Published on July 24th, 2014 | by Zachary Shahan


Breakthrough Halophyte Biofuel & The Failure Of Tar Sands Oil (Exclusive Videos)

July 24th, 2014 by  

With great appreciation to the Masdar PR crew and to Dr Alejandro Ríos Galván, Director of the Sustainable Bioenergy Research Consortium (SBRC), I was recently granted the opportunity to speak one-on-one with Alejandro on the sidelines of Abu Dhabi Ascent* about halophyte biofuel and the performance failure of tar sands oil. If you don’t recall seeing my first story on this topic, it’s worth noting that this is the only biofuel option that I see as truly deserving of the title “breakthrough.” Well, if it ends up delivering as expected. From what I can tell, all signs do look good so far and in theory, as you can read in my first story or learn in the video interview below.

Leading the Masdar Institute research on halophyte biofuels, Alejandro was able to confirm, from the research side of things, what Darin Morgan of Boeing told two other bloggers and myself in January. He also answered some follow-up questions that I thought would be interesting to you here at CleanTechnica. Here are my videos from that chat, followed by bullet-points summarizing the key points of the discussion (just note that the volume levels on the three videos ended up varying quite a bit):

  • Processing crude oil coming out of tar sands is much more difficult and “refineries are not that well retrofitted to process that type of product.” So, the resulting product is not as optimal as in the past. Retrofitting a refinery is a complicated process and usually takes a few years, so what’s happening is that oil companies are producing less jet fuel and the jet fuel that they are producing is not of a very high quality. “It’s barely complying with the specification that jet fuel has to comply with.” (1st video)
  • An ironic thing is that new, synthetic biofuels have to pass quite rigorous tests in order to be used as jet fuel, and it’s presumed that if tar sands oil had to pass the same tests, it wouldn’t actually be able to. In other words, they end up less energy intensive and less pure than biofuels. (3rd video)
  • Halophyte research has actually been going on since the 1960s, when scientists were starting to get worried about the rising sea levels and climate scientist Carl Hodges had the idea to build/dredge seawater rivers inland. Hodges also tried to figure out what could be done with such seawater, such as combining aquaculture and agriculture. That’s how he came across halophytes, which grow along the coasts of deserts. He realized that, using these halophytes, he could produce oil. (2nd video)
  • However, very little formal academic research has occurred around the topic of halophyte cultivation and halophyte biofuel. Working in the aviation industry in Mexico, Alejandro met Carl Hodges and the seeds of today’s work on halophyte research started. It didn’t really go anywhere in Alejandro’s work in Mexico, but he came to Masdar Institute approximately 1½ years ago to work on this topic. (2nd video)
  • The big questions that this Sustainable Bioenergy Research Consortium (a partnership between Masdar Institute, Etihad Airways, Honeywell’s UOP, and some others) asked were if halophyte biofuel production could be scaled and if it could be scaled sustainably.
  • Halophyte biofuel, if it can scale, also moves away from the whole “food vs fuel” biofuel debate/controversy.
  • Actually, aquaculture waste, a major problem, can be used as fertilizer for halophyte biofuel. This is a big deal considering the rapid growth of aquaculture.

*My trip to Abu Dhabi Ascent is being covered by Masdar.

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is tryin' to help society help itself (and other species) with the power of the typed word. He spends most of his time here on CleanTechnica as its director and chief editor, but he's also the president of Important Media and the director/founder of EV Obsession, Solar Love, and Bikocity. Zach is recognized globally as a solar energy, electric car, and energy storage expert. Zach has long-term investments in TSLA, FSLR, SPWR, SEDG, & ABB — after years of covering solar and EVs, he simply has a lot of faith in these particular companies and feels like they are good cleantech companies to invest in.

  • No way

    What is the hold up for a larger scale test then? If they have the plant ready to go then just build it already. It could easily be up in a month or two….

    • i think that’s what they’re working on. just starting with one pilot size for now, then will scale up if things are going well before even waiting for the pilot to be over. will try to get a closer look in January.

      • No way

        I hope this one is for real and it will be interesting to follow. Even though when something looks too good it rarely really is the world needs a break through of this kind.

      • No way

        January is here 🙂 I hope to see a report from that closer look soon. Anything from prize, size, how the testing has gone, what vehicles they have tried it on etc. would be of great interest.

