May 01, 2008
The Ultimate Green Economy

While essentially unfinished, this video segment does provide more detail on that algae process that produces biofuel. It still sounds extremely promising. If they can somehow hook up with that guy building those biofuel stills, it'll blow the lid off the whole system.

Something like this is inevitable as long as gas prices stay high in the US. As a nation, we're legendary for simply not tolerating it, and unlike the last time around the technology, incentives, and most importantly the free capital are available for someone... hell anyone... to come up with an alternative. So I'll make a prediction: barring any truly cataclysmic event*, $1 pump fuel by 2013 is not just possible, it's inevitable. Let's meet back here in five years and if I'm wrong, I'm buying.

Via Instapundit.

* Aliens landing, some hajji nutball finally lighting a nuke off in downtown DC, Jesus himself walking across the Hudson, dogs and cats sleeping together, that sort of thing.

Posted by scott at May 01, 2008 03:36 PM

eMail this entry!

You might wish to make that inflation-adjusted, just to hedge your bet. And remove tax from the equation. Because if there's anything we know, $1/gallon gas could certainly be possible - but Congress will tax it up to $2 or so to pay for whatever their current crop of pork is.

Posted by: Ron on May 1, 2008 03:55 PM

Certainly sounds promising. But remember that the oil companies--who may very well be funding this research, in order to play nice-nice-really do have a vested interest in selling us as much gasoline from fossil fuels as they can in the meantime until the ground is empty.

THEN MAYBE they'll put this stuff online.

So maybe 2023...2033. But I wouldn't hold my breath, sad to say.

Posted by: Mark on May 1, 2008 04:07 PM

oh, and I forgot to include with my point that Big Oil funds election campaigns.

Hence, no--or very little--progress in making this technology a reality.

Posted by: Mark on May 1, 2008 04:22 PM

But if they aren't funding it and can't obtain the patents, it's in their best interest to develop either a competing technology OR get their product significantly cheaper.

Posted by: ronaprhys on May 1, 2008 05:34 PM

Oh, and I forgot, they've also got a huge advantage in that most cars right now can't run on straight ethanol, IIRC. (Relying on car geek Scott to set this record straight). So, given that, we've also got that hurdle to overcome.

Posted by: ronaprhys on May 1, 2008 05:35 PM

Actually, I think the end product is methanol. I'm not sure just how close the two are. Methanol's been powering race cars for something like 40 years now, so its bona-fides as a fuel are there.

Mark: c'mere... yer foil hat is slipping...

Posted by: scott on May 1, 2008 06:28 PM

Just jaded from the last time we went through all this--the 1973 Oil Embargo and the aftermath. Big Oil, even with government cooperation, had a terrific opportunity 35 years ago "to do something".

And did nothing. Or at least nothing effective.

Posted by: Mark on May 1, 2008 07:33 PM

Yes, methanol has been used as racing fuel. And it's significantly more volatile and flammable than gasoline. I do think you get more power/litre, but it's still much more difficult to work with.

The interesting thing about this guy's methodology is that he's producing all sorts of buildable long carbon chains. Per what he said, it's possible to get what's necessary to make diesel fuel. If so, that's a much more scalable technology than either ethanol or methanol.

Posted by: ronaprhys on May 1, 2008 08:37 PM sounds like there are countless possibilities with this.

Hopefully I'm wrong and it won't take nearly so long for this to become a viable, available source of fuel for vehicles...

Posted by: Mark on May 1, 2008 08:47 PM

Before we forget again, keep in mind that "big oil" makes a lot more than gasoline. In fact, until the internal combustion engine was produced on a mass industrial scale, gasoline was just a dangerously voilatile by-product of the plastics industry, which is where "big oil" still makes the REAL money. Gasoline isn't even really very profitable to them; they make only pennies on the gallon from it, with the rest going to taxes the government is supposed to use to maintain the roads (but which mostly went to Boston's Big Dig and Alaska's Bridge to Nowhere). Even if all the cars in the world spontaneously started running on moonbeams and brain farts, it wouldn't solve the real problems "big oil" is having with the price of oil; it would just make people stop caring about what happens to "big oil" until suddenly the entire shipping industry shuts down for lack of packaging materials, and the healthcare industry suddenly can't just dispose of their used syringes or bandages any more.

There is a motive to keep people using gasoline, but it's more complicated than just "ZOMG THEY R EVIL PROFITEERS!!!!!"

Posted by: Tatterdemalian on May 2, 2008 12:19 AM

The economic environment in the 1970s was also radically different than it is now. Price controls were common, especially on gasoline*, capital gains tax rates were in the 40% range and the highest personal bracket was 70%, with Keynesian economic policies distorting everything. All combined to completely block any serious incentives to explore alternative fuel technologies. There was the additional obstacle that the oil crisis then was politically motivated. Once the Saudis had proven their point, they turned the taps back on and prices fell below the point any sort of alternative fuel research would be profitable in any sort of foreseeable future.

