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Algae fuel

Controversial report causes stir in local scientific, clean tech community

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In late January, the nonprofit global policy think tank the RAND Corporation caused a stir in the alternative fuels industry, particularly among makers of algae fuel.

RAND released a report Jan. 25 assessing the feasibility of the U.S. Navy’s investment in alternative fuels. Titled “Alternative Fuels for Military Applications,” it suggested that many of these fuels -- particularly fuels made from algae or similar plants -- are not cost effective and generally not in the best interest Department of Defense to pursue.

To proponents of algae fuel, who have found a strong ally in the Navy, the report was a surprise and an unforeseen obstacle. San Diego County is home to several algae fuel companies, and a growing clean technology sector in general. Several industry leaders said they disagree with much of the report’s findings, but more importantly want to make sure decision makers, such as those at the DOD, take it in context.

“One of the things that really killed me in (the report) was it said the Department of Defense only uses 2 percent of the earth’s fuel, so making changes wouldn’t have an important impact,” said Stephen Mayfield, a University of California, San Diego researcher who also directs the school’s San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology. “That kind of logic is like saying, ‘Sure that guy’s a murderer, but he only killed one person, so we shouldn’t bother going out to get him because it won’t affect the overall murder rate.’”

“Under this logic,” Mayfield added, “none of us should do anything.”

Mayfield said he doesn’t put much stock in the report because it has not been thoroughly peer reviewed, as most scientific research papers are. Mayfield indicated that one of its authors, RAND Senior Policy Researcher James T. Bartis, used to specialize in fossil fuel research for the Department of Energy, and therefore could be biased.

The report is co-authored by Lawrence Van Bibber.

Anything tied in to the energy debate has political implications these days, and Mayfield said that while many scientists may find easy faults with the RAND report, he was concerned that policy makers could seize on this report as an opportunity to stop federal funding of alternative fuel research.

“There are plenty of guys in Congress, such as the guys in Oklahoma and Texas, the ‘Drill baby, drill’ crowd,” who will take notice of the report, he said.

The RAND report does not discredit algae fuel as a source of energy, but does say that it is “highly uncertain” whether algae, or similar fuels, can be made in significant amounts cleanly and cost effectively. It also said that “forward-based alternative fuel production” doesn’t offer any advantage to the U.S. military.

However, the report notes that there are benefits for the country as a whole.

“If the Department of Defense were to encourage early production experience, government decision makers, technology developers and investors would obtain important information about the technical, financial and environmental performance of various alternative fuel options,” the report said. “If favorable, that information could lead to a commercial alternative-fuels industry producing strategically significant amounts of fuel in the United States.

“Once established, a large, commercially competitive alternative fuel industry in the United States and abroad would weaken the ability of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries to assert its cartel power,” the report continued. “Lower world oil prices would yield economic benefits to all fuel users -- civilian and military alike. Lower prices would also decrease the incomes of ‘rogue’ oil producers, and thereby likely decrease financial support to large terrorist organizations such as Hamas and Hezballah.”

Tim Zenk, vice president of corporate affairs for Sapphire Energy, an algae fuel company based in San Diego County, said that for him, the most glaringly erroneous claim in the report is that algae fuel could have such massive impacts on the country’s economic and foreign policies and not affect the military.

“The main conclusion is that there’s no benefit for the military, when the report itself lists about five things that are really beneficial,” said Zenk. “Imagine if the OPEC countries didn’t have as much as power, how would we react differently from a geopolitical position? That would have a direct benefit to the military.”

Zenk said he was not as angry about the report as some of his colleagues in the algae space, in part because he thinks it has been misinterpreted, and also because he had seen a high ranking Naval official debate a RAND investigator on the merits of the report.

“I would note that the Navy vehemently disagrees with the conclusions,” he said.

He said the researchers had apparently not had access to a lot of new information coming out of laboratories, and relied more on public and academic literature for their research.

“The report itself has not seemed to have any impact at all, primarily because its conclusions are just sort of outlandish,” Zenk said.

Mayfield, however, said instances such as this have made him rethink the long-held idea that scientists should try to only posit facts and not take sides in a debate. He said he would like to see more scientists call out reports that refute climate change, for example, and don’t pass scientific muster.

“I think that our job as scientists is to call (foul) on this as we see it,” he said. “That’s a blog opinion piece that has nothing to do with science.”

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