Bad science reporting: Wonder algae

Articles like this one get my dander up. It’s gushing about how algae can solve all the world’s problems by producing nanocellulose, a wonder material. My problem isn’t with the idea of the material or producing it via algae. It’s that the article is so glowing when all this is is yet another in a long, long, long long long string of articles talking about potential.

I have high hopes for algae. If it can be harnessed, farmed, kept from mutating too much so its production remains steady, then it may well do wonders for us like producing synthetic fuels and petrochemicals, and yes, even nanocellulose. But the article isn’t telling us anything truly new about what algae can do or even whether it’s commercially feasible yet. The truth is we don’t have answers for this.

The article suggests this algae farming would be “cheap”, but doesn’t specify how; in fact if you read the details, the scientists are only beginning to explore the methods involved in farming algae, and may have figured out one piece of the puzzle. So what’s this “cheap” crap? They don’t know! They have no idea what the costs of production and refinement will be, how much output they’ll get, or even what the market will bear for their wonder product. Algae may be efficient at churning this out, but it may simply be too costly to farm. Or, it could be everything they hope.

Look at how alternative fuels have fared in articles like this one. I’ve seen dozens of reports of new methods for improving solar cell efficiency, none of which have come to fruition yet—largely, I think, because many of the breakthroughs are theoretical and also not shared among different parties (I think some of them could be used in concert for huge improvements)—but also because some of these breakthroughs involve materials that are too expensive to work with in bulk or at economically competitive prices. A solar cell with 30% efficiency would be leaps and bounds better than one with 10% efficiency, but if it cost ten times as much nobody would buy it.

Ethanol has fared little better. Now anyone who understands the first thing about the science involved knows that corn ethanol is a joke, and we’re throwing our time and money away by pursuing it. But cellulose ethanol might, just might, have some potential. I’ve seen articles talking about wonderful new processes for breaking it down so it can be converted to ethanol—and then that’s the last I’ve heard of them. And these were in companies that were further along in their development than the algae guys. One clue I knew most of them would fail: Many of those articles claimed that they could compete with gasoline at $2/gal. prices, but that’s still twice as much as gasoline has any right to cost; and that was a few years ago, when that’s all it did cost. Ethanol from cellulose might still be on our horizon, but there’s really no meaningful commercial development yet.

The point is here, it’s great for science to keep pushing new frontiers and I hope this algae thing pays out, but articles like this one are a farce, and should be treated as such. Let’s keep the enthusiasm going without all the unwarranted grandiosity, okay?

But there is something worse than bad science reporting: bad science comprehension. Take a look at the comments section.

Am I the only one that gets a BAAAAD feeling when I read “Nano” anything? I just read a novel about about an engineered nano product that got away from the scientists and turned into something that dissolved EVERYTHING it came in contact with, dirt, trees, skin, cloth, metal, glass etc. The book referenced several things that I that I thought were science fiction but then I looked them up and they were really going on right now. Of course I am still trying to figure out how your voice goes thru a phone so maybe I need more education. But the more I learn, the scarier it gets.

Nanobots, which are the subject of Michael Crichton’s sci-fi novel Prey, which I must also stress is fiction, are a completely different concept from nanoscale material science. In fact pretty much all nanotechnology at this point is material science. We’re nowhere near creating nanobots, and if we ever did they would never have the capabilities of Crichton’s infamous “gray goo”. What we are near creating are better batteries, water filters, construction materials, cloth, computer processors, televisions, and medical devices, just to name a few applications.

What kills me is this idiot feels justified in using the phrase “the more I learn” when they clearly don’t know the first thing about the subject; if they did, they wouldn’t be fixating on the prefix “nano” and linking two things that had nothing to do with each other. This is literally as stupid as claiming geology and geometry are the same thing. But even if they had just stuck to the nebulous term “nanotechnology”, they’d still be way out of their depth because they’re listening only to alarmist shrieking and doomsday scenarios out of books.

Sometimes I wonder which is dumber, science reporting or the vast majority of its inattentive consumers. There’s a huge difference between yapping about a subject you read about in a book once, and putting in even a little effort to truly learn about it. Let’s end on a happy note and all just go watch Vsauce for a while; I apologize in advance for getting you addicted to their videos, if you weren’t already.

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About Lummox JR

Aspiring to be a beloved supervillain
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