        By the way if you’re still in Poland then I think you should make a visit to the Preem refinery in Gothenburg. Their current production of HVO-diesel from tall oil (pine oil) is interesting and a big reason why Sweden is by far the renewable energy leader in the transport sector in the EU (15,6% renewables in 2013).
        But what is really interesting that you could really investigate more about is their 100% identical petrol and diesel made from lignin which they seem to have the recipe for and are only waiting for the right long term frame work from the government to go into full scale production (which they hope to be in 2017).
        Their estimate is that 40% of the petrol and 70% of the diesel in Sweden could be replaced by just using the waste lignin from the swedish paper industry, not to mention what they could do if going straight to the source of biomass from the forest.

        • I’m going to Abu Dhabi again in a couple of weeks. Will be sure to check in. 😀

          • No way

            Great. I’m looking forward to it. Potential AND realistical game changing solutions like that are rare so I really hope you will bring back some good news.

          • Thanks. I agree. Honestly, I haven’t seen much regarding biofuels that inspires me, and when I got the invite to speak with the Boeing guy on the sidelines, I wasn’t very interested, but figured I’d take advantage of the opportunity anyway. I was very happily surprised at how it turned out, as was the other reporter there with me. I’m nervous but hopeful to find out where things have gone since May.

  • I just read the bullets. I’m all for something, anything other than an economy based on tar sands.

    FWiW: One issue is reserves. In North America alone, US has about 30 to 35 billion barrels of proved oil reserves as of 2013. Canada is at about 171 billion barrels. Most of Canada reserve is in tar sands. The US produces about 7.5 million barrels per day. US total consumption is approximately 18 million barrels per day.

    Put it this way, if we decided to consume only our own oil, we would have about 10 years of oil left at current consumption levels. We like Canada despite what I said to a Canadian commenter on Cleantechnica yesterday.

    Our other major supplier of crude oil is Venezuelan. Its heavy crude is about as thick and gooey as Canadian tar sands. Venezuela has about 297 billion barrels in reserve.

    At this point in time 4 of the 5 Chicagoland and Illinois refineries are retrofitted for heavy crude and diluted bitumen. The Citgo refinery in Illinois has been modified for Venezuelan heavy crude for years. As has Exxon’s Joliet refinery. BP just did a $3 to $4 billion upgrade on the Whiting refinery. That’s just Illinois. Texas gulf coast refineries are already in modification or completed.

    The problem with refining at the moment is the light sweet crude coming from Bakken North Dakota and the Texas shale plays. Those crudes are making heavy crude upgrades almost obsolete. Shale oil is pre-speciated by adsorption/desorption through the tight pores of shale – so it comes out with much lower percentages of heavy hydrocarbons. It’s much cheaper to refine since its lower in sulfur and there’s no need for a coker unit.

    Another issue is capital expenditures. Oil and gas has been spending like there’s no tomorrow on oil sands mining and in situ extraction modification up in Canada. And pipeline and terminal modifications in the US. Like hundreds of billions. Here’s what’s been going on in Illinois along with pipeline modifications for tar sands

    Bottom line, tar sands are flowing now and will only increase, regardless of Keystone or any other pipeline. Whoever has been investing all that money in oil and gas exploitation is expecting a return.

    Sub-bottom line, all this heavy crude exploitation is going to wreak havoc on the environment. Both in Canada and around the globe.

    Sub-sub-bottom line, get going on biofuels, EVs, walking more, anything.

    • sault

      I agree with most of your post, your sub-bottom line and sub-sub-bottom line. I also agree that the oil companies have billions in investments riding on a huge expansion of the Tar Sands and pipelines bringing that oil to U.S. refineries. While these companies have enormous power, they will not be able to overcome massive popular resistance, so the massive growth of the Tar Sands is not quite a foregone conclusion. Elections matter and intensity of public opposition matters as well.

      Conversely, if we move quickly to the conservation / displacement side of the picture (walkability, transportation options, EVs, biofuels), the decreased demand would have to bring the price of oil below $70 a barrel for a long period of time to make the Tar Sands a money sink. Whether efficiency measures can keep up with declining conventional oil production and manipulations by OPEC to prop up the price of oil remains to be seen.

      • True that. Cheaper oil will shut down unconventional oil exploitation (shale and tar sands). However, it becomes much more nefarious. (As if ruining the planet isn’t bad enough). Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia have most of the oil reserves (see the O&G journal link above). Our domestic production has made the news lately. But it doesn’t matter. Iran isn’t even at 50 percent production capacity. Iraq is and it isn’t. Saudi Arabia can do whatever it wants with production and still not worry. World stability comes in at this point. The more instable, the better it is for oil and gas. Probably more is spent globally on lobbying, sales and marketing of oil and gas than all of renewables combined, times 10. It’s freaky.

