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Friday, August 8, 2008

Algae -A Solution to Peak Oil? Virgin Airlines Says "Yes," Others Say "No"


Planet_earth "All countries must take vigorous, immediate and collective action to curb runaway energy demand. The next ten years will be crucial for all countries... We need to act now to bring about a radical shift in investment in favor of cleaner, more efficient and more secure energy technologies."

~Nobuo Tanaka, head of the International Energy Agency (IEA)

Big oil had better start worrying. Common algae from ponds and waste-water treatment plants has been found to produce vast amounts of burnable oil, say researchers at the University of Minnesota, algae produces an astounding 5,000 gallons of oil per acre. Corn, by comparison, produces a measly 18 gallons. Soybean yields 48 gallons. An acre of palm trees yields 635 gallons.

Algae has a clear advantage in other ways as well. Land crops use up more resources and require more manpower to grow. Algae, on the other hand, is so hardy that it grows all by itself in conditions that require little to no management.Researchers Roger Ruan and Paul Chen will start with 200 gallons of waste water, but see the potential as enormous. The only liability they have to deal with now is how to produce the fuel cheaply. They believe it will be able to be made affordable as the technology improves and starts to catch on.

Exxon claims “We're not gouging US citizens,” after raking in a record-setting quarterly profit of $11.7 billion, the largest ever profit in the history of the US.

As society gets increasingly fed up with big oil, opportunities for new energy sources are opening up.The algae production process can also take advantage of excess heat, nitrogen, carbon and phosphorus produced by coal-burning plants and waste-water incinerators, making algae pond farms a possibility for both northern and southern states.

Virgin Atlantic has become the first airline to fly with biofuel, something airline boss Richard Branson calls "a vital breakthrough" but environmentalists have derided as a "nonsensical" publicity stunt.

Virgin_branson_wideweb__470x3490Earlier this year, the Boeing 747-400 flew from London to Amsterdam, carrying in one of its four fuel tanks a 20-percent mix of biofuel derived from coconut and babassu oil. That may not sound like much, but it is the first time a commercial aircraft has flown any distance using renewable energy. Branson said the "historic" flight marks the first step toward reducing the airline industry's carbon footprint.

Pete Hardstaf, head of policy for the World Development Movement, said, "This is nothing more than a Virgin publicity stunt with dangerous consequences for the planet." Doug Parr, chief scientist for Greenpeace, told the Globe and Mail the flight is "high-altitude greenwash."

Virgin's critics offered the standard arguments against biofuels -- mainly, the environmental benefits of biofuels are negligible at best and using crops for fuel will drive up food costs, deplete arable land and contribute to deforestation.

But beyond that, the critics said any gains made through biofuels would be offset by one year's growth in the number of flights. Airline passenger growth rates are expected to rise 6 percent annually through 2009 and double by 2020. Aircraft emissions are expected to double by 2030. "The concept of using biofuels and continuing the rate of expansion in the aviation industry is nonsensical," Hardstaff said.

In stark contrast, Jon Dee, founder of Planet Ark, praised Virgin and Boeing for the effort, telling ABC Online, "I actually think it is good to show that you can fly major airliners on alternative fuels. I think that it is vital that as quickly as possible we move away from business as normal. But what we should be looking at, I think, is how we get that biofuel derived from algae. That is the best way to go when it comes to biofuel."

Branson and Boeing agree, which is why, with Virgin's fuel bill increasing by $2 billion in '08 due to rising oil prices, they're spending a lot of time and money investigating algal fuels. Billy Glover, Boeing's head of environmental strategy, says "algae looks very promising." Branson says Virgin used coconut and babassu oil for the test, "but commercial fuel will almost certainly be derived from algae."


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