Compare with today. There are no price controls on petroleum products (that I'm aware of at any rate). Regan-era tax cuts and spending reforms both created the extraordinary growth of the 80s and 90s, and much more importantly allowed the cash it generated to remain in private hands. The rise in prices today is fundamentally due not due to politics, but to economic growth**. In my opinion prices have gotten so extraordinarily high so very fast because of bubble frenzy, but bubbles by their nature are unpredictable and this one may last quite some time.

All of this combines to provide superb incentives for alternative fuel research. A staggering amount of money is sloshing around, looking for an outlet, and just about anyone even close to the problem knows what will happen to the first company to manufacture a profitable, viable alternative liquid fuel at $2 per gallon. "License to print money" would most likely be a profound understatement.

But there's more. Most of the costs will be up-front R&D and infrastructure construction. Once those get paid off, the price will drop, and probably very quickly at that. As long as government's role is limited to tossing cheaters in jail, success is not likely, it is in my opinion inevitable.

What could derail it all? If the wheels come off China's or India's economy, demand will crash and so will the price of oil. If oil companies lose their nerve and overbuild refining capacity to cash in on these amazing market highs, prices will fall below what can pay back the start up costs for alternative fuels. If Democrats are provided with both the White House and a large enough majority in Congress to do away with Republican interference, organized labor and the environmental movement will definitely force through policies that will crash the economy of the only country serious enough and rich enough to make alternative fuels research work. Finally, general political instability and the ever-present threat of Hajji getting his hands on a nuke and punching the button somewhere important could toss the whole thing into the bin.

So yes, there are a whole bunch of caveats to deal with and obstacles to overcome, but in my opinion there is an extremely good chance some form of cheap biofuel will finally become a reality, and much faster than most people think.

* Which is the real reason we've not seen anything like the shortages back then. Freely moving prices provide real, functioning signals about supply, forcing consumers to adjust their behavior.

** And more than a bit of third-world subsidies. China and India continue to subsidize something like 70% of the cost of fuel to their citizens, distorting the global market by insulating their consumers from price signals.

Posted by: Scott on May 2, 2008 08:31 AM

Tat - this technology, if it comes to fruition, has a decent chance of stopping that sort of an issue. In the beginning, the focus would be on automotive fuel. But, if as our scientist/geek type pointed out and assuming he's correct, since the algae can in theory produce all sorts of long carbon chains, we might be able to happily introduce them to the long carbon chains necessary for plastics and in the pharma industry.

To me, that's what's so exciting. This guy finds a way to cheaply and stably produce the basic building blocks for the entire petrochemical industry. Others then realize and invent different ways to assemble those building blocks into useful things.

It kicks ass. And if it does come to fruition, we could be producing our own gas relatively quickly - and we could turn the taps off for Hajji and let China deal with the nutbars.

Posted by: Ron on May 2, 2008 08:59 AM

Indeed, which is why, if I were an oil man, I would be all over this. Oil refining is a very unpredictable process, and I don't mean that in the "industrial accident" way. Crude oil is not a "raw material" but a random blend of hydrocarbon compounds. Refineries don't "turn it into" gasoline or plastics or whatever; rather they filter out and collect the gasoline molecules from the hydrocarbon soup, so the stuff you get from the pump will power your engine instead of filling it with superglue. They separate out a lot of other hydrocarbons as well, finding industrial applications for most and burning off or landfilling the rest. The problem is that not all the substances extracted from oil are equally valuable, and each source (and often each barrel from the same source) has different proportions of each kind of hydrocarbon within it. If a barrel of crude happens to be almost entirely composed of melmac and benzene, you simply are not going to get any gasoline out of it. It's an unpleasantly random process that can cause huge problems, especially as it can be gamed by salting barrels with more valuable hydrocarbons, or even unrefinable substances that mimic valuable hydrocarbons in tests.

Being able to build selected hydrocarbon chains instead of having to always filter them out of crude oil would completely revolutionize the oil industry. They could cut out 90% of the expensive distillation process right off the bat, at least if enough tailored hydrocarbons could be produced to meet demand.

Posted by: Tatterdemalian on May 2, 2008 12:04 PM

And I agree with you on that. Run with it hard core. As it gets more and more difficult to access the newly found stores of hydrocarbons and the current supplies get more and more scarce, something like this could be a huge savior for our economy. We get to keep existing technology running, improve on it because we can now tailor much more specific fuels (potentially striking a wonderful balance between volatility and power/gallon) that are much more efficient than gas or diesel. And these fuels can be had without many of the trace elements that cause problems.

So, we keep the old gas/diesel as we move forward but replace it with engines designed to use the new stuff instead.

And then we get to patent the technology and sell it at higher costs to Europe and the rest of the world.

Plus these processes give the oil companies (or the other companies that could replace them) the chance to switch over infrastructure in a sustainable manner.

Posted by: ron on May 2, 2008 12:39 PM
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