Late last week saw Suzanne Goldenberg return from her visit with the new special assistant for energy at DARPA, Barbara McQuiston with news DARPA has solved the algae oil production problem. If you saw the original piece at The Guardian, my contact at Darpa is saying it’s accurate other than the timeline. DARPA expects to be offering corrections next week. The ‘months’ that McQuiston was quoting was accurate as she received it, but information didn’t come straight from the program director. The timeline is more like a couple of years instead of (a few) months.
Here’s the quote that has everyone’s attention, “DARPA’s research projects have already extracted oil from algal ponds at a cost of $2 per gallon. It is now on track to begin large-scale refining of that oil into jet fuel, at a cost of less than $3 a gallon.”
The Guardian article misses informing about just what step(s) in the process they’re breaking through. In my conversation the breakthrough is described as cracking out the oil from the algae. What is still not available is the technology, be it physical, chemical, or thermal and the processing inputs to make it work. But DARPA’s representatives are certain they have the way. Their consideration remains, as all of us realize, the matters of getting to scale. Thinking so isn’t showing so. That trial is coming. Optimism is high, yet not so conclusive as the Guardian piece makes it seem. The oil extraction conundrum is the single most significant problem for mass bio oil production at scale.
The first motive on tap, the U.S. Department of Defense is the world’s largest petroleum customer. Also, by a second thoughtful view, reliance on petroleum incites more risks for the department’s personnel as well as third, the overall risk to the American economy. National self-sufficiency would eliminate the most risk; no economic need to be countered by fuel threats would force expeditionary efforts wasting lives and treasure.
The Department of Defense’s obvious motive is simply the money. No one can contest the patriotism of the military, thus their eagerness to save and take a smaller share of the gross domestic product in taxes is a strong incentive, too.
Late 2011 could see the first scaled production. The lead contractors are General Atomics and Science Applications International Corp. The news report is a result of successfully demonstrating a lab process of growing affordable algae triglyceride and its production into jet fuel at price point of $2.00 per gallon. There is a phase 2 in the contract whose target is $1.00 per gallon that’s getting underway.
Next up is a 50 million gallon annual refining operation, barely a 1.2 million barrel annual production facility. Yet at that size the ethanol industry with plants that size to just double at 100 million gallons per year have successfully built out and taken the top 10% of the much larger gasoline market with capacity for more. It can happen pretty quickly when investors know the results will pay. At between $1 and $2 per ready to use gallon, knowing is a sure thing.
The production rate seems small, DARPA’s numbers are in the 1,000 gallon per acre zone while others suggest 4, 5 and 6 times more oil per acre is attainable. The news though isn’t about rates per area, or the plant sizes, it’s the process cost, if the DARPA program gets to bio middle distillates at $1, it will be a shock, and the shock will be across the whole of the hydrogen carbon molecule fuel industry.
McQuiston’s projections took several industry insiders by surprise. Mary Rosenthal, director of the Algal Biomass Association is widely quoted saying, “It’s a little farther out in time. I am not saying it is going to happen in the next three months, but it could happen in the next two years.” It seems Mary has been in contact with DARPA as well.
Meanwhile . . . The naysayers have food for denigrating algae again, led by the (who else?) estimable Robert Rapier. Mr. Rapier is following a certain Durwood Dugger, an algae researcher himself whose overall thoughts seem to be ‘it ain’t so.” Dugger knows as the rest of us watching know that getting an alga to give up it oil is a costly process. Dugger of course sees nothing but a subterfuge out of DARPA. As Dugger is unaware, as everyone else but the DARPA staff and the research contractors, then it can’t be so. But who would be telling him? Actually I’m sort of wondering how and why this has escaped, especially from a new person in a new position to a non-US news provider. I could be a naysayer as well, but just calling and asking makes a difference. As you can imagine, the personnel there are very busy. Moreover it’s a safe bet that the program director isn’t happy at all, with this material getting loose early.
Yet the signals from the aviation business add to the credibility. From Branson’s Virgin Airlines to Boeing and the engine manufacturers the news, press releases and visible activities are being steadily reported. That makes a good case that the thoughts at the investment level in the industry are focused and getting stockholders and investors ready for some news.
Then one of the field’s leading experts, a principal member of technical staff at Sandia National Lab, researcher Ron Pate, who is now serving as a technical consultant to the emerging algae biofuels program within the Biomass Office of the Department of Energy’s Office of Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency presented an overview at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Diego on Feb. 19, “We already have the technologies coming online to be able to take that and affordably convert it into really useful fuels that are essentially drop-in equivalent to today’s petroleum-based ground and aviation transport fuels. And there is a lot of promise to create quite a bit of oil from algae, but nobody has really done that affordably on a large, routine scale yet so that you can rely on it day in and day out.” Naysaying on this might not ‘work out for ya’ as it’s getting popular to say now.
The U.S. Air Force wants its entire fleet of jet fighters and transport aircraft to test-fly 50-50 blends of petroleum-based fuel and bio oil sources – including algae – by next year. High-ranking officers tend to get their way. From Exxon’s $600 million last year, uncounted supports across the U.S. government’s various agencies, most all research universities are into algae at some level, and lots of innovators in the private sector – something’s apt to work soon and many ideas may work over time for solving the algae production problems.
One new “benefit” is being touted, the idea that U.S. military personnel could make fuels at bases and when leaving give the new resource to the locals. Some folks might look more favorably about a little intervention someday.
If the DARPA contractors have the first low cost extraction process, and it’s at $1, it will be a significant note in history. Lets hope so.