        • JamesWimberley

          “Saudi Arabia can do whatever it wants with production and still not worry.” It’s a widely held view that the Saudis and Aramco are lying about their oil reserves. The main evidence is that they have simply not been able in recent years to increase production when their official policy was to do exactly that, to control swings in the oil price. Saudi Arabia has ambitious plans for 41 GW of solar (link), to reserve the precious oil for exports and not burn it wastefully in domestic a/c and the like.They would not be doing this if the resource were effectively limitless.

          • My guess is oil and gas in place reserves accounting lies somewhere between 150 years of petroleum reservoir engineering knowledge and liars poker. The US Geological Survey and the Brits did all the initial mapping of the middle east. Funny story, I dated (more like pined for) a women in college who spent her childhood in Saudi Arabia. Her father was the lead geologist for USGS to subsurface map the entire peninsula and beyond. Schlumberger (French O&G field services firm) and others contract to Aramco to do modern reservoir analysis. I’m going to guess that if all the oil and gas companies put their top reservoir engineers in a room for two hours – they could come up with an estimate of global oil and gas, potential and proved, of all the hydrocarbons from methane and beyond down to the mole. No lying of course.

  • UncleB

    Still no insights into a better recovery process for Tar Sands Oil?

    • Steve Grinwis

      Leave it in the ground. Much better process.

    • Tar sands production is about 50/50 surface mining / in situ (latin for in place) extraction. The most common in situ method is called Thermal or Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage (SAGD). Here’s a nice primer on this:

      Pembina is kind of a environmental NGO and kind of an environmental consultant. It’s positioned itself as an ombudsman between oil and gas and environmentalists. I believe it get’s most of its money from wealthy families that made their fortunes in oil and gas and exploiting other natural resources. Not unlike the NRDC and EDF here in the US. Guilt increases as the blood lines get older.

      Anyway, the issue is that surface mining will be decreasing and in situ extraction will be increasing going forward. Roughly 20 percent of tar sands reserves are surface strip minable and the other 80 percent is too deep.

      Pembina and others has been doing consulting work to find a better mousetrap for in situ extraction other than thermal SAGD. So has a consortium called In situ Oil Sands Alliance:

      In situ SAGD is the technology that has been creating a mess lately. As a matter of fact, Alberta regulators have put a hold on future in situ leases until more study and improvement have been made. Basically to keep heated oily goo from going all over the place and up to the surface. It ain’t pretty right now.

      There’s other in situ methods in the works and presently being full-scale tested. A company called ET Energy uses electric current to heat the tar sands in situ so steam injection is not necessary. I believe I discussed this technology before here on Cleantechnica. It was invented by DOE Pacific Northwest National Laboratories. Sort of. Long story.

  • JamesWimberley

    So the oil industry has driven aviation into looking seriously at biofuels through not caring about quality? Well, well. Perhaps snobbery helps: the designers of jet engines, the most demanding pieces of machinery built on any scale, don’t think of petroleum engineers as equals but as rubes. The oilmen should have set up a privileged supply chain using the declining supply of sweet crude, but they apparently haven’t.

    Is any progress being made in using lignin? It’s less digestible than cellulose, but still a hydrocarbon. Otherwise it could be the feedstock for biochar sequestration.

    Halophytes are plainly a promising avenue, but there’s a geographic issue you don’t consider. You need an existing area of salt marsh, or a desert near the sea or salt aquifer. That fits the Gulf, NW Africa, Western Australia, and Chile, but I wonder if that’s going to provide enough for all aviation. Land-based cellulose biofuel should still be developed, as long as it can be done in a genuinely sustainable way unlike corn ethanol.

    • No way

      The company Preem is looking hoping to produce petrol and diesel from lignin within this year. Right now they are producing HVO from talloil which they put in their regular diesel at a level of 20-30%.
      They are doubling their renewable capacity during the next year and hopefully the lignin based part of the capacity will make them having to expand much more soon after that.
      The amount of lignin available as a biproduct from the paper industry is ten times as much as the talloil here.

    • Offgridman

      “That fits the Gulf, NW Africa…. etc”
      In an interview with the mayor of South Miami the other day he was discussing the salt water influx during high tides and storms that they are already having to deal with, and his concerns about the drops in property values when a major event happens and people move away.
      Here is an area that will be ripe to start salt marsh farming when the housing market crashes. Are you ready to do some investing? 🙂

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