Archive for November 2006

Greenhouses For Desalinised Water & Oil.

November 24, 2006

This week, let’s take a more in depth look at using greenhouses to tap oceans or briny aquifers to produce desalinised water and energy.

Several weeks back I posted about a British Company that used greenhouses for water desalination to produce high value fruits and vegetables. Another thing those green houses could produce is biocrude/biodiesal from algae. Why?

Consider this from Wikipedia.

Oil Yield

Gallons of Oil per Acre per Year
Corn . . . . . . . 18
Soybeans . . . .48
Safflower. . . . . 83
Sunflower . . . 102
Rapeseed. . . 127
Oil Palm . . . . 635
Micro Algae . .5000-15000
The yield from oil bearing algae per acre is many orders of magnitude higher than the yield of ethanol from corn. Say the algae produces 10,000 gallons of biodiesel@acre. If the producer can get $1@ gallon of biodiesel then there’s $10,000@acre. Work is underway to improve the oil yields of the algae. There is reason to believe that in the future yields can be increased to 50,000 gallons of biodiesel@acre (and $50,000 revenue@acre).

Current estimates of costs are sketchy. According to this April 2005 report:

These estimates showed that algal biodiesel cost would range from $1.40 to $4.40 per gallon based on current and long-term projections for the performance of the technology.
Researchers in Utah say their algae-biodiesel will be cost competitive by 2009.
Tasios Melis, a professor of enzymology at the University of California at Berkeley, has created genetically modified strains of algae that speed growth rates of naturally occurring algae and increase its hydrocarbon content, which could boost the biodiesel yield of bioreactors from 10,000 gallons per acre to 20,000 gallons or more. Melis originally developed the supercharged algae as a way of improving the harvest of hydrogen as a fuel source, and he believes its long-term benefits are greatest in developing clean-burning hydrogen as a ubiquitous energy source. But Melis says genetic information on hydrogen production could enable development of algae for specific types of fuel.”The potential is really superior to natural algae,” Melis says. “It is essentially a problem of biology, but we have a blueprint and I’m confident it can be done.”) End of update.

Consider a joint project of the DOE San Dia Labs and LiveFuels Inc. They aim to convert algae-to-oil. I mentioned they could also desalinize briny aquifers in greenhouses in West Texas or New Mexico while turning algae-to-oil. — There might be a market for salt and minerals as well. (I’ve been salting my eggs & oatmeal in the morning with smoked applewood flavored salt I bought from that Maine company I mentioned a couple weeks back. Its pretty good.)

Before I go further down the algae-to-oil path it should be noted that a couple years from now solar photovoltaic plastic will be available which could cost effectively be used in greenhouses. As well, sunlight could be used for water splitting.

Nanotech-based photoelectrochemical materials could lower the cost of hydrogen production “somewhere between a factor of 4 and 10,”

But that’s likely even further in the future. The most interesting currently available solar tech is this pairing of an efficient solar dish with a 200-year-old Stirling engine design. This solar plant is going up in the Mohave Deserts of Southern California. These plants will produce electricity at or below the costs of coal powered plants. A scaled down version of this might be used to pump water in the desert–but it might be more expensive.

The advantage of working with solar is that there is plenty of capital available that’s looking for tax advantaged opportunities. As well, a number of major counties in California have served notice to their coal fired electrical generating plants–they will not be renewing their contracts in…2027.While that date is far in the future, the push is on for lowering carbon emissions worldwide. One way to reduce carbon emissions would be to pump carbon dioxide into the British greenhouses — filled with algae — mentioned above that used desalinised water pulled from the underground aquifers of West Texas. FutureGen is currently working on a coal gassification project around Odessa that uses waste heat for desalination. The idea currently is to pump the carbon dioxide into the ground–so that at some point — the extra pressure will enable more oil extraction. Perhaps a better way to use the carbon dioxide would be to pump it into greenhouses filled with green algae. As well, underground brine water could be pumped into the greenhouses and where it would be desalinated to water the algae.

In fact, some tests in arizona currently are moving from large test tubes to a greenhouse environment:


The Arizona power plant project includes putting algae in tubes as part of the biodiesel production process.

For a year, researchers watched algae multiply in huge, bubbling test tubes beneath the hot Arizona sun so they could find just the right strand of the microscopic single-celled plant.

The experiment has been so successful that it’s about to expand into greenhouses on the plant grounds, and in time, be grown in such large quantities that it could be converted into fuel, cutting down on harmful greenhouse gases.

The new thing here to understand is not that the algae-to-oil angle. Algae-to-oil is being tested extensively already. The company doing the work above is an MIT associated company called GreenFuel .

