A refinement of the Fischer-Tropsh process is being used at several locations around the world to produce synthetic diesel fuel from natural gas. While the price of synthetic fuel is presently high, its future price is expected to decline as production increases and world crude oil prices rise. Over the long-term, the unsubsidized price of synthetic diesel and biodiesel could become price-competitive with fossil-derived diesel fuel. The recent discovery of extensive beds of methyl hydrate on the sea floor off the American coast could provide the synthetic fuel industry with a secure resource from which to mass-produce synthetic diesel fuel and other liquid fuels in the future.
The influential American environmental movement strongly opposes offshore drilling for oil and natural gas in what they regard to be prime (marine) wildlife habitat. As a result, environmental considerations may place higher emphasis on the production of fuel that is derived from plants such as soy and canola. However, looming shortages of fresh water are becoming problematic for many countries and may curtail the future of agriculture in some regions. Climate change may be causing deserts in some countries to expand. It may be possible to slow or stop the increasing rate of desertification by growing drought-resistant plants in some desert areas or by cultivating plantations of saline-resistant plants that can survive on ocean water.
New techniques are being developed in genetic engineering that could increase the resistance of a range of viable biofuel plants to saline water, drought, insects and disease. Genes from saline-tolerant plants such as Ironweed, Beach Plum, Sea Grass and Mangrove could be transferred into suitable plant species to enable them to remove salt via salt bladders or filter salt at the roots when grown using ocean water. Managed plantations of commercially viable and saline-resistant plants could be cultivated in desert areas that are located near the ocean. The biofuel industry would periodically harvest the mature plants to extract oil and process the leftover material into ethanol.
A precedent for a saline-resistant plantation exists on the Kenyan coast and was begun over 30-years ago by French agronomist Rene Halle. A variety of saline tolerant plants that were compatible with each other and that supported each other were planted in an organized layout on a bed of dead coral. Example, some plants contributed nitrogen to the 'soil' while other plants used the nitrogen. Within a decade, a thriving small forest that was sustained mainly by ocean water was growing of the bed of coral. Rene Halle's precedent could serve as a basis for ocean water to be used to grow viable crops for the biofuel industry in desert regions and similar non-agricultural areas that are located near the ocean. Suitable locations would include:
- Mojave Desert Regions of the Southwestern United States
- Regions of the Sahara Desert in Northern Africa
- Areas of the desert regions in Northern Yemen and Northern Oman
- Areas of the Atacama Desert of Chile and Peru
- Areas of the Vizcaino Desert of Mexico
- Southern areas of the Mojave Desert in Mexico near the Gulf of California
- Areas of the desert regions of Southwestern and Northwestern Australia
- Areas of the Namib Desert of Namibia in Southern Africa.
Plantations of viable biofuel crops could be grown in desert regions and serve as barriers to stop advancing deserts from threatening arable lands upon which food crops for human consumption are grown. These plantations could offer numerous direct and indirect benefits that may include:
- Provide oil and ethanol to sustain a viable biofuel industry
- Provide fuel resources to sustain transportation services
- Sustain textile industries (fibre from insect-resistant plants)
- Sustain pharmaceutical industries (fertilizers, drugs)
- Sustain downstream economic activity related to the above industries
- Contain the advance of desertification
- Moderate the effects of desert climates at nearby populated areas
- Provide habitat and protection for select species of wildlife
- Protect lands on which human food crops are grown
- Provide livelihoods and sustain human population centers.
Biofuel crops may be grown on land (deserts), on the sea floor or on the ocean surface. The prolific plant growth that now infests the floor of the Mediterranean Sea is an example of an ocean-based undersea fuel crop. This type of undersea agriculture could be expanded and managed in shallow coastal waters or in specially formed lagoons located near the ocean in warm tropical climates. Oceanic plants such as sea grass or suitable genetically modified plants could be grown in such areas or even in inland depressions that could be flooded with ocean water. The Qattara Depression in Egypt and a similar depression in Eritrea have land elevations that are below sea level and could be flooded with ocean water. Such plants would periodically be harvested for processing into ethanol.
