Aquadudes: 15 saltwater-based energy technologies here to save the day

September 11, 2012 |

Is “all of the above” going to be “enough of the above”? Is the world heading for a politically untenable period of energy scarcity?

As we observe 9/11, let’s look at seawater-based technologies and platforms that could provide alternatives to a looming Big Shortfall.

Back in early 2010, SynGest CEO Jack Oswald pointed out that that it is a mistake to be thinking about simply shifting from an energy-starved world based on fossil fuel reserves, to an energy-starved world based on clean energy.

“What we need is energy abundance,” he contended, pointing out that the new, risky and expensive focus on, for example, energy storage and battery systems, is in most respects the outcome of having imagined a world with too little energy available, where every electron is precious. If you have enough energy, you don’t have to think twice about pumping the water of some some gigantic Lake Tahoe two thousand feet further up the mountain, and using that proven system for energy storage. We don’t have the abundant, affordable energy to do it now, so we end up with ARPA-E prescribing outcomes by setting up energy storage as a critical national technology goal. We still have to develop the same energy systems. Scarcity makes us think and act in different ways, not always to our advantage.”

In 2050, we expect to have 9 billion people, and many countries in the developing world will be developed – that is, as energy hungry as the affluent West. There’s no reason not to suppose that per-capita energy demand will double by 2050 – the result of industrialization and affluence spreading to the developing world. Actually, if everyone else adopted a US-style energy consumption, per-capita energy demand would rise by a factor of five. So let’s recognize that a doubling of demand as a good result if we limit ourselves to that.

Let’s put this into context. Take the conflict over drilling for oil on federal lands in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. If you drilled the provable oil reserve in the entire federal ANWR and flooded the world market with it – the reserve would be used up in 9 days, at 2050 consumption rates.

So that entire wrenching national debate is over a reserve that lasts from January 1 through January 9. And that’s just to keep ourselves in the fierce state of competition and conflict over resources as we have now. Long-term, that’s a recipe for unrest today and war tomorrow – as we found out in the resource and markets wars you know as WWI and WWII.

Long-term, here in Digestville, we see the solutions for liquid energy via the sea. Liquid energy that is based on sunlight, seawater, and atmospheric CO2 – those are abundant resources by any measure of human activity we can project for a long, long time.

Last we looked, there are 2 quintillion tons of atmospheric CO2, 343 sextillion gallons of seawater, and 173 million gigawatts of solar energy (per year). Unimaginable abundance. Any long-term energy solution that does not look to replete resources – and to the oceans – is completely crazy. The oil companies are well down that road, as is obvious to all.

15 saltwater-based, Civilization-Saving, Bioenergy Technologies worth watching

What are 15 salty water, CO2 and sunlight technologies – and where are they in development?

Heading for commercialization now

1. Joule Unlimited has just completed build-out of its SunSprings demonstration in Texas. The latest on that project is here in “How Joule may Turn Biofuels Upside Down,” and here in some late-breaking news.

2. Sapphire Energy. Sapphire just finashed phase 1 construction at their Green Crude Farm. More on that, here.

3. Aurora Algae has completed construction of its demonstration in Australia – and is heading for scale – more nutraceutical than energy for now, but energy is on the radar. More on that in “Making it Happen in the Never-Never“.

4. Algenol is showcasing its transformative algae-to-ethanol technology in Florida – more on that here in “Picking Up Pennies in Parking Lots, the algae biofuels angle.”

Farther down the road

5. El Dorado Biofuels is successfully producing algae in the small rural town of Jal, where it reaches 116 degrees in summer. The algae grown in Jal, which the company calls “Jalgae,” is thriving in dirty, saline water that El Dorado has pumped from a nearby oil-and-gas well. El Dorado will sell Jalgae for biofuels, and as a feed supplement for cattle.

6. Ceres is developing salt-tolerant switchgrass traits. More on that here.

7. A NASA project is underway – the OMEGA offshore system –  that we highlighted just last week, here.

Seaweed-based technologies

8. Bio Architecture Lab. We last looked at the technology in “The Bullseye Fuel“, here.

9. We also looked at a University of Georgia and University of Puerto Rico R&D effort, here.

10. We also looked at a Brazilian effort in July, here.

11. Meanwhile Statoil and SES are working on a system here.

12. Ecofys has one underway, here.

13. Novozymes and Sea6 Energy are developing an ethanol from seaweed technology. More on that here.

14. The Irish are getting into it as well with an EU-financed effort, here.

15. Israel has also been working hard on the technology, here.

The bottom line

Saline technologies. There’s a huge amount of “here in this decade” in the story. To the extent that technologies like Joule, Sapphire, Aurora or Algenol prove out, they will have first-mover advantage in a world entirely moving in their direction. But there’s a long-term story here too – and rethinking to be done at the policy and R&D level about how to get investments lined up with abundant resources instead of scarce ones.

More reading on the topic

Salt Water: The Tangy Taste of Energy Freedom

With a Little Kelp from my Friends: Macroalgae projects, concepts bloom

Seaweed: Asia’s Magic Bioenergy Feedstock

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