GreenFuel has already garnered $11 million in venture capital funding and is conducting a field trial at a 1,000 megawatt power plant owned by a major southwestern power company. Next year, GreenFuel expects two to seven more such demo projects scaling up to a full pro- duction system by 2009.

Rather, the new thing that I’m suggesting here is that LiveFuels/GreenFuel — technology be wedded to the British Greenhouses to produce oil and desalinised water.

Update: Additional profits could be garnered by way of carbon credits that are gaining traction worldwide. ie when coal plants take carbon dioxide out of their waste–these credits can be resold. Here is how Wall Street is doing this now.
That said, the problem I could see with the greenhouses might be that it would be expensive to clean out their salt accumulations.

One way to reduce the problem of salt cleanup in the greenhouses would be to jury rig a cheap low tech solution for desalination using the efficient solar dish with a 200-year-old Stirling engine mentioned above and Aquasonics technology.

At the heart of the Aquasonics technology is a special nozzle that breaks water into a very fine mist. This mist is then hit with hot air. The steam rises where its cooled and collected and the salt falls to the floor where its collected and easily moved. Aquasonics has been using waste heat from power plants as a heat source. But it would be relatively simple and cheap to aim the solar dishes mentioned above at two black boxes. One black box heats brine or salt water to pressurize it for expulsion through the nozzle — and one black box heats the air used to blast the nozzle spray from the water box.

Anyhow here is a full list of algae-to-oil companies.

According to Michael Briggs, University of New Hampshire, Physics Department — a 250 acre algae farm producing 10,000 gallons@acre could produce oil for $18.56@barrel. And with a net profit of .10 the farm could yield $250,000 per year net earnings.

So the idea is to add pure clean water to the output of the already profitable mix.

Additional algae links:

Fatty acids & Hydrocarbons (oil) and liquid fuels

More algae candidates for high lipid yields

Reef Algae Web Site or

The Phycological Society of America (most of the following links came from this page)

Guide to Pressing Seaweeds

Desmid website (

AlgaeBase website – information on taxonomy of all algae (
Portuguese Seaweeds Website – Portal das Macroalgas Portuguesas (
PISCO Marine Algae Database: an online collection of images (
Desmid Information, including beautiful photos (
Algae associated with sea turtles in Hawaii (
The Phytoplankton Image Library ( by Michael R. Martin
The Latz Research Laboratory with information on dinoflagellates and bioluminescence (
The International Research Group on Charophytes with information on living and fossil charophytes (
A Checklist of Fijian marine algae (
Jeremy Pickett-Heaps’ web site for Cytographics with information on algal videos, preparation of live cells, etc (
multimedia course entitled “A phylogenetic survey of photosynthetic
organisms” focusing mainly on algae by Derek Keats (
Algal Images (especially diatoms) from Rex Lowe’s lab (Bowling Green University) (
Great Lakes Diatom Home Page (
Algal images for teaching and ecological data from southeastern Ohio from Morgan Vis’ lab (Ohio University) (
Institution Algae Web page with information on algae in general, recent
publications, how to preserve algae and herbarium collections (
The University of California Museum of Paleontology with general information: Green Algae (, Chromista (, Red Algae (, and Dinoflagellates (
Mike Guiry’s seaweed page (
CYANOSITE with information on Cyanobacterial research (
The Harmful Algae Page with photographs, news stories and information (
ECOHAB: Florida – Ecology and Oceanography of Harmful Algal Blooms (

Honey, I shrunk the carbon nanotubes…Think Desalination

November 17, 2006

Dang. I was working on nice thoughtful post on the relationship between water and energy across a range R&D projects. Sounds good? I brushed it aside. Why? ANOTHER big breaking bit of nanotube news hit the wires. Get this. Scientists at UC Berkeley & Lawrence Berkeley National Labratory have figured out how to alter the diameter of individual carbon nanotubes … at will!

Alex Zettl and colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory say carbon nanotubes’ ability to conduct electricity and other electrical and mechanical properties depends heavily on their size. However, current methods for making CNTs cannot reliably control nanotube diameter, making it more difficult to fabricate devices from nanotubes.

“We have developed a method to shrink individual nanotubes to any desired diameter,” the researchers report. “The process can be repeated in a highly controlled fashion, yielding a high-quality CNT of any pre-selected and precise diameter.”

The method, involving a high-temperature that shrinks regular-sized CNTs and reforms them into high-quality tubes of a smaller diameter, is to be detailed in the Dec. 13 issue of the journal Nano Letters.

