Will Algae Ever Power Our Cars?
by Marc Gunther (The Guardian) Scores of companies across the world are racing to unlock algae’s energy potential and create a ‘green crude oil’
Tiny Columbus, New Mexico (population, 1,678) is hot, flat and uncrowded — an ideal place to launch a new green revolution in agriculture. That, in essence, is what a well-funded startup company called Sapphire Energy wants to do: It is turning a 300-acre expanse of desert scrub into the world’s largest algae farm designed to produce crude oil. Sapphire began making oil there in May, and its goal is to produce about 100 barrels a day, or 1.5 million gallons a year, of oil, once construction of the “green crude farm” is completed next year.
“We take algae, CO2, water and sunlight, and then we refine it,” says Cynthia Warner, the chief executive of Sapphire, who joined the company after working for more than 20 years at oil-company giants Amoco and BP.
…Solazyme, which is arguably the industry leader, last year sold an algae-derived jet fuel to United Airlines, which used it to fly a Boeing 737-800 from Houston to Chicago — the first time a commercial jet flew using a biofuel made using algae. Synthetic Genomics, a company founded by geneticist J. Craig Venter and financed by ExxonMobil, is building an algae farm in the Imperial Valley of southern California. Other algae farms are under development in Hawaii, by Phycal, and in Karratha, Australia, by Aurora Algae, and in Florida, by Algenol. In Europe, the Swedish energy company Vattenfall and Italy’s Enel Group have been using algae, which is then made into fuel or food, to absorb greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, and Algae-Tec, an Australia-based company, has agreed to operate an algae-based biofuel plant in Europe to supply Lufthansa with jet fuel.
…Even algae’s most enthusiastic advocates say that commercialization of algal biofuels, on a scale that that would matter to the environment or the energy industry, is at least five to 10 years away.
High costs remain the big obstacle to commercial production.
…By phone, (Philip T.) Pienkos acknowledged that, in theory, algae should produce low-carbon fuels because the CO2 emitted when the fuels are burned is absorbed from the air when algae grow. But, he says, calculating the true sustainability benefits of algae requires doing a detailed study of inputs and outputs and “that will be difficult until big algae farms are built.”
…The company (Solazyme) makes not just transportation fuels, but oils for food products including cakes, cookies and ice cream; personal care products like soaps and detergents; and chemical products like lubricants and surfactants. Serving a variety of markets enabled Solazyme to attract investment from the likes of Chevron, British entrepreneur Richard Branson, and Unilever, and to generate enough revenue so the company could go public last year. READ MORE