Monday, February 11, 2008

The Ugly Side of Biodiesel and the Promise of Algae

I have a big white sticker on my rear window that reads "Powered By Biodiesel". I was so happy and proud to put it on and to have kicked the petroleum habit. But that was four years ago and today I almost feel like scraping it off!
Only a tiny fraction of biodiesel is being made from recycled restaurant grease. The powerful soybean lobby is driving the biodiesel agenda now in the US. And for the EU things are even worse. I came across an article in the Guardian this morning, here is an excerpt:

EU politicians should reject targets for expanding the use of biofuels because the demand for palm oil is leading to human rights abuses in Indonesia, a coalition of international environmental groups claimed today.

A new report, published by Friends of the Earth and indigenous rights groups LifeMosaic and Sawit Watch, said that increasing demands for palm oil for food and biofuels was causing millions of hectares of forests to be cleared for plantations and destroying the livelihoods of indigenous peoples.

The report, Losing Ground, said many of the 60-90 million people in Indonesia who depend on the forests are losing their land to the palm oil companies.

Pollution from pesticides, fertilisers and the pressing process is also leaving some villages without clean water.

"The unsustainable expansion of Indonesia's palm oil industry is leaving many indigenous communities without land, water or adequate livelihoods. Previously self-sufficient communities find themselves in debt or struggling to afford education and food. Traditional customs and culture are being damaged alongside Indonesia's forests and wildlife," the report reads.

It doesn't need to be this way. Biodiesel can be made from algae grown on wastewater. I've seen photos of prototype factories with vertical panels where the water trickles down the sides and as the algae matures it sloughs off into collecting trays at the bottom. No agricultural land is needed and no pure water.

This should be a national and international priority, establishing 'algae-diesel' plants everywhere. The technology is relatively simple, the cost to the environment low. We have a great solution here, all we need is the political will.

On Edit: I found this quote from a press release a few months back. It sounds promising.

From a Valcent/Vorticom press release (Dec 2007):

During a 90 day continual production test, algae was being harvested at an average of one gram (dry weight) per liter. This equates to algae bio mass production of 276 tons of algae per acre per year. Achieving the same biomass production rate with an algal species having 50% lipids (oil) content would therefore deliver approximately 33,000 gallons of algae oil per acre per year.

…As a comparative, food crop such as soy bean will typically produce some 48 gallons oil per acre per year and palm will produce approximately 630 gallons oil per acre per year. In addition, the Vertigro Bio Reactor System is a closed loop continuous production system that uses little water and may be built on non arable lands.

Photograph: Tengku Bahar/AFP/Getty

No comments: