Biodiesel, algae and the Second Law of Thermodynamics

Tad Patzek, scourge of the biofuel universe, takes a poke at algae dreamers.

By Andrew Leonard
Published January 12, 2007 5:55PM (EST)

U.C. Berkeley professor and prominent biofuel critic Tadeusz Patzek posted a response to Wednesday's account of a talk on making biodiesel from algae. It's interesting enough to shine a bigger spotlight on.

Mr. Leonard seems to be having problems with my general message: Do not fool yourselves that algae, soybeans, palm oil, corn or switchgrass can solve the runaway problem of energy consumption in the United States and, now, the world. The reason is simple, the laws of nature, specifically the First and Second Law of thermodynamics do not allow for the sustained production of energy from plants in 1 year at the same rate as we have been using fossil energy accumulated over 500,000,000 years.

I would like to invite Mr. Leonard and the Salon readers to audit my course CE170 "Energy, Earth and Humans," that starts next week at Berkeley. Perhaps this course could help Mr. Leonard to recognize the power of the Second Law of thermodynamics he seems to have ignored. A very prominent astrophysicist, Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington, said these words 60 years ago:

"The law that entropy increases -- the Second Law of Thermodynamics -- holds, I think, the supreme position among laws of nature. If someone points out to you that your pet theory of the universe is in disagreement with Maxwell's equations -- then so much the worse for Maxwell's equations. If it is contradicted by observation -- well, these experimentalists do bungle things sometimes. But if your theory is found against the Second Law of Thermodynamics, I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation."

In the intervening 60 years, Americans have had ample time and opportunity to learn the true meaning of these words. We have not at our own peril.

However -- I am not quite sure why professor Patzek is under the impression that I do not appreciate his views on energy consumption and the Second Law of Thermodynamics. In my October post on a talk he gave at Berkeley, I specifically noted:

His fundamental point is that our current energy consumption is unsustainable, even if biofuel production was ramped up at spectacular growth rates. Thermodynamically, we just can't do it -- we're burning through the planet's accumulated energy reserves faster than we can create or discover new sources of fuel...

We can hope that solar becomes cost-competitive and we can dream of cellulosic ethanol technologies or algae-brewed biodiesel that leave old-fashioned corn-based ethanol in the dust, but there is unlikely to be a magic techno-fix. We're going to have to do more with less.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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