Ocean Algae to Biochar– A discussion with Dr. James Lovelock

Here at re:char, we are often bombarded with requests for proprietary information about our technology. “Can you please provide schematic diagrams for your pyrolyzer systems?” “Can you provide the details of your bio-oil upgrading processes?” Although we believe in the open-source model, it’s exceedingly difficult to have a completely transparent tech development process while remaining a competitive, for-profit enterprise. That said, we would like to provide the public with a better sense of how we generate ideas, and broadly what we see as the future of biochar and carbon-negative energy.

Last week I had the pleasure of chatting with our new science advisor, Dr. James Lovelock. Working with someone as brilliant and creative as Jim is a great honor. His ideas are often so forward-thinking that within a few minutes of discussion, my mind is blown. Dr. Lovelock has been recognized recently for his assertion that mankind continues to ignore and drastically underestimate the looming threat of global climate change. Like Jim, we believe that an aggressive rollout of biochar and carbon-negative energy systems is vital to preserving the Earth as we know it. However, according to our calculations, a carbon-negative energy scheme based on pyrolysis of agricultural waste could sequester a theoretical maximum of 2 billion tons of CO2 per anum. The execution of such a plan would likely constitute one of humanity’s greatest technological achievements, but without corresponding emissions reductions, 2 billion tons would only be a drop in the bucket. In the event that we fail to reduce emissions in a timely manner, a more abundant source of waste biomass may be necessary to ensure our survival. That source could be ocean algae.

According to Dr. Lovelock, ocean algae represents over 70% of Earth’s biomass. In addition, overgrowth of ocean algae is largely responsible for the phenomenon of aquatic dead zones. From our research, we know algal biomass is a viable and compelling feedstock for pyrolysis. While the task of cultivating and extracting biodiesel from algae is complicated and expensive, the process of converting algal biomass to biochar and bio-oil is relatively straightforward. What remains elusive, is an efficient and cost-effective way to collect ocean algae. Fortunately, Dr. Lovelock has a suggestion:

Take a place like the Gulf of Mexico… theres a good steady ocean current that flows through there called the Gulf Stream… there are also lots of platforms there, disused oil platforms. These platforms could be good locations for starting some biochar experiments.

As it turns out, the Gulf Stream plays a significant role in the formation and growth of harmful algal blooms. There is strong evidence that blooms in the Gulf, such as Florida’s Red Tide, ride the current into the Atlantic, where they can devastate ocean life. A strategically-placed ocean platform, outfitted with appropriate collection systems and pyrolysis technologies, could capture the biomass generated during these algal blooms, efficiently converting a global hazard into valuable products. On a large enough scale, the potential carbon sequestration benefit ¬†would dwarf that of land-based systems.

Obviously, the notion of pyrolysis of ocean algae is still in its infancy. Many technological and logistical hurdles exist before preliminary trials are even feasible. However, given the threat of global climate change, and humanity’s reluctance to cut emissions, we believe such ideas are worth exploring. We invite you to discuss via the comments.

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7 Responses to Ocean Algae to Biochar– A discussion with Dr. James Lovelock

  1. Trevor April 21, 2010 at 11:30 pm #

    There may be other synergies with surplus O&G infrastructure. The subsea drilling and pipeline network could be enlisted to provide the appropriate pressures & temperatures required for HTC. The export pipelines can then be enlisted to provide shore-based process facilities.

  2. Trevor April 24, 2010 at 11:48 pm #

    The biochar should be quite happy in an HTC slurry until it reaches the land based process / separation facility. Many solids are slurried long distances (such as iron sand). There may be issues related to the corrosiveness of an HTC slurry that I am not aware of, but many offshore pipelines are designed for sour service.

  3. Albert Bates May 17, 2010 at 4:49 am #

    This runs parallel to an idea proposed by Dave Blume at the International Institute for Ecological Agriculture (IIEA). Blume's idea was to string kelp between disused oil rigs in the Gulf to cleanse the dead zone of those nitrates coming from fertilizer overuse in the Great Plains and Mississippi valley. The kelp could then be harvested for ethanol production. The effect would also be to lower the ocean temperature (kelp forests) and so reduce the hurricane risk for Gulf communities, hence who should pay? The insurance industry.

    There is no reason why biochar could not be a co-product of this same vision. The kelp forests on
    "clotheslines" strung between oil rigs are easier to harvest than algae, however.

    — Albert Bates, author, The Biochar Solution (New Society 2010, in press).

    • @re_char May 30, 2010 at 12:19 am #

      Very interesting Albert. I wonder if these kelp clotheslines could be laced in such a way to capture drifting algae as well. If the kelp/algae mixture could be sufficiently dried it would make a great feedstock for fast pyrolysis.

  4. Martin Roth May 20, 2010 at 12:30 am #

    is there any biologist who knows a species of algae growing good in oil-polluted seawater?

    it would be nice to grow sort of that in the gulf of Mexico to clean this sea off the recent mess, and produce at the same time bio-oil and charcoal at a a greater scale.

    BP should pay for this.

    And they shall convert their policies from exploiting the earth into serving our old mum gaia.

    Greetings to Mr. Lovelock

    Martin Roth

  5. Rasmus June 27, 2010 at 5:47 pm #

    On the question of what to do with the biochar: it could be used for coastal fortifications. The deltas are sinking, due to a variety of causes, incl. O&G exploration and drenching, sea level rise, etc. The biochar, being non-biodegradeable, could be used to build coastal protections. Ideally, it would be first be placed in shallow waters that were above water until recently but became submerged. On top of that, new vegetation can be planted. Moving the biochar around would not be an issue, since transport on water is very energy efficient. Also, the energy for transportation can be derived from pyrolysis heat via heat engines.

    Harvesting bio-oil and syngas would be excellent, since so much O&G infrastructure is already in place down there. Additional capacities could be added for syngas fermentation (e.g. Coskata process).

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