The other potential solution to the pollution problem was hard for me to take at face value, but eventually I became semi-convinced: shifting to algae as a major future source of jet fuel. And here China may actually be in the lead.
In the effort to develop lower-carbon sources of aviation fuel, China has become the locus for efforts by Boeing and others to extract fuel more efficiently from biological sources. The concept is not a mystery. Algae, like some more complex plants, produce hydrocarbons that can be converted to a form of oil. (Many algae produce a kind of waxy paraffin with a high oil content. Normal fossil-fuel deposits are only rarely the remains of dinosaurs; much more frequently, they come from ancient fossilized algae beds.) The trick is growing algae and harvesting its oil at a large enough scale and a low enough cost to be a plausible substitute for regular petroleum. Projects toward that end are under way around the world. Most within the U.S. have been sponsored and supported by the Department of Energy or the Pentagon, which has viewed its reliance on imported petroleum as a serious security risk. In China, the major effort is jointly led by Boeing and the Chinese government.
Al Bryant, a veteran Boeing engineer, moved to Beijing shortly after the Olympics to oversee the company's R&D effort in China. He became famous in aviation circles for his role as a traveling proselytizer for the importance of biofuels in general and algae in particular. His presentation centers around a graph that projects likely emissions from airline travel through the year 2050. This chart has been the premise for Boeing's argument that it is time for an all-out push for practical biofuels, especially from algae. The chart's green wedge, showing the hoped-for carbon improvements from biofuels, would not simply keep the aviation industry from grossly increasing CO2 emissions as traffic goes up but actually reduce them to less than their 2009 level.
When an engine burns fuel from algae, it emits CO2 just as if it were burning fuel pumped straight from the Persian Gulf. But the algae would have removed at least as much CO2 from the atmosphere while it was growing. So in principle, and with allowances for inefficiencies and fuel costs in the production process, algae-based fuel could allow airplanes to fly on something much closer to a "carbon-neutral" basis, also sometimes called operating on a "current carbon cycle" (versus the "fossil carbon cycle" of burning coal or oil).
The aerospace argument for new biofuels takes full account of America's ethanol disaster in the 2000s. In one of the worst policy mistakes of modern times, the U.S. government subsidized farmers to grow crops, mainly corn, that could be converted into ethanol and blended into gasoline supplies. This made no sense in energy-efficiency terms. (It took more energy to plant, fertilize, harvest, and process the corn than the ethanol yielded.) It made no sense in economic terms, except as a subsidy to the farmers and agribusiness. It made no sense in moral terms, since it diverted crops that could be used for human or animal feed into transportation fuel. So the aerospace standard is to find biofuels that don't directly or indirectly compete with the human food supply; that represent true carbon savings as corn-based ethanol never could; and that can be sustainably grown and harvested without depleting water supplies or doing other long-term damage.
Whatever biofuel the aviation industry creates must have the same "energy content" as current fuels, so that aircraft as big and heavy as today's can fly at comparable speeds. It must be compatible with the design and technology of current jet engines. It must be compatible with the existing worldwide infrastructure of fuel storage and distribution. And—trickiest of all—it must be interchangeable with today's jet fuel, which is stockpiled at airports around the world. "You need to be able to leave Beijing with a tank full of biofuel, go to Lima, Peru, refuel there with normal fuel, and fly back," Bryant told me in Beijing. "You can't have an airplane stuck in Lima because it can't use regular fuel."
By process of elimination, these criteria have led mainly to algae. In principle it can produce five to 10 times as much fuel, per acre of surface area, as oil palms (which are largely grown on land where tropical forests have been clear-cut), soybeans, corn or other crops that can be used for biofuels. It grows and produces the oil many times as fast as more-complex plants—an algae crop cycle is a matter of days rather than weeks or months. It can be grown on land that is otherwise too barren or unusable, and in water that is too polluted or brackish for any other human or agricultural purpose. "The world's entire aviation-fuel needs could be taken care of by algae facilities the size of Belgium," Bryant said. (He waited for me to make the requisite joke about the highest and best use of Belgium's landmass, which I did.) Other American and Chinese scientists I interviewed were skeptical that algae farming could become practical that quickly, or affordably, or at the needed scale. Nonetheless, Boeing's calculations assume that a sustained world oil price of $90 per barrel or above would make algae-based fuel economically practical, once production techniques are improved. World oil prices peaked at above $140 per barrel just before the world financial collapse of late 2008. During the crash they fell to as low as the mid-$30s, then climbed above $80 by early 2010 and remained there through 2011.