Shrinking nanotubes
SEE HOW THEY SHRINK: A computer-generated images of the process for shrinking nanotubes.

Think this could be used to create a carbon nanotube shrunk to the diameter of H20? Think this might be a boost for desalination?

Give that carbon nanotube the right charge and you could do some serious seperations. Heck, you might not even have to consider charge. The researchers even claim that they can automate the process.

Anyhow, this looks to be another cool tool for the toolkit.

Speaking of the relationship between energy and water…a smaller diameter membrane created by the above process — could as well be used to sort out hydrogen in carbon reformation or various thermal depolymerization processes.

Also this, week a group of chemists at Rice University figured out how to grow carbon nanotubes.

    Rice University chemists today revealed the first method for cutting carbon nanotubes into “seeds” and using those seeds to sprout new nanotubes. The findings offer hope that seeded growth may one day produce the large quantities of pure nanotubes needed for dozens of materials applications.

In more nano news NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center says they have developed a cheap way to make carbon nanotubes that are either conducting or semiconducting.

Goddard researchers Drs. Jeannette Benavides and Henning Leidecker developed a simpler, safer, and much less costly process to make these carbon nanotubes. The key was that they figured out how to produce bundles of these nanotubes without using metal, which reduced the costs tremendously and made a better quality product.

They’ve already lisenced the procedure to a company in Idaho that’s making products.

Earlier this year, NASA Goddard licensed its patented technique for manufacturing these high-quality “single-walled carbon nanotubes” to Idaho Space Materials (ISM) in Boise, Idaho. Now the carbon nanotubes based on this creation process are being used by researchers and companies that are working on things that will impact almost every facet of life, such as new materials with ceramics and polymers.

Maybe next week I’ll do that piece on energy and water.

Engineers develop revolutionary nanotech water desalination membrane

November 10, 2006

The headline news in in desal research this week has been from UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science.

engineers develop revolutionary nanotech water desalination membrane

UCLA Engineering’s Eric Hoek holds nanoparticles and a piece of his new RO water desalination membrane. Credit: UCLA Engineering/Don Liebig

Researchers at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science today announced they have developed a new reverse osmosis (RO) membrane that promises to reduce the cost of seawater desalination and wastewater reclamation.

Guess what? The way the UCLA engineers have done it has been to charge the membrane so as allow the water to pass through and repel salt and waste. Does this sound like something I’ve been talking for the last couple months? No?

The new membrane, developed by civil and environmental engineering assistant professor Eric Hoek and his research team, uses a uniquely cross-linked matrix of polymers and engineered nanoparticles designed to draw in water ions but repel nearly all contaminants. These new membranes are structured at the nanoscale to create molecular tunnels through which water flows more easily than contaminants.

Unlike the current class of commercial RO membranes, which simply filter water through a dense polymer film, Hoek’s membrane contains specially synthesized nanoparticles dispersed throughout the polymer — known as a nanocomposite material.

“The nanoparticles are designed to attract water and are highly porous, soaking up water like a sponge, while repelling dissolved salts and other impurities,” Hoek said. “The water-loving nanoparticles embedded in our membrane also repel organics and bacteria, which tend to clog up conventional membranes over time.”

Well, the only part of this that I could brag about having advocated –is the part about using charge to filter water through a carbon nanotube. It doesn’t look like the membrane described above quite follows on the work of the LLNL scientists in May and the work of University of Kentucky scientists last November that showed super fast flow through rates for water passing through carbon nanotubes.)

With these improvements, less energy is needed to pump water through the membranes. Because they repel particles that might ordinarily stick to the surface, the new membranes foul more slowly than conventional ones. The result is a water purification process that is just as effective as current methods but more energy efficient and potentially much less expensive. Initial tests suggest the new membranes have up to twice the productivity — or consume 50 percent less energy — reducing the total expense of desalinated water by as much as 25 percent.

Earlier this year, the LLNL researchers said that the flow rates they had achieved with carbon nanotubes caused them to expect that they could reduce desalination costs by 75% by allowing purified water to pass through the membranes at room temperture and pressure. Compare this to the UCLA researchers saying the savings realized by their membrane would be 25%. This sounds like they have reduced–but not eliminated — the need for energy intensive & cost expensive pumping & plunging water against the membrane.

Interestingly the UCLA researchers have already partnered with a company called NanoH2O to produce the membranes. However, they don’t expect to go into production for two years.

Hoek is working with NanoH2O, LLP, an early-stage partnership, to develop his patent-pending nanocomposite membrane technology into a new class of low-energy, fouling-resistant membranes for desalination and water reuse. He anticipates the new membranes will be commercially available within the next year or two.

