A side effect of the rising crude prices is a drastic increase in naval shipping cost. As a result, the massive amount of stuff that we ship in daily from China to Wal-Marts around the country will become more expensive (Financial Times Article). This reduction in the efficiency of transport creates yet another way in which oil prices are systemically affecting the economy.

So I was thinking about this issue and how biofuels could be applied, and realized that the shipping industry would be a perfect early adopter of biodiesel. I am basing this assessment on two basic facts:
1. All shipping vessels are powered by diesel engines
2. The fuel is all stored in centralized locations (sea ports)

As a result, the naval shipping industry has none of the adoption hurtles for biodiesel found in the auto fuel market. The shipping companies would be greatly incentivized to begin purchasing a fraction of their fuel from a more stable source.

The real question is: what is the current price point for biodiesel production? And could a venture reduce costs to a point where it beats traditional diesel?

As for the technical implementation, I found a great presentation by Richard Sadler of Llyod’s Register Group concerning biofuels and shipping. Slides 25 and 26 have a list of technical challenges and a diagram of a fuel layout system; although, the whole thing has some great data.

Beyond the use of biofuels, there are also various wind power strategies. A minor drawback to the wind assisted ships is their confinement to wind friendly shipping routes.

One forward looking group from Japan produced a concept ship that utilizes biofuel, wind AND solar. I would have to call it the Trifecta.

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Algae

One of the major drawbacks of the open air pond system for industrial scale algae growth is the engineered strain’s inability to compete with wild types. This is because the lab trained algae spend all its energy resources producing oil instead of growing as fast as possible. So what is needed is a strain that can grow fast enough to push out the native strains and still produce the desired oil.

One possible way of achieving this is to rearrange one’s thinking about algae production. Instead of viewing the algae as biomass to be harvested, one could see them as solar powered bioreactors. What I mean by this is: have the oil production as an inducible trait and view the oil production as a byproduct of an algae bioreactor. This will allow the oil production to only occur when the engineered strain is at critical mass, and after it has grown fast enough to out-compete the wild type.

Of course this idea has a few technical hurdles (such as the oil produced would need a mechanism to be excreted into the media). But I see this post as more of a brainstorming exercise rather than trying to actively generate a solution. I would be interested in what the sustainable biotech community thinks.

Biotechnology

March 5, 2008

I really like that word: “biotechnology”. Rolls of the tongue quite easily, doesn’t it? The word itself describes everything I am striving for and every reason I am at KGI (more on this later). But a lot bugs me about that word also. Namely, I don’t like its current meaning and the current connotations that come along with it in society. Right now, long time friends will ask me what I am studying in grad school and I will say “biotechnology” then I have to add an immediate, “but I am not interested in pharmaceuticals or medical devices or genetically modified crops.” Because those are exactly the things they think of now when they hear the word biotechnology. Curing disease and feeding people are noble pursuits for sure but for me the word should mean something more. I can then go on to explain that I am interested in biofuels or industrial enzymes or biodegradable plastics but even that is not the whole truth. Sure, in the short term I will probably be working for a company in one of those sectors because those are the short term applications of what truly interests me but that is far from the end of it. I can even say something more general about using the molecular machinery of life to solve the greatest challenges of sustainability in modern industrial society but even that is not the whole truth for me. Words like that make great speech writing and are good for company mission statements but when you really get down to it for me, biotechnology means a promise of something on a much more fundamental level. It’s not even an application or technical level but a philosophical or sociological one.

Think about the word, bio…technology. It’s the technology of life. And the reason I am at KGI is to become a biotechnologist, one who studies the technology of life and can apply that technology at their own discretion and with the requisite humility. I look to nature to not just teach me the way to exist, or to just survive, or to even tread lightly upon this earth but I look to nature to teach me how to live well. I look to nature to teach me the biotechnology to live bountifully and in balance with all others and to be able to create great complexity and elegance with simple basic rules. I look to nature to teach me enough about biotechnology to forget words like waste or pollution or trash for real biotechnology has no use for those words when there is a biotechnological element for every niche and every output is a nutrient fueling something else in the system. I look for nature to teach me about its systems, from my own body to the microbes under my feet to the global ecosystem as a whole, and how I can create the things I need to live a fulfilling life that fit into those systems with grace and dignity. Biotechnology to me means no less than the technology of living life well.