I have become convinced that duckweed as a source for biofuel is a total winner. Having just read a couple of articles about using duckweed as a source of starch to produce ethanol, I am convinced that, coupled with a few tricks to extract the oil and convert it to biodiesel and using thermal depolymerization on the rest, _at least_ 50% of the harvested biomass can be converted into fuel. Using _just_ the yields extrapolated from the hydroponics greenhouse I used in my trillion people paper I figure it should be very practical to produce at least 144 tons (288K lbs) of (dry) biomass per acre, per year (note that the duckweed should grow _at least_ twice as fast as higher plants so this should be _very_ conservative). That should result in a mix of fuels (ethanol, biodiesel and the light crude produced by the thermal depolymerization) of at least 20K gallons per acre per year (the break down should be around 1/3 each, though actual experimentation will be necessary to know for sure). Presuming I can net $3 per gallon (this includes tax incentives which are hard to count on, a more fair price would be $2 per gallon) that would result in a gross income of at least $60K per acre per year. Since I would automate the bulk of the harvest, processing, etc. (the main new process would be to harvest the duckweed, from that point on it is all traditional) and the main on-going cost is keeping the temp stable (for which I would likely try to do daily temp averaging which should result in minimal variable costs) the bulk cost would be amortizing the startup capital. Given that one can easily obtain brand new commercial greenhouses for less than $5 per square foot (which includes the environmental controls, some of which might not be necessary in a production system, so $5 should represent a worst-case scenario) then the first-blush capital costs are around $220K/acre (yes, this is vastly simplified, I know) for a gross return on investment of 27%. Even using $2/gallon the gross ROI comes out to 18%, still generally quite interesting to investors, particularly when the market for the product is (practically) unimaginably huge.
My conundrum is how to find interested investors who would back full-time research efforts. Due to the recent (but receded, now that I have been told the government will put off its decision on my position for 6 months) efforts at job searches and calculations at what would be the minimum income I would need to get to keep paying the bills it is feasible to consider as much as a 33% pay cut. Given my risk-seeking nature I would be happy to consider that sort of personal risk if I could get committed investors to cover the costs for at least a few years. I already have plenty of land upon which to do the experiments and proofs of concept (indeed, we have enough land that I could quite conceivably make enough to pay on-going expenses once the initial kinks are worked out). Still, 2/3 of what I currently make is still a lot (man does the intelligence community over pay for the clearance!) so investors would have to commit at least a million over several years, so this is a bit out of range for conventional angel investors (unless there is a group of several). There are granting agencies, but in my experience I have so close to a zero chance of being funded (and the funds so meager) that there is really no value in pursuing them. Larger investors, like venture capitalists, want all the experimental risk to have been removed before they will consider ponying up, something that I haven’t achieved (though expect to, in the fullness of time, but that would likely be a couple of years from now, at the very earliest). I even considered the idea of Kickstarter but it really isn’t the hardware funds to do the experiments that I need, it is to pay for my time and I just don’t get a warm-and-fuzzy that this research is something that could get serious interest (and not sure how I would ‘pay back’ the donations).
So, any of my manifold reader(s) have any ideas? Clearly large-scale success on a project like this would take a good decade (large-scale is measured in billions of gallons; enough to start to move the price of crude oil), probably two, but it is quite feasible to expect to see very dramatic signs of success within months, certainly within a year. The main uncertainty that I have uncovered (beyond the actual output from thermal depolymerization, something that can only be discovered by experimentation) is the aggregate annual growth rate of the duckweed. It seems that duckweed has dramatic swings in productivity where it goes from explosive growth (doubling sometimes in less than 24 hours) toward a resting stage that can last several days to longer than a week (even under otherwise optimal growing conditions). I have some strategies for getting around that, but, once again, experimentation is the key. The other concern is simply the reduction in growth due to the reduction in sunlight during the fall and winter, but based on my reading it seems that it is practical to expect no worse than a halving of the rate of growth at the nadir (under otherwise optimal conditions). It is plausible (but not something I consider likely, so haven’t done any calculations) that supplemental light could economically remedy this situation (the halving of the growth rate), but given the purpose of this is to produce fuel it doesn’t seem that practical to take fossil fuel energy to produce biofuel energy.
To me the calculations mentioned above are so conservative (note that the theoretical maximum biomass that could be produce per acre per year is 320 tons, so there is plenty of room yet to optimize) that there is an excellent probability that the research efforts would reveal various optimizations that could at least double the overall biofuel output per acre, per year, or about 40K gallons/acre/year. With tax incentives that produces a gross revenue of $120K (per acre, per year) or a gross ROI of almost 55%. Thus there is a lot of ‘fat’ in the system to absorb the inevitable mistakes during progression through the learning curve. More importantly, it makes the final process likely to be vastly more productive than any alternative except easily extracted crude oil (for which we have pretty much totally eliminated) which actually puts this product/process/idea into a direct, profitable, head-to-head competition (even excepting tax incentives) with the big oil companies. While the application of this ‘technology’ would result in the ‘destruction’ of any other land use (meaning that, for instance, you can’t graze cattle in the same fields like you can with solar and wind), the amount of land that would be needed (and it could be completely infertile since it is done in a totally artificial environment) to replace 100% of our _current_ consumption of liquid transportation fuels is quite tiny by comparison with the land available in our nation. If we assume only 20K gallons/acre/year and we assume 200 billion gallons of liquid fossil fuel use for transportation per year then we need 10,000,000 acres to replace the current usage. That is less than 16K square miles. For comparison, there are 3.8 million square miles in the US (though that probably includes Alaska). So, for an area sightly greater than the size of the state of Maryland, 100% of the liquid transportation fuels that are currently supplied by fossil fuels are produced by 100% renewable biofuel… AND a lot of people can make a _crap load_ of money off it (how many _billions_ do we send to the Middle East each year?).
What is not to love? Of course, I thought the exact same thing with my DNA sequencing chip project (with a projected 17,000:1 ROI) and couldn’t interest a single investor to pony up the bucks, so based on historical performance I would have to say that this idea also will languish until some other organization makes it a success and I wind embittered once again at the lost opportunity. But hey, the eternal optimist in me keeps trying, maybe this idea will finally be The One!