The Tidal Irrigation and Electrical System

renewable energy, carbon dioxide sink, biodiesel, and food from the ocean

As there are so many areas that this project intersects with, I thought I should probably start a blog. I will try to limit this to sustainability, energy policy, climate change and renewable energy and its associated technologies. However, these subjects are connected with every element of human activity. Nevertheless, I will do my best to stay focused

Kitty Litter to the Rescue

Posted by on Friday, November 26th, 2010

A team based at the University of Massachusetts Amherst has developed a novel way of turning biomass like grass cuttings, kelp or even wood pulp into the basic components of plastics and resins. This yearly $US400 billion industry is currently being supplied by the refining of fossil crude oil.

According to the US Department of Energy it represents 4.6% of domestic fuel consumption and less than 1% of electricity production. Unfortunately, these numbers are misleading, as we all know, most of the things in the US that are made of plastic are made outside the country. The ubiquitous child’s toy originates in China. This distortion of public information is employed by most governments around the world. It is safe to assume that when factoring in the imported shipping and manufacturing of plastics the amount of petroleum used is much higher than official numbers.

The low value source material biomass that forms the feed stock for the pyrolitic bio-oils used by the Amherst team are creating high value olefins and aromatics like benzene, toluene and xylene in a high yield process. To achieve this they use a variable-reaction hydrogenation phase and this is followed by zeolite catalyst step. Zeolite is commonly used in kitty litter but it has many other uses. Check out the abstract for Renewable Chemical Commodity Feedstocks from Integrated Integrated Catalytic Processing Pyrolysis Oils. The company Anellotech has the licence.

As useful as this is the issue remains of sourcing the water and fertilisers that are needed to grow the biomass in the first place. (please see my previous blog Water and Soil – not just Oil) The nutrients that are represented by the plants themselves must be replaced in order for the soils to remain capable of growing quality vegetation but even more fundamentally, world wide, droughts and water profligacy has lead to ever more energy consumption in the quest to get water to agricultural land.

The fixing of nutrients into a usable form is an integral part of the biomass potential of the Tidal Irrigation and Electrical System. It does this without consuming fresh water or the need for petrochemical fertilisers. Check out the flash based demo.

Filed in Uncategorized | One response so far

EBI’s Mind is Stuck in the Sewer

Posted by on Wednesday, November 3rd, 2010

Microbes for biofuels need carbon dioxide, sunlight, water, space to grow in and fertilizers. The last of these can come from several different places. People can make fertilizer with heavy industry out of fossil fuels or they can collect animal waste or they can collect their own waste or they can pump water from deep in the ocean to the surface. It is such a shame then that The Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI) should focus soley on the potential for harvesting municipal waste in the service of growing algae for biofuels. As reported at on November 2, 2010 “Algae for biofuels: Moving from promise to reality, but how fast?” the EBI has looked at five conceptual facilities for algae growth, all of which use sewage as the source material for the fertiliser. In fact, the report goes on to point out that other “co-products” like animal feeds have low value and limited markets.

This is a major oversight by the EBI because of the limitations of municipal waste as source material for fertilising algae or “co-product”, as it refers to it. The first major obstacle for any open pond using municipal waste is the availability of flat ground on which to build the ponds. The EBI estimates that 1000 acres would be needed to break even economically. That is a huge area for any city to acquire. Most flat land close to big cities was long ago used for houses.  The second major obstical to using municpal waste as the source material for algae is due to its limitted potential. Despite the vastness of the world wide human populations only about half of us live in what could be described as cities and it will be a long time before any significant proportion of those people will have sewage systems capable of being converted to biofuel making.

Most importantly there are two conceptual failures of the EBI’s report best illustrated by a couple of metaphors; No animal can live on it’s own waste and you do not collect rain with a thousand cups, you collect rain by building a dam in the valley. Our waste simply is not sufficient to power our industry, no more so than any animal could live on it’s own waste and as most of our food is ultimately derived by turning fossil fuels into fertilisers or by pumping fresh water for irrigation, this means we are recouping some by turning municipal waste into feed for algae but it will not replace the ultimate source material, the fossil fuels. The rain metaphor is more to the point of looking at the nutrient cycle from a macro-scale as opposed to the micro-scale. From the point of view of the earth a single city no matter how big is still fairly small. On the big scale nutrients generally move from continental interiors down rivers to the sea or are blown to the oceans in the form of dust storms. In the oceans the nutrients sink in to the deep and there they remain until they are eventually recycled in the form of mountains built as a result of subduction. Of course, there are countless eddies in this nutrient flow where plants utilise them and these take form in the shape of a blade of grass, a sandwich, a swamp, a forests, a single cell of blue green algae, the polar oceans in spring, deep ocean water upwellings, etc., but these are merely slowing down points in the long term trend.

