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Energy and the environment CAN be related to marine life!

We know this quite well thanks to Accsys Technologies Engineering Director Robert Rapier and R-squared Energy blogger, who has shown TRT quite a connection between the three topics, proving a keen interest in marine biology meets energy topics such as alternative energy possibilities in the ocean and algal biodiesel.

The modest engineer told us at first that he does not expertise in these areas, but his answers in this Q&A prove a thorough knowledge of the importance and of marine biology and energy to society.

Tell us about your work and your background in science and all things energy and the environment.

I grew up with a natural interest in science. However, the expectation was that I would stay on the family farm, so I didn't seriously start to consider a career in science until shortly before I graduated high school. I ended up getting BS degrees in chemistry and math, and was about halfway through a PhD in chemistry when I decided to switch to chemical engineering and get my Master's.

My research adviser in graduate school was Professor Mark Holtzapple at Texas A&M University. We were converting cellulose into chemicals using microbes from the stomachs of cattle. I actually tried termites at one point as well, since they are efficient cellulose digesters. I think I was the first person to ever attempt this, although some people have been in the news in the past couple of years who are working on this approach. The reason I chose to work with Professor Holtzapple is that I was concerned about the level of fossil fuel usage - both from environmental standpoint - and the standpoint of peak oil and U.S. dependence on foreign producers. I wanted to make a contribution toward solving that problem.

After graduation, I worked for Celanese Chemicals for seven years, mostly focused on butanol production. Butanol has been in the news lately as a possible replacement fuel for gasoline. I left Celanese in 2002 and went to work for ConocoPhillips, at first working on their gas-to-liquids process, then later on in oil refining and finally in natural gas production in the North Sea.

I left ConocoPhillips in 2008 to become Engineering Director for Accsys Technologies PLC. We have commercialized a process for converting fast-growing softwoods like pine into wood that is superior in performance to tropical hardwoods. The chemistry of the wood is modified - not treated - and thus there isn't anything to leech out into the environment. Our first factory is in Arnhem, the Netherlands, which is where I am at right now.

Does your work involve the ocean or marine biology in any way?

Not my main line of work. But energy continues to be an important sideline for me, and from that perspective the oceans offer up some interesting alternative energy possibilities, and I have written a bit about them.

What is your take on global warming and the environment, particularly how it's affecting the ocean and marine life?

I accept the scientific consensus on global warming as a serious threat. My big concern is that we underestimate the scale of the problem, and with developing countries aspiring to a higher standard of living, it is going to be very difficult to rein those emissions in. If you look at the accumulation of CO2 as measured at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, you see a steady upward climb. The Kyoto Protocol didn't result in any leveling, nor has the fossil fuel demand destruction that has accompanied various recessions, the SARS threat in Asia, 9/11, etc. That is a sobering graphic.

Of course there is also the issue of the acidification of the oceans. CO2 dissolves in water, and as more is pumped into the atmosphere, the oceans will become more acidic. Is it enough to cause great damage? Who knows for sure? I guess that's my biggest concern; that we are experimenting with the oceans and the atmosphere and the outcome is unclear. The doubters like to ask "What if you are wrong?" But the consequences can be a lot more devastating if they are wrong.

Tell me about your energy blog R-Squared?

I started it in 2005 to combat some of the hype around biofuels. I am a big fan of scaling down our consumption and moving to alternative sources of energy, but the hype on some of our alternative energy options has gotten completely out of hand. A big part of what I write about deals with what is hype and what is real.

Why did you devote more than one post to Algal Biodiesel?

I have written several posts on algal biodiesel. I had read about it, and was really intrigued by the possibility. So I wrote a fairly upbeat essay. But over time, I became convinced that most of what we were seeing in this space was hype run amok. I also became acquainted with John Benemann, who was one of the authors for the close-out report for NREL's Aquatic Species Program. John has been appalled at some of the claims, and believes that the technology is still at a very primitive stage, and if it ever becomes commercialized it will be at least 10-15 years. In fact, one of the executives at Solix Biofuels recently came out and acknowledged that their costs of production were about $33/gallon, primarily because of high energy inputs. You can't have a true alternative energy source if it takes huge energy inputs to make the process run.

Tell me about your interest in the potential of wave and tidal power.

I became interested in the topic several years ago. I was watching a story on the Panama Canal, and watched the level of a ship fall as the water in one of the locks was pumped down. I started thinking about the energy that could be extracted as that massive ship moved to a lower level. That led me to investigate wave power, which is similar in principle to the water rising and falling in a lock. Little did I know when I started investigating that a large body of work had already taken place in this area. Looking into waves naturally caused me to happen upon tidal power as well, and the enormous potential of the flow of the Gulf Stream.

Tell me about your interest in ocean thermal energy conversion. How does it work?

I didn't know too much about ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) until I was contacted last year by Bob Cohen, who is a friend of a friend and an advocate of OTEC. The principle is pretty straightforward. Anywhere you have temperature differentials - such as a warm ocean surface and much colder layers deep down - you can use those differentials to extract work via a heat engine. You are essentially capturing some of the heat flow from the higher temperature reservoir to the lower.

Ocean thermal energy conversion is a potential source of alternative energy, but it doesn't get the press of solar power. Why do you think this is?

Solar is a lot easier to do, and it is easier for people to grasp. OTEC requires a connection between surface waters and much deeper waters, which can mean a substantial capital cost for even pilot trials. You can certainly mimic the process in a lab, but to be competitive you probably have do it on a very large scale at high cost.

Is marine biology or marine life in general critical to energy in modern society?

Absolutely. I think a lot of us take the oceans for granted, but marine life is at the root of many - if not most - ecosystems. I can remember as a kid what really drove home for me the important role the oceans play. I read the Kurt Vonnegut novel, Cat's Cradle, in which the freezing of the oceans results in extinction of almost all life on earth. That will certainly cause one to ponder the wisdom of experimenting on the oceans.

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