Ocean-based biofuel crops also may be cultivated on the ocean surface in the warmer regions of the world. The plants may either float on the ocean surface like Sargasso weed or be grown in extensive arrays of interlinked floating containers. Plants have long been grown in containers that floated on bodies of fresh water in Southern China. This concept could be developed for ocean use and involve arrays of containers that would be held in place by cables that are anchored either to coastal locations or to the sea floor. Certain varieties of oceanic plants could be cultivated in arrays of floating containers and would require little or no genetic modification. Other types of plants may need to be especially genetically modified for such cultivation. Both types of plants may be cultivated by suppliers to the biofuel industry and harvested as a resource for them.
There are several bodies of ocean water in tropical regions that may be suitable locations where such ocean-based agriculture may be practiced:
- Gulf of California and its bays and inlets, Gulf of Campeche and Lago de Terminos, Chetumal Bay (Mexico)
- Grand Bahama Bank (Bahamas)
- Bay around Isle de la Gonave and northwest of Port au Prince (Haiti)
- Gulf of Darien (Panama)
- Golfo Dulce, Gulf of Nicoya and Lago de Chiriqui (Costa Rica)
- Golfo de Guacanyabo (Cuba)
- Golfo de Paria, Golfo Venezuela and Lake Maracaibo (Venezuela)
Suitable international locations to grow oceanic biofuel plants would include:
- Southern Mediterranean Sea
- Red Sea, Persian Gulf (Middle East)
- Gulf of Kutch, Gulf of Cambay (India)
- Gulf of Thailand and Bight of Bangkok (Thailand)
- South Coast of Madura Island, Gulf of Tomini and Gulf of Bone (Indonesia)
- Gulf of Tonking (Vietnam)
- Geelvink Baai and Gulf of Bintuni (Papua New Guinea)
- Davao Gulf and Moro Gulf (Philippines)
- Gulf of Carpentaria, Joseph Bonaparte Gulf & Van Diemen Gulf (Australia)
Plants that may be grown on the surface of warm ocean at the aforementioned locations may be suitable for processing into ethanol or other fuels. The biofuel industry is presently refining the phenomena known as "jungle rot" so that they could produce ethanol from a wide range of organic material including plants grown on the ocean floor or on its surface. A wide variety of organic materials can be used as a resource for this process. Alternatively, land-grown and ocean-grown organic materials could be rapidly decayed to release methane that would be processed into synthetic diesel fuel via the Fischer-Tropsch process. Methods are presently being researched in which organically derived ethanol or methanol could be processed into synthetic oils and gasoline.
It is conceivable that mass-produced synthetic fuel, biofuel and biosynthetic fuel could eventually become cost-competitive against fuel derived from crude oil and even do so without need for special tax incentives or state subsidies. Such an event would likely occur if no new significant deposits of crude oil are discovered within the next 2-decades. It is likely that in the long-term future, more fuel and oil will be derived from genetically modified biofuel crops that are grown using ocean water. Such crops could be grown on non-agricultural land in desert areas that are near the ocean, on the ocean surface or on the sea floor. They would likely come to play a significant role to sustain the economy of several nations where the future supply of potable water could become severely constrained.
Genetically-modified plants that grow on land (deserts) using ocean water would need to be supplied with fresh ocean water (and nutrients) through extensive underground piping systems. Modern excavation methods would be used to install the extensive piping systems in hot climates. If the roots filter of the genetically modified plants are able to filter out salt, the underground piping systems would need be designed so as to continually remove excess salt and return it to the sea. The same type of piping systems may be used if the plants have salt bladders that continually deposit salt on the ground surface. Methods may be developed to continually harvest the salt that may then be sold into local or nearby markets. Proper preservation and management of the land on which biofuel crops are grown would ensure the long-term viability of the activity.