The largest reservoir of free nutients for plant growth on the planet are the deep oceans. The ocean below the direct influence of light is unbelievably vast and it is the perfect medium for biofuel growth. It is the closest thing there is on earth to a limitless resource. The Tidal Irrigation and Electrical System harnesses the tidal flux on the surface to pump DOW, deep ocean water, into a thermodynamic exchange in order to generate electricity and then it is held in the tidal barrage as the source material for algae growth (please see the sections on how the TIE System works on the right side of this page or for a flash based audio/visual tour of the project) This gets around the two major issues of land based ponds that are fertilised by municipal waste. Being built on the continental shelf the TIE System does not require the all too scarce flat land and the potential for scaling up to meet the huge demand is also possible.

By not paying attention to the large scale issues of the nutrient cycle the EBI has focussed on expensive and ultimately limited biofuel systems. DOW based systems are a much better bet.

Filed in Uncategorized | No responses yet

Biodiesel best from Open Ponds

Posted by on Thursday, September 2nd, 2010

The Tidal Irrigation and Electrical System can be considered a giant open pond for the growth of marine plants which can then be turned into biodiesel. The potential growth rates of aquatic plants far outstrip terrestrial plants. The question has been what is the best method to grow the plants so they can be converted to biodiesel. The first of these methods has been to fill clear plastic tubes with water, fertilizer and some of the algae that will be grown and then pump the water around to maximize mixing and exposure to sunlight. The second of these methods is to grow the algae in an open pond.

There are advantages to both systems but now a detailed analysis by Anna Stephenson at the University of cambridge has compared them and found that open air ponds are 16.8 times more efficient than perspex tubing (Energy and Fuels, DOI: 10.1021/ef1003123). In an article published in the New Scientist, it is pointed out that pumping through plastic tubes results in a higher energy cost per unit than traditionally sourced fossil diesel. However, this is not the case for open air ponds.

As Ms. Stephenson says, the major drawback to open air ponds is evaporation. So much water can be needed that ponds in many countries would be in direct conflict with traditional demands for water, if they want to produce enough biofuel to replace their domestic consumption. This is not an issue for the Tidal Irrigation and Electrical system because it does not use fresh water, it uses the ocean. Also, the tidal flux is being harnessed in a TIE System to do the pumping and deep ocean water is used as the both the fertilizer and source water for the open air pond, making it much more efficient than the land based ponds envisioned by Ms. Stephenson.

Filed in technology,Uncategorized | One response so far

Filter Feeders to Oil

Posted by on Friday, November 6th, 2009

A rather nice idea was proposed by Texas based, LiveFuels, Inc. Well, it has the potential to be a nice idea. It could be absolutely horrible. They intend to create optimum algae growth in a a 45 acre saltwater pond on the Texas coast by introducing agricultural waste. Fish would be introduced into the ponds and then they would be turned into biodiesel. It is elegantly simple. There are many questions that remained unanswered by the company’s promotional material. There is no data on the methods or efficiency of the process by which the fish are converted to biodiesel or what byproducts are created, nor is there any data on methane emissions by the saltwater pond or the amounts of fish that are produced given the amount of algae is grown. The overall efficiency of the system need not be high for this to be an ecconomic form of energy production. My main concern is the intense increase of nutrients during storms may lead to fluctuations of algal load and then subsequent fish-kills and large scale methane releases.

Of course, the potential for the use of fish-to-biodiesel for the Tidal Irrigation and Electrical System is huge. The introduction of filter feeding species could lead to a much greater energy capture for the entire system then by the sole utilization of macroscopic algae like kelp.

This does however create the nightmare scenario of giving every marine animal a monetary value as fuel. In the future will there be fishing mafias that strip entire ecosystems? Will the seas be subject to even further unsustainable practices in order to fuel our cars? The oceans already suffer from the tragedy of common ownership. The collapse is imminent in the majority of the world’s fisheries. This technology could inadvertently push them over the edge.

