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« What's-Going-On Session | Main | The Last Mile »

A Solution?

A quick non-conference post here: oil from plankton?

Pretty cool, if it works. It would be nice to put the mullahs out of business.

[VIa email from Billy Beck]

Posted by Rand Simberg at July 21, 2006 11:04 AM
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This sounds vaguely familiar. Oh, I know. . .Soylent Green Premium, anyone?

Plankton my eye:)

Posted by Pro Libertate at July 21, 2006 12:36 PM

This is a known technique (see Wikipedia!); the appropriate plankton are indeed mostly oil, which is wonderful. Growing them in a test tube is easy. Farming them to grow rapidly and densely at an industrial scale is a very different problem, and not to my knowledge a solved one.

Posted by Mike Earl at July 21, 2006 01:10 PM

In addition to this recent discovery of oil from plankton, there is also a more well-known, industrial scale process for the production of oil from various biowastes (e.g. turkey and chicken byproducts, plant wastes, etc.). There is an existing industrial plant in Arkansas that is testing the process out at full scale.

As I understand it, the process itself is working fine, and the company expects to be profitable soon, but there is one major drawback - smell. Apparently, their current plant smells incredibly awful, like you might expect rendered poultry parts to smell. They are working on the problem, and if it's solved, I expect that similar bioconversion plants will set up in Europe and the U.S. around poultry processing plants and other sources of significant biowaste.

Posted by Sisyphus at July 21, 2006 02:43 PM

oh i can see it now.

No blood for plankton!

Posted by Harley at July 21, 2006 03:12 PM

Re the biowaste method - what amazed me was that we have a working method to make oil at $80 per barrel, and that we can replace all of our foriegn oil dependance by just recycling our agricultrural waste. So basically $80 a barrel is a hard maximum for the price of oil, assuming that other countries have the same waste to oil consumption ratio.

Posted by David Summers at July 21, 2006 03:39 PM

Not... quite.

To meet those goals with TDP (Thermal Depolymerization), *all* agricultural waste, including what is now left to rot back into the fields as compost, would have to be gathered up, shipped to a huge number of plants, and processed.

TDP is an answer, but not the answer, and it really needs to improve in costs in order to get anywhere. Despite this, I like TDP because of its ability to deal with all kinds of waste and yield something useful at the same time. I'd like to see some cost/benefits on using it as a sanitation/waste solution with some extra payback from the elements recovered.

Posted by Big D at July 21, 2006 06:36 PM

I like TDP because of its ability to deal with all kinds of waste

Eh, sounds like it can only deal with the same kind of waste -- vegetable peelings, banana skins, apple cores, rotten fruit -- that grandpa used to throw on the compost heap. Eminently recyclable stuff, which is not a problem for anyone's waste stream.

Haven't heard of any low-energy route to return high polymer resins back to olefins -- now that would be a useful trick. I hear folks are trying to engineer bacteria to do it, though.

Posted by Carl Pham at July 21, 2006 07:06 PM

Here's something very similar (and domestic) from the March 2006 issue of Discover:

http://www.discover.com/issues/apr-06/features/anything-oil/

Posted by Frank Glover at July 21, 2006 08:48 PM

Frank, that *is* TDP. :)

And one of the things I like TDP for is sewage... Carl, I don't know how much of *that* I want on crops.

Posted by Big D at July 21, 2006 09:49 PM

sewage... Carl, I don't know how much of *that* I want on crops.

Say what? Surely you know that animal waste ("manure") is already mostly sold as fertilizer, and that even human sewage is often used for fertilizer, after being washed and digested a bit by bacteria to reduce its odor.

Sewage is only really unsafe for use as fertilizer when it contains dangerous stuff like heavy metal contaminants or noxious stable chemicals, like benzene or ethylene glycol -- which people shouldn't be throwing down the drain anyway, but often do, damn them. Unfortunately such materials are too stable to be destroyed by any kind of modest-temperature (less than 1000°C) thermal degradation. They need sophisticated (expensive) chemical methods to recover and concentrate. But, as I said, some chemical engineers are trying to genetically engineer bacteria to help with this.

Posted by Carl Pham at July 21, 2006 11:07 PM

I think you're missing the scales involved, here.

People are not located where the crops are at. That means costly shipment for a fairly low-grade (by weight) fertilizer. That might occur in a few specific places, but by and large, no. Heck, the local dairies here produce plenty of manure, and they don't sell it to the farmers right next door.

The primary means of "natural fertilization" is simply plowing under the stalks (or for hay, what's left of them) of the crop after harvest back into the soil. No transportation costs involved.

Posted by Big D at July 22, 2006 06:41 AM

I see a lot of references to 'thermal depolymerization' on the net, with the idea that you can heat anything organic and you get out oil.

Sorry, but what you get out depends a lot on what you put in. Animal wastes (the canonical turkey byproducts) are going to give you one thing, lignocellulose something entirely different.

Thermal depolymerization of wood and plant materials has been done for ages. What you get is something called 'bio-oil'. It's nasty stuff -- acidic, corrosive, reactive. If you try neutralizing the acidity, it polymerizes. This is not a drop-in replacement for oil.

I suspect the oil you'll mostly get from TDP is the serpentine variety.

Posted by Paul Dietz at July 22, 2006 07:19 AM

In most cases it is actually easier to use biomass directly as a fuel direct gasification or LOX cycle engines for example. Biomass at under a dollar a gallon equivalent should be feasible. Only for the likes of aircraft is it actually necessary to convert to the high energy density fuels like oil. With appropriate modification, cars, trucks and farm machinery could all run directly on biomass, avoiding the inefficiencies and costs of oil conversion.

Another possibility is a two stage approach where biomass is used to power say a home CHP system with the CO2 exhaust collected for the production of higher quality fuels like methane and oil. This would match well with renewable energy sources as both the biomass and oil stages enable great energy storage capacity. Instead of waste collection one could have CO2 collection though I have some hope for an entirely independent system that allows individuals to produce and be self sufficient in their own oil.

There is some attraction in not buying energy directly but in buying a home energy production system much as one would a piece of white ware. This is taking distributed energy production to the next level and would tend to generate far faster technological development and create a far more competitive industry. It gets third world governments out of the energy sector, which is one of the primary problems and the reason why the energy market is so dysfunctional.

Posted by Pete Lynn at July 22, 2006 06:16 PM


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