Into The Wild Green Yonder: When Will Algae Scale?

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.