Filed in technology,Uncategorized | No responses yet

Falling through the Cracks

Posted by on Wednesday, September 9th, 2009

The Royal Society’s report on geoengineering schemes was a disappointment. In it’s analysis of different ideas to mitigate greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere it focused on only part of the problem. Right at the beginning of the report it says that it will focus on schemes that divert solar energy into space or absorb CO2 from the atmosphere but focusing in this way creates false dichotomies and may cloud the climate change debate rather than illuminate it. The reason why we have all this CO2 in our atmosphere is due to our use of fossil fuels. If we found ways to produce our power without their use, then the problem could either go away or call for much more limited geoengineering interventions. The Royal Society’s report however completely failed to look at the issue of renewable energy. This is ironic given that wind, hydro and wave all can generate Carbon Credits by offsetting fossil fuel use and this is one of our biggest incentives for these industries.

As to the specifics of how the report dealt with the Tidal Irrigation and Electrical System; to put it simply it didn’t. It generalized all systems which utilize deep ocean water (DOW) into one broad category and in that category they only looked at the potential to transport CO2 from the atmosphere to the seabed. This is a great shame because systems which exploit DOW produce power and biomass on large scales. The Tidal Irrigation and Electrical System is the first renewable energy system which has proposed trying to capture the biomass component of the OTEC process. The utilization of these biomass resources can lead to less fossil fuel use and this is because they go into everything from fertilizer to food to plastic to the lights in our city’s and the fuel in our cars. However, this does mean that the biomass generated is not being stored on the sea floor so by the logic of the report it did not do much to offset climate change in that manner.

One idea that the Royal Society is interested in that this author feels desereves special derision is that of “artificial trees”. In proposal, these man made structures would litter our planet by the million. Their sole job is that of absorbing CO2 from the air. They produce nothing and rely on energy intensive processes in their construction and in either the storing of CO2 or the manufacture of the chemicals which are used to absorb the gas. The same problems that face other mechanical or chemical storage methods for capturing atmospheric carbon such as the ones that are proposed for coal burning power stations. A further criticism of artificial trees is that there is only a small economy of scale in the in industrial processes which underpin the concept. None of the designs become more efficient as they grow in scale. It does make this author wonder if it wouldn’t be better to build wind turbines in everyplace they are thinking of constructing one of these things. That might mean that the carbon emitted by the burning of fossil fuels was never released into the atmosphere in the first place.

Filed in global issues,Uncategorized | No responses yet

Forget Climate Change, What About Ocean Acidification?

Posted by on Sunday, December 14th, 2008

Recently, I submitted the TIE System for assessment by the Royal Society’s working group on geoengineering schemes to mitigate climate change. ( In the process I have been looking at a few other ideas. Many of them, like increasing the albedo of marine stratocumulus clouds and shading the earth with a large group of small spacecraft at the inner Lagrange point (L1), totally fail to deal with the issues that simply having more carbon dioxide in the air will create.

Ocean acidification is caused by the upper layers of the ocean taking up CO2 directly and by the changed air currents increasing the weathering of rocks. It seems that previous models have underestimated the sensitivity of the oceans to increased CO2 and acidification can increase much quicker than thought. (

This is bad news for these geoengineering schemes that fail to deal with the excess CO2 in the air. One of the most pervasive mass extinctions in the history of the earth was caused, it is thought, by ocean acidification. Massive volcanic releases of CO2 caused the end Permian mass extinction  as acid turned the oceans toxic. (This theory is well explained at’s/ ) Thus the oceans went from a greenhouse gas sink to a greenhouse gas emitter as anaerobic conditions caused wide scale release of methane and Sulfur Dioxide. Global temperature ended up near 35 degrees C. That is rather eye watering considering that 2007 had a global temperature of 15.04 degrees C.

Already a fifth of the world’s coral reefs have died and we could lose most of those remaining in the next 20 to 40 years according to the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network. ( This is due to temperature rise and acidification and will destroy the livelihoods of an estimated half a billion people who depend on coral reefs, unfortunately this may be only the beginning.

It seems the list of side effects due to our use of fossil fuels grows longer by the day. We must bring our carbon use into balance or who knows, we may wind up at the end of the Permian again. 

Filed in Uncategorized | One response so far

Water and Soil – not just Oil

Posted by on Sunday, July 27th, 2008

The concept of peak oil does not only encompass the end of cheap fuel for transport, it also spells the end of cheap food and water. 

