emissions, [said] it would require a sunflower field 118% the size of France to replace the 50Mtep of petroleum consumed each year by the French for their transportation needs (104% of the size of France for rapeseed, 120% for beet, 2700% for wheat).”; not very practical.

That is, unless you consider algae-based biodiesel. Some of the benefits of algae:

  • They grow fast; therefore have a much faster turnaround time compared with terrestrial plants. “It’s possible to complete an entire harvest in a few days..” (Danielo, p.2.)
  • Being unicellular, they have much more surface area exposure, allowing greater access to each cells’ juicy interior.
  • Floating in their nutrient bath of water, CO2, minerals and sunlight, they are much more efficient than terrestrial plants at producing oil. In fact, these “…microscopic algae are capable according to NREL scientists (John Sheehan, et al), “of synthesizing 30 times more oil per hectare than the terrestrial plants used for the fabrication of biofuels.” (Danielo, p.2.)

So how much less land space would we need to replace all the oil we use in the U.S. with algae-based biodiesel? The U of NH Biodiesel website has a good summation:

“…to replace all transportation fuels in the US, we would need 140.8 billion gallons of biodiesel, or roughly 19 quads (one quad is roughly 7.5 billion gallons of biodiesel). To produce that amount would require a land mass of almost 15,000 square miles. 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.”

On the other hand, the arid regions of the country provide the sunlight needed for maximum algaeal growth and these lands are relatively impractical for any other use other than as a nature preserve. (Boy, that sounds exploitative doesn’t it?)

I will have more to say about this as I learn more. You know, it’s not that there are no options for us to overcome Peak Oil, it is just that, like Kunstler and others have been indicating, we need to move now. While petroleum is still relatively cheap, we can build the infrastructure for biodiesel manufacture and the host of alternative energies sources out there.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

like Kunstler and others have been indicating, we need to move now

I believe algae production will requre lots of water and a human or agricultural waste stream to feed the algae as well.

Plus we'll need a lot of desert for pyron solar power plants. Any clue if pyron is really a confidence scam?

A lot of money is sitting on the sidelines keeping long term interest rates low - a savings glut as some put it or lack of investment supply as others like Stirling Newberry more accurately put it.

No one wants to bet on replacements for oil and gas. Pioneers get arrows in the back!

6/28/2005 11:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One last thing.. It's really the ugly sprawl way of life in this country that needs to go. On the other hand I just can't see biodiesel production ramping up enough to save it.

It's going to be a long emergency, not as as long as Kunstler sees it but pretty long and fairly ugly.

6/28/2005 11:48 AM  
Blogger Mike said...

Interesting; I was not aware of this solar technology. It seems rather elegant. Given that this is an electricity producing technology, and given that our plight is more in the realm of transportation fuels, it would seem that preference would be given for fuel producing technology. This admin and future admins could give a hoot about environmentalism; they will mine more coal to compensate for low electricity levels as a result of lost oil.

6/28/2005 12:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah yes, but plug-in hybrids with Toshiba style Li-ion batteries will be a new consumer of this electricity. The pyron people also dream of producing hydrogen with energy that would overflow the grid for nighttime use and transportation.

6/29/2005 3:59 AM  
Blogger messianicdruid said...

reconsider hemp, lots of oil there...

6/29/2005 10:15 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Algae I believe is the way to go if it weren't for the water requirements, no stalks, stems, etc that detract from the harvesting of solar energy.

However, every bioregion will probably have a feedstock best suited to it. Hemp can play a role.

It's ironic there's so much discussion about replacing petroleum-based transportation fuels and little about doing without them, i.e. eliminating sprawl and better mass transit. Kunstler at least talks about reviving rail.

6/29/2005 11:28 AM  
Blogger Mike said...

I think I would be fine with a more primitive way of existence, as you can see from my other blog over here. I think the main concern is that there is little time to throttle back. We are one a speeding train and the bridge is out. If we could gradually reduce our consumption and devote resources to the alternatives, the transition would be uncomfortable instead of disasterous. Mass transit all the way. I have not owned a car in seven years and do just fine walking or taking the bus.

6/29/2005 2:12 PM  
Blogger Mr_Proteus said...

I hear a lot of cheers for mass transit, but you forget that lots of people don't live in cities or next to a rail station. I live close to my job but my wife does not. So there are a lot of obstacles to replacing oil and gas as the backbone of our economy. We might make some progress, but it might not fully occur until oil prices are so obscenely high that the consumer has a financial incentive to find more economical means of transportation. Right now, oil is relatively cheap, but prices are rising, especially considering the increased demand from China, India, and Southeast Asia.

Bottom line: it will be the consumer's wallet, not their environmental concerns, that will lead us to the next revolution in transportation. Give them a way to get where they are going quickly and cheaply and they won't care what it runs on.

6/30/2005 5:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Game over for the "long emergency".

6/30/2005 10:29 AM  

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