Into The Wild Green Yonder: When Will Algae Scale?

Photo: Olfert via Flickr

by Jeff Turrentine, via OnEarth

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.

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.

Jeff Turrentine is OnEarth’s articles editor. This piece was originally published at OnEarth and was reprinted with permission.

10 Responses to Into The Wild Green Yonder: When Will Algae Scale?

  1. Tom King says:

    It won’t be long before someone starts offering “Green Flights” using this biodiesel with slightly higher ticket prices. I know a lot of people who refuse to fly because of the fossil fuels involved. This would open up a new world of international travel to people otherwise landlocked by conscience.

  2. Sasparilla says:

    This sounds like a really good idea, except for the price of the fuel (not mentioned in the cheerleading article, probably for a reason)….I believe this stuff is often way more than $10 a gallon. With jet fuel being the biggest cost for an airline flight you’d be looking at ticket prices of more than double the CO2 heavy oil based jet fuel prices.

    They might be able to scale this algae based biofuel somewhat at this point, but its not close (by far) to being price competitive with dirty oil based fuels. That still needs to be dealt with before wide scale use would be practical in the real world of the U.S..

    As has been pointed out the GOP machine, its propaganda outlets (News Corp.) and of course their sponsors (Oil Industry) do not want this technology to be funded and matured as it might possibly (someday if they can get fuel costs down…) threaten future oil profits.

  3. Chris Winter says:

    In brief research on biofuels, I found no year-by-year production statistics. I did find this:

    As of 2005, worldwide biodiesel production had reached 1.1 billion gallons, with most fuel being produced in the European Union, although biodiesel projects worldwide have been on the rise due to rising crude oil prices and concerns over global warming.

    I thought there would be some encouraging projections, at least. But perhaps the competitive picture precludes such publications. The only analysis I found is this 1997 paper (17-page PDF):
    Feasibility of Large-Scale Biofuel Production
    BioScience, Vol. 47, No. 9. (Oct., 1997), pp. 587-600.

    The conclusion of this 1997 paper is: “Large-scale biofuel production is not an alternative to the current use of oil and is not even an advisable option to cover a significant fraction of it.”

    I haven’t read it yet but my guess is it looks only at first-generation biofuels.

  4. I’m wondering something: This blog post mentions that CO2 is part of the input in creating this algae-derived fuel. But does this fuel emit less CO2 than fossil fuels when used? If not, then it might not be as environmentally friendly as claimed, especially since the priority is to reduce CO2 in the atmosphere.

  5. Yvan Dutil says:

    Exactly! All the scientific papers I have read indicate the algea fuel is energy negative (an euphemism).

  6. Paul Klinkman says:

    It’s actually politically quite easy to drive algae-based biodiesel below $5/gallon. Get rid of the big Halliburton-designed showoff algae projects without much new science and engineering behind them. Redirect that money to lone inventors for little tiny proof of concept projects. The problem is, lone inventors don’t pay for political campaigns up front in cash.

    I am sitting on what you need. I’m sitting on it year after year after year. I find people’s lack of curiosity to be a moral monstrosity.

  7. squidboy6 says:

    oil was originally derived from algae, for the most part, so this cuts out the wait and the need to drill, plus it’s carbon neutral

  8. K Odam says:

    Mitchell, to be compatible with the use of existing fuel, any replacement must be broadly similar and so have pretty much the same CO2 emission on combustion. That is not (in itself) a problem.

    The carbon released from any fossil fuel is an addition to the biosphere. Biofuels, on the other hand, contain carbon that has been captured from the atmosphere in the first place and is not a nett addition to it.

    This does not reduce existing atmospheric CO2 levels, but does eliminate emission of additional CO2, by making carbon capture an essential part of producing the fuel, and not an additional step that must be added afterwards.

  9. ANGRY BADGER says:

    Harkeening back to the Atlantic article “The Coming Green Wave”, that Joe posted about some months ago, has anyone heard of eneyone pursuing marine algae for fuel?

  10. meurig says:

    How’s the lifecycle carbon analysis doing these days? – and how’s the EROEI? Last time I looked the carbon and energy costs of fertiliser made algae a far from carbon neutral option – has that changed?