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Harnessing the Fuel from the Gods (Algae)

The algae industry is still five to 10 years from commercialization, but it has the potential to change our lives. I use...

The algae industry is still five to 10 years from commercialization, but it has the potential to change our lives.

I use a Britta for drinking water. About a year ago, my girlfriend noticed a neon green film growing from the bottom of the Britta jug. "Damn algae," I thought to myself. "It grows everywhere." But that capacity to grow really, really quickly-and practically anywhere-could be the saving grace of humanity (or the cause of more ire).

Among the fastest growing plant species in the world, certain strains of algae grow so rapidly that they can double in size every day. Similar to how humans might sweat when mustering the courage to ask someone out on a date, certain strains of algae-when stressed (either from a lack of nutrients or sunlight)-produce large amounts of lipids (oils). These oils have chemical compositions similar to petroleum molecules called hydrocarbons. Scientists have figured out how to easily transform these algae oils into "Third Generation" biofuels that mimic gasoline, diesel, and aviation fuel.

Algae are so prolific at producing oil (7,500 gallons of fuel per acre per year) that you could displace 100 percent of the petroleum that the United States consumes for transportation in a given year on a little more than 1 percent of our total landmass. Soybeans, the main source of biodiesel in the United States, produce only 50 gallons of biodiesel per acre per year-roughly 150 times less than algae.

Algae are a truly revolutionary energy source. They not only grow quickly, but also use carbon dioxide as a nutrient source. In the future we might see algae farms co-located next to coal-fired electricity plants, and instead of nasty black plumes blowing from the smokestacks, the CO2 could be piped directly into the algae. While the CO2 will be eventually released in the atmosphere when you drive your car, the process of "cycling" the CO2 could result in algae biofuels having a carbon footprint 75 percent lower than petroleum. Other significant advantages include: not requiring freshwater, the ability to grow on marginal or desert land, and the plethora of co-products that can be created from the algae corpse (bio-plastics, nutraceuticals, animal feed, etc).

Algae biofuels are being produced today, albeit on a very small scale. Although there are no technical obstacles to producing algae biofuels, there are important economic and logistical challenges about algae's ability to scale. For example, the cost to produce a gallon of algae is estimated by the Department of Energy to be $8 to $25 per gallon. The high costs are attributed to the numerous (and disparate) steps involved in growing, harvesting, de-watering, extracting, and refining the algal oil into petroleum substitutes.

The industry is so nascent that it has yet to agree on any best practices regarding any of those steps. For example, some companies are growing algae in big open ponds. While open ponds most closely resemble nature, they are not as efficient at controlling the amount of light and nutrients that algae receive compared to a photobioreactor (PBR), an enclosed vessel that manipulates algae's environment for maximum lipid growth. While a PBR will have much higher yields than an open pond, it is crazy expensive to build acres of plastic tubes. Another growth method is fermentation. In this process, algae are grown in dark steel drums with no access to light but consistent supplies of sugar. While it might seem counter-intuitive to deny algae access to photosynthesis, a company called Solazyme has raised almost $100 million and claims this process is The Answer. These divergent growth methods are illustrative of an industry in its infancy that will need to establish technological standards in order for costs to decline. Assuming that costs come down appreciably in the coming years (and we have evidence to suggest that they are beginning to), there are legitimate logistical issues about finding land with sufficient access to sunlight, water, CO2, and electricity.

The brightest minds within the industry estimate that algae biofuels are five to 10 years away from commercialization. And while some might believe that algae's high costs and technological immaturity compared to First Generation biofuels (or even Second Generation cellulosic ethanol) means that we should ignore them until they are closer to commercial scale, I would argue that the opportunity to displace 100 percent of our petroleum from a biofuel that neither competes with food supplies nor uses precious cropland or freshwater-while consuming CO2 as a feedstock-warrants our immediate attention.

If you want to do something about accelerating the use of algae biofuels, the first thing you can do is educate yourself about this industry. There is currently a land-grab over federal energy subsidies and up until now, algae has received the short end of the stick. Remember that there are vested interests in Big Oil and Big Agriculture with billions to lose if the status quo is radically disrupted-and their lobbyists cling on to our politicians like a drunk grabs a streetlamp. While algae is but one technology in a mosaic of solutions that will move us to a cleaner world, it will require financial and political will to succeed. And while some will say that technologies like algae are "too expensive", the cost of doing nothing is much higher.

Guest writer Joshua Kagan is an analyst with Atlas Capital, a fellow with the Prometheus Institute for Sustainable Technologies, and an all-around expert in the world of clean technology. This is the fourth in a four-part series exploring a possible transition from fossil fuels to biofuels, and how algae might supplant oil as the dominant energy currency.

From Petroleum to Algae illustrations by Jennifer Daniel.

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