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Into the Wild Green Yonder

Algae-derived biofuel -- already powering some planes and helicopters -- offers a cleaner, renewable alternative to petroleum. Will its partisan critics give it a chance to fly?

Last November 7, Continental Airlines Flight 1403 took off from Houston, bound for Chicago. The trip was utterly unremarkable save for one thing. Thanks to its fuel -- a blend of standard jet diesel and a biofuel derived from algae -- the flight reduced carbon dioxide emissions by an amount equivalent to what a car would spew out in 30,000 miles of driving.

In a February speech, President Obama gave a shout-out to the technology that helped make this flight possible. Algae-derived biofuel, he said, was part of a larger national plan to wean us from foreign petroleum while significantly reducing atmospheric carbon levels.

This technology isn't in the blue-sky or even beta-testing stage of the R&D sequence. It has already been proved in the lab, and it's now being proved in the marketplace, where some very big clients -- among them major airlines, the U.S. Navy, and Bunge, one of the world's largest agribusiness conglomerates -- are placing orders for millions of gallons of algae-derived biofuel from dozens of manufacturers.

Fast Facts

60 gallons of biofuel produced per acre, per year from soybeans
400 gallons of biofuel produced per acre, per year from corn
5,000 gallons of biofuel potentially produced per acre, per year from algae

STATISTICS: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (1,2), University of Minnesota Center for Biorefining (3)

But that fact wasn't enough to stop a fusillade of cynical rejoinders. The day after the president's speech, Rush Limbaugh couldn't seem to stop using the phrase "pond scum" in his attempt to portray the technology as wacky pseudoscience. One Fox News pundit mocked the notion of finding fuel "in your swimming pool when the pool man's on vacation." Newt Gingrich tried to make the very idea of algal oil into a laugh line, at one point holding up a gas-pump nozzle at a filling-station photo op and proclaiming: "There is no algae that's gonna come out of this, this summer."

The truth is, algae-derived hydrocarbon has been something of a biofuel holy grail for decades now. Scientists have long known that the yucky green film commonly found covering ponds and poorly tended fish tanks can take two of the planet's easiest-to-find ingredients -- light and CO2 -- and turn them into one of the scarcest: oil. And the word renewable doesn't quite do this biofuel feedstock justice: a patch of algae can double in size in a few hours.

The chemical aspects of this conversion are widely understood; the problem, from a commercial standpoint, has always been one of scalability. But innovation is finally catching up to scientists' enthusiasm. A number of companies are figuring out ways to bring the technology up to commercial scale by optimizing growing conditions. The implications -- for our economy and our environment -- could be huge.

"We have literally invented the ability to design oil," says Harrison Dillon, president and chief technology officer of Solazyme, the Bay Area company that sold its biofuel to United Continental Holdings for the Houston-to-Chicago flight last November. Though Dillon and his company's co-founder began Solazyme nine years ago with an eye toward making biofuels alone, they soon discovered that their process -- which involves feeding sugars to genetically optimized algae strains -- allowed them to convert algae into almost any kind of oil, from jet diesel to cooking oil.

As for the technology's bête noire, Dillon thinks his company has overcome the scalability hurdle. "We've been performing this process at commercial scale for close to four years now," he says. "We've delivered almost 200,000 gallons of fuel to the military, which has gone on to power helicopters, landing-craft ships, even a 563-foot destroyer."

Technically, Newt Gingrich was right: algae-derived gasoline won't be coming out of any gas station pumps this summer. But there's no question that this particular biofuel is coming soon to an internal combustion engine near you. Politicians and pundits, regardless of their party affiliation or ideological bent, should be embracing the slime -- not sliming it.

image of Jeff Turrentine
Jeff Turrentine is OnEarth's articles editor. A former editor at Architectural Digest, he is also a frequent contributor to Slate, The Washington Post, The New York Times Book Review, and other publications.
I'd certainly be happy to use it in my vehicles - why not? Doesn't use fossil fuels, doesn't use food production space and develops a new industry. What is not to like? It is great to see exponential numbers used to describe a positive thing!
That article is a bit unclear as to how the algae are being used. It says they feed the algae sugar (corn fructose), but in that case the algae is not providing the energy, it's just a nice little GMO enzyme factory that turns corn biofuel into something more usable. The algae does not absorb or use the sun's energy at all. Still a very green, useful, and neat alternative to hydrogenating using catalysts and heat. But these are still corn-biofuels at the end of the day. Calling them algae-fuel makes as much sense as calling gasoline 'refinery-fuel'. The article requires a bit of chem knowledge and reading between the lines to see that.
Yes, I am also worried about "feeding algae with sugar." I teach Biology and algae are supposed to be drawing down CO2 from the atmosphere, and hooking them together into sugars via the process of photosynthesis. So why feed 'em? Perhaps it is as you say simply a use of the algae's ability to produce the enzymes that we need to convert sugars from an unstated source into a fuel we like to use. I'm worried about the energy needed for "optimizing" the conditions for their growth. So who's got the data on this? Is this one of the technologies outlined in the book Earth: the Sequel? (lent to a friend). If it uses sugar, well, obviously that is food, which raises the question of growing for food for the 9 billion people we will have or for the fuel for 5 to 15% of them to get about in the manner to which we are accustomed.
This could be a good thing but I have a feeling that somehow it is going to be shot down by those who are insistent on warming the earth by attracting more wind and sun to the ground. Also, millions are allergic to algae, what will this do to them when the air is filled with it? Just a question that might come up, even if it does sound silly.

 

 

Sometimes people think they have a bright idea on enjoyment and on the surface it really is but there always seems to be something wrong with it.

Could you clarify for me what you are saying about "attracting more wind and sun to the ground"? Thanks.
Doesn't algal oil cost a hundred times as much as petroleum? Why are we persuing this when we could be synthesizing fuel from waste carbon (e.g. windfuels.com and airfuelsynthesis.com) or from the carbonic acid in seawater, as the Navy says is already under $1/gallon, per page 28 of ceramics.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/mcare12-rath.pdf ?
What is powering the 100 MW power plant producing the fuel from the seawater? Nuclear or OTEC. So this is a way of converting power from one power source to a more usable one.
After reading your article, i don't feel positive about the thing...well, it would be definitely brilliant to find an efficient, low-cost source of oil but i'm not sure what impact it could have on the environment. Just few questions I'd like you to answer: 1. where do you want to find enough algae to produce enough oil for a year of consumption? Where will you search for more algae for another decade (in case the extensive "sourcing" will cause exploitation of the freshwater algae in the country)? 2. Do you really think the algae is not that important for the ecosystem, that it's only a "pond scum"??? 3. In case of devastation of the freshwater algae resources, will you switch to the sea algae/seaweed instead to produce more oil? ...then the implications for our entire planet could be huge!
Can you provide us with some recent research results on lifecycle net carbon emissions analysis and energy return on energy invested for the Solazyme project? Analysis of previous algae projects showed little cause for optimism in this area - the big issue was the embedded energy and emissions in the fertiliser used to grow the algae. Have things changed?
I seems it could work http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Algae_fuel