So how do you get these membranes up to production. As I mentioned earlier this week one answer might be Nantero.

Nantero, Inc., a nanotechnology company using carbon nanotubes for the development of next-generation semiconductor devices, has resolved all of the major obstacles that had been preventing carbon nanotubes from being used in mass production in semiconductor fabs.

Semi conductors are not semi permiable membranes but likely a lot of the procedures for creating the one will map over onto the other.

Another place they might go to find a production procedure would be Northwestern. Northwestern University has developed a method for making carbon nanotubes in commercial quantities while solving a quality control problem.

This might be a place where a venture capitalist like Firelake Capital might bring parties like Nantero and NanoH2O into a working alliance. Or if the work is still too early — then a national lab might contribute funds and coordinate efforts at NanoH2O and, say, Northwestern.

Vote or Bet On the Best Desalination Methodology

November 7, 2006

I have two quick notes for researchers before I get to the point of this week’s blog–which will be directed to research administrators.

Note 1: As soon as anyone gets a working carbon nanotube membrane — the next question will be how do you scale production of the membrane to commercial cost/volume. One answer might be Nantero.

Nantero, Inc., a nanotechnology company using carbon nanotubes for the development of next-generation semiconductor devices, has resolved all of the major obstacles that had been preventing carbon nanotubes from being used in mass production in semiconductor fabs.

Semi conductors are not semi permiable membranes but likely a lot of the procedures for creating the one will map over onto the other.

Note 2: If you’ll recall, two weeks ago I mentioned that the body’s cells walls might provide a model for desalination membranes.

Still another way biomedical work might provide a model for desalination is in nanospheres used for drug delivery.
Consider Two Press Releases: one from a team consisting of Sandia National Laboratories, the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque and the University of Georgia in Athens … and the other — a consortium consisting of Argonne National Laboratory, the Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute and The University of Chicago Hospitals.

The San Dia group covers platinum nanospheres and the Argonne Group covers biodegradable nanospheres. These are used for drug delivery in the body. The thought did occur to me that the biodegradable nanospheres–ie… bubbles — could be produced cheaply and charged so as to capture salt and settle out of solution — or be magnatized out of solution.

That’s it.

Well one more. Last week I posted about a British Company that used greenhouses for water desalination to produce high value fruits and vegetables. Another thing those green houses could produce is biocrude/biodiesal from algae. Consider a joint project of the DOE San Dia Labs and LiveFuels Inc. They aim to convert algae-to-oil. They could do it in greenhouses in West Texas with fresh water — and mesquite flavored salt as additional byproducts. Yeehaw.
Now to the point of this week’s post.

How does a research administrator evaluate all the research directions available today so as to appropriate money where it will do the most good? Especially when there are so many options and so much breaking news.

As it happens, until recently, water desalination has been in the relative slow lane of technological development. But other industries have been in the fast lane for some time. Its instructive to look at how they’re coping. Basically, managers in frontline industries are pulling the opinions of frontline people by gettting them to wager with play money on what they think the best option is.

It’s called a prediction market, based on the notion that a marketplace is a better organizer of insight and predictor of the future than individuals are. Once confined to research universities, the idea of markets working within companies has started to seep out into some of the nation’s largest corporations. Companies from Microsoft to Eli Lilly and Hewlett-Packard are bringing the market inside, with workers trading futures contracts on such “commodities” as sales, product success and supplier behavior. The concept: a work force contains vast amounts of untapped, useful information that a market can unlock. “Markets are likely to revolutionize corporate forecasting and decision making,” says Robin Hanson, an economist at George Mason University, in Virginia, who has researched and developed markets. “Strategic decisions, such as mergers, product introductions, regional expansions and changing CEOs, could be effectively delegated to people far down the corporate hierarchy, people not selected by or even known to top management.”

This could also work across the federal lab system so as to give an idea as to what strategies looked most likely to succeed at any given moment based on the information flow.

How would it work?

You show up for work, boot up your computer and log onto your company’s Intranet to make a few trades before getting down to work. You see how your stocks did the day before and then execute a few new orders. You think your company should step up production next month, and you trade on that thought. You sell stock for the production of 20,000 units and buy stock that represents an order for 30,000 instead. All around you, as co-workers arrive at their cubicles, they too flick on their computers and trade. Together, you are buyers and sellers of your company’s future. Through your trades, you determine what is going to happen and then decide how your company should respond.

This could be done for research.