Boeing is now working with a variety of state-owned research facilities across China on sustainable-fuel projects, especially involving algae. Chinese universities and technical institutes are among the world's leaders in algae research, especially the descriptively named Chinese Academy of Sciences Qingdao Institute of Bioenergy and Bioprocess Technology. Here is where the world's hopes for making aviation more environmentally sustainable may lie. Much of the worst—and best—news about the world's environment is coming out of China. It's worth noticing the good.
I am amazed Popsci would run an article that questions the morality of using corn for bio fuel, but has no concerns at all about opening up Tibetan airports. Since annexing the area the Chinese have been trying to move as many mainlanders into the region as possible to diminish any dissent. The only thing slowing them down has been geographic isolation of the area. Thanks to GE, however, they can now land as many jumbo jets in the area as they need. Maybe next month we can celebrate how American companies are helping use the internet regimes to crack down on dissent in Iran and Syria.
Correction last line should read: Maybe next month we can celebrate how American companies are helping regimes use the internet to crack down on dissent in Ir an and Syria.
At the end of the article, I found it most interesting to learn about algae as an energy source and it being CO2 carbon neutral to the environment. As algae grows it removes C02 from the environment, so when we burn algae the C02 is released, leaving a balance of carbon in the environment.
Science sees no further than what it can sense, i.e. facts.
Religion sees beyond the senses, i.e. faith.
Open your mind and see!
Obviously using combining carbon from biomass or atmosphere extraction then combining it with nuke hydrogen is far cheaper than algae to produce jet fuel. Shell Qatar GTL plant is already doing it with natural gas making a profit at under $25 a barrel market.
This would mark China's stance as a favorable investment climate in the growing autocratic world. By knowingly choosing to relinquish their military control in favor a favorable aviation climate could result in an influx of travelers. This is not a matter of green versus military but simply a matter of conservative authoritarian policies versus the future of economic innovation in China. China may or may not honor the request of an industry who already turns a profit despite the increasing cost of fuel. This is a matter of trust and the example set by this situations outcome shall determine whether China is a favorable government for international communication. May China make its choice knowing it sets not only an example for economic innovation but military and government advancement and reform. China has set previous precedents deeming a minor economic motive as an insufficient exception to military restrictions and government policies. It comes down to the economic necessity the rest of the world is in to change and adapt to a worsening economy due to an oil reliance paired with an increasing debt to the Chinese government. Currently China has yet to match international trends (favoring domestic and government controlled innovation) and in turn their influence shall soon lead to many more policies that do not benefit the earth and atmosphere. Finally China has a government body playing an intricate role in the fate of the economy while the majority of the world has a corporate ruling body without the restrictions or growth of the Chinese both of which are ignorant of their effects on the environment. While the USA and Europe may require innovations in aviation to continue to turn a profit the way to accomplish this potentially unreachable feat is to not make yet another product that in the long term only stimulates the Chinese economy and increases national debt. No foreign or corporate body is willing to take a stand and promote an innovative policy of aviation, while aware that it would directly restrict the Chinese governments policies, fearing economic and civil repercussions. Is the rest of the world prepared to rely on the Chinese for algae fuel as well as debt?
Algae technologies are already Carbon Negative. Here's how: Algae is comprised of three main components; Lipids (Oil), Proteins, and Carbohydrates. Carbon is the 6th most common element in the universe and bonds to nearly everything just like hydrogen. That means not all of the CO2 captured will be re-released since only the algae oil is used to make biofuels. The best part of all? Algae love to clean which means they are the perfect organisms for treating municipal waste-water and runoff from agriculture.
The race to full scale commercialization of Algae is one that the US can, should, and must win.