By the late 18th century, minds were already turning to the problems of too many mouths to feed given the agricultural technology of the time. Malthusian predictions of population crash and civil disorder due to our inability to produce food faster than our population grows have emerged with a fair degree of regularity ever since. We have developed new strains of crops and this plays a part in meeting our need for food, but this is tiny compared to the new technologies that supply water and nutrients to the plants and those that transport the food to the populace at large before it rots.  Thankfully the final components in plant growth i.e. sun light, appropriate temperature fluctuation and atmospheric composition, have never been an issue for modern humanity to face. The technological developments have been varied: some simple, like crop rotation and the mining and applying to the land of ancient deposits of bat guano, and some industrial, like freezing, pumping, mechanization and chemical fertilizer.  

Despite the advances of plant breeding and the development of genetic modification, the reality is that increasingly, we have relied on techniques which are energy intensive to produce the food on which all live – and energy generally means fossil fuels. There is a wonderful letter in the New Scientist that illustrates the problem:

Peak soil 25 June 2008

John Chambers, Banbury, Oxfordshire, UK

William Stanton observed that, as oil is needed to work the farm machinery and natural gas is needed to produce the synthetic fertiliser used in grain production, the phenomena of “peak oil” and “peak gas” will inevitably lead to “peak grain” (31 May, p 23). The amounts of energy involved are indeed huge: it takes at least 35 megajoules to produce each kilogram of nitrogen in synthetic fertilisers, and 80 million tonnes of such fertiliser is used globally each year.

There are, however, yet more risks to grain production: 70 per cent of the world’s water use is in the irrigation of arable land. About 1000 tonnes of water is required to produce 1 tonne of grain. Much of this is drawn from underground aquifers – and these are close to depletion in parts of central Asia, the Middle East, north Africa, India, Pakistan and the US. Drill holes in excess of 1 kilometre deep are not uncommon, but to lift 1000 tonnes of water over that distance requires at least 9.8 gigajoules.

Grain is grown in soil, but 65 per cent of all soil on Earth shows signs of degradation such as erosion, desertification or salinisation. Over 300 million hectares of former agricultural land is now too degraded to produce food, and a further 10 million hectares become degraded or damaged every year.

“Peak soil” is long gone.

From issue 2662 of New Scientist magazine, 25 June 2008, page 24.

Biofuels grown on the land are not the solution. When factoring in the total energy that we consume in the agricultural process, biofuels generally fail to be worth the effort; you lose more energy than create and of course the water problem can only partially be fixed by pouring more energy into extracting it from the ocean or the ground. Even the use of the waste from crops for biofuels should be carefully considered before large scale implementation. The issue is about the nutrients that are represented by the waste being taken away from the soil. Traditionally crop waste is left to rot or to be eaten by animals which break down the plants for return to the soil and use by the following crop. As it is, this system is liable to exhaust the soil eventually. The nutrients that are locked up in the food we consume are removed and not returned to the land. Biofuels using crop waste will only exacerbate the problem by removing the nutrients represented in the form of stalks and leaves for use as fuel. 

The only solution is to find a new way to generate fertilizer. The Tidal Irrigation and Electrical System can do this by bringing deep ocean water (DOW) into its lagoon. The water in the deep ocean contains the vast majority of decomposed bodies of all the things that ever lived on the land or in the sea. It is the perfect medium for plant growth, and were it not for the salt we could spray it directly onto our crop lands and expect phenomenal growth. Kelp makes an excellent fertilizer and has been used for many centuries and grows, like all marine plants, extremely quickly in the presence of DOW. (See Algae/Marine Plants

There is a wonderful example of a natural process which moves DOW from the ocean to high up into the mountains where it fertilizes an entire forest ecosystem. Certain ocean currents and winter brings DOW to the surface in the pacific northwest and consequently marine plants bloom and these plants go on to feed the animals. Salmon sit near the top of the food chain in that part of the ocean and as such each one of them represents a large concentration of nutrients like iron and nitrogen. As they move up the rivers into the mountains to spawn they are heavily preyed and scavenged upon. The eagles, bears and vultures move on to their respective wider territories which extend for hundreds of square miles beyond the river. There they spread manure (which is fertilizer) far and wide. Eventually they die and their bodies are scavenged spreading the nutrients even farther across the Rockies. 

The TIE System can create the source material for fertilizer on a vast industrial scale as well as help alleviate some of the fresh water problems we are facing. A product of the OTEC subsystem is thousands of gallons of fresh water. Pipes made cold by DOW condense water out of the atmosphere when exposed to tropical air. The TIE System does all this without aggravating the problems of land-based agriculture. 