Yahoo! Research, the research and development division of Yahoo!, runs a prediction market called the Tech Buzz game (see

“It’s a play-money market where people try to predict what technologies people will be searching for,” Pennock said, whether it be an internet browser or an MP3 player. The game evaluates both the power of prediction markets to forecast high-tech trends and a Yahoo! Research system for conducting electronic commerce.

Are there hosted solutions out there that could be tailored to desalination R&D? Yep.

Prediction markets also have spawned some startups, including and “Inklingmarkets offers a hosted solution where it’s easy for any company to create a private prediction market for internal corporate forecasts and decisions,” Pennock said. “Newsfutures provides software and services for companies to run internal markets, and also will host special challenge markets on their website.”

How did all this begin?

HOW IT BEGAN. One of the earliest prediction markets was the Iowa Electronic Markets, founded in 1988 by the University of Iowa, to guess the winners of presidential elections. In the 1990s, a few companies, including Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), began to apply prediction market theories to corporate events.

And the rest is history as mentioned above.

Greenhouses for Desalination

November 3, 2006

Curious Rami is this weeks fastest growing WordPress Blog. The Blog has some very good advice for development & design teams (as in KISS) and some pretty good jokes.

Something to think about.

Maine was once the center of the US salt industry.

History of Salt Making in Maine

During the American Revolution, including the War of 1812, American shipping was interrupted and was not dependable. As a result, salt which had been shipped from such ports as Cadiz, Spain and Lisbon, Portugal, had become scarce. All along the coast of Maine salt works sprang up. From Wells to Eastport, salt works were busy evaporating the Gulf of Maine for its prized salt to supply the needs of the United States.

The salt works have long closed and are scarcely mentioned in the history books. But there was a time when much of the country seasoned, cooked and preserved with sea salt form Maine.

Today, a salt making operation has opened again in Maine–that makes specialty table salts. Interestingly, the table salt from Maine is made in greenhouses.

Maine Sea Salt is made by evaporating and reducing sea water in solar Green Houses. The Maine Sea Salt Company, based in Bailey Island, produces this sea salt from ocean water of the Gulf of Maine. Maine Sea Salt is made by evaporating and reducing sea water in solar Green Houses. The reduced sea water is moved to another Green house in shallow pools, for further reduction and finished for harvesting.

The Sea Salt is continuously harvested in Green Houses and new sea water added thru the summer and fall months.
Solar Green Houses For Finishing Salt In Shallow Pools

Once they’ve collected the salt, they smoke it with various woods to flavor it. I called them up this week and bought some hickory and apple wood smoke flavored salt.

The reason I find this interesting is that a more high tech version of the same green houses has been developed in recent years by a British Company called Seawater Greenhouse to desalinise water for greenhouse agriculture in desert coastal areas of the world. The green houses answer the following question I’ve heard from time to time: “Even if you could bring fresh water to desert areas — often the the desert soil is ruined by salt intrusion–so what’s the point?”

The Seawater Greenhouse is a unique concept which combines natural processes, simple construction techniques and mathematical computer modelling to provide a low-cost solution to one of the world’s greatest needs – fresh water. The Seawater Greenhouse is a new development that offers sustainable solution to the problem of providing water for agriculture in arid, coastal regions.

There are other areas besides the coasts that could use something like this. There are huge parts of West Texas New Mexico and elsewhere that are undergirded by vast brine aquifers. These aquifers could be pumped and the water sent to these green houses to produce several crops annually of high value fresh fruits & vegetables.

The process uses seawater to cool and humidify the air that ventilates the greenhouse and sunlight to distil fresh water from seawater. This enables the year round cultivation of high value crops that would otherwise be difficult or impossible to grow in hot, arid regions.

So how does this work?

The Seawater Greenhouse uses the sun, the sea and the atmosphere to produce fresh water and cool air. The process recreates the natural hydrological cycle within a controlled environment. The entire front wall of the building is a seawater evaporator. It consists of a honeycomb lattice and faces the prevailing wind. Fans assist and control air movement. Seawater trickles down over the lattice, cooling and humidifying the air passing through into the planting area.

Sunlight is filtered through a specially constructed roof, The roof traps infrared heat, while allowing visible light through to promote photosynthesis. This creates optimum growing conditions – cool and humid with high light intensity.

Sounds good to me. Seawater Greenhouse has been around for about 15 years. They’ve designed and built greenhouses in Tenerife, Abu Dhabi & Oman They seem to have the modeling algorithms to design greenhouses for any and every microclimate and local building material.




Consider a joint project of the DOE San Dia Labs and LiveFuels Inc. They aim to convert algae-to-oil. They could do it in greenhouses in West Texas with fresh water — and mesquite flavored salt as additional byproducts.