Filed in Uncategorized | 2 responses so far

Good Bugs Coming to the Clean Up

Posted by on Wednesday, July 2nd, 2008

Researchers at the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centres and Caltec have successfully captured syntrophic microorganisms. These creatures consume methane and normally live in the anaerobic conditions in marine sediments existing in complex microbial ecosystems. It has been very difficult to separate the individual Archaea that were responsible for the anaerobic oxidation of methane because they do this in symbiosis with sulphate-reducing bacteria. Some estimate that 80% of the methane in the ocean is consumed by these microorganisms. Now that these organisms and their genes can be studied in isolation this may lead to new ways to combat methane pollution, something that all forms of agriculture and aquaculture lead to. The work has been published in the current issue of the renowned Journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and the method of extraction was patented (Pernthaler A, Orphan VJ (2007) US Patent 11/746,374).

Also, studies of Coal Oil Point conducted by Susan Mau at the University of California at Santa Barbara indicate that only one percent of the methane released into the ocean makes it into the atmosphere. Coal Oil Point, a huge and well studied natural methane seep on the bottom of the sea off the coast of Santa Barbara, releases about two million cubic feet of methane a day. By using data from 79 surface stations, they studied the plume of released gas in an area that covered 280 square kilometers. Full results will be published as the cover story in Volume 34 of Geophysical Research Letters.

David Valentine, associate professor of Earth Science at UC Santa Barbara, hypothesized that the methane is oxidized by microbial activity in the ocean. Although there was no attempt to capture or culture said microbes, there is little other explanation for the destruction of the methane. 

Microbial agents will be vital for minimizing the generation of methane due to the increased biological activity as DOW is brought to the surface by the Tidal Irrigation and Electrical System. The research above shows just how effective these microbes can be.

Filed in Uncategorized | No responses yet

Iron: The Bad Seed

Posted by on Monday, June 30th, 2008

One method of lowering atmospheric carbon dioxide through the growing of algae in the ocean is by adding powdered iron to the surface. The iron acts as a fertilizer and the algae that blooms absorbs the carbon dioxide in the building of its tissues. However, the consequences of sudden jolts of nutrients due to fertilizer being washed out of the soil are severe. In the Gulf of Mexico these conditions lead to dead zones and red tides, which kill off millions of fish. Because of this I have always been skeptical about the uncontained release of nutrients into the open ocean. This is due to the fact that anaerobic conditions don’t switch on – they build up. Meanwhile masses of methane is produced. Classic OTEC designs at least are releasing DOW which is in perfect balance for producing normal healthy algae. The iron seeding programs seemed very counter-intuitive to me. Normal, healthy plants need more than one nutrient and they would have sudden jolts of biomass growth followed by nearly complete die-offs.

The New Scientist reports in its June 12th 2008 issue that it now seems the UN Convention on Biological Diversity also has deep concerns about the process and has banned it until more research has been done. At the same time Mary Silver of the University of California, Santa Cruz has presented her findings to the American Geophysical Union in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. She has results that indicate that iron encourages the growth of particular algal populations that produce domoic acid – a potent neurotoxin. Domoic acid can sicken or kill animals and people who eat contaminated shellfish.

Hopefully this will encourage those who see the potential in marine algal growth schemes to look more closely at the full life cycle of what they produce and to instead consider the TIE System. The TIE System uses DOW, which is the ideal fertilizer for algae, and it contains the biomass so the open ocean isn’t shocked and methane pollution can be limited.

Filed in Uncategorized | No responses yet

Mats of potassium manganese oxide nanowires, filtration on the cheap

Posted by on Saturday, May 31st, 2008

A durable and relatively inexpensive way to filter water from oils and bio-contaminants has been invented by researchers at MIT. These mats can be recycled and are very hydrophobic. According to the university it can absorb 20 times its weight in oil.

“What we found is that we can make ‘paper’ from an interwoven mesh of nanowires that is able to selectively absorb hydrophobic liquids–oil-like liquids–from water,” said Francesco Stellacci, an associate professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and leader of the work.

Made of potassium manganese oxide, the nanowires are stable at high temperatures. As a result, oil within a loaded membrane can be removed by heating above the boiling point of oil. The oil evaporates, and can be condensed back into a liquid. The membrane–and oil–can be used again.

This is problematic for any potential large scale use in a TIE System unless the energy intensive extraction method can be incorporated into the bio-petroleum conversion process. However, this is an important technology for cleaning up oil spills and other environmental contamination.

Filed in technology | No responses yet

« Newer Entries - Older Entries »