Is Algae Biodiesel the Next Big Fuel?
This month algae as a fuel source made the news several times. Last week, Sapphire Energy announced it received $100 million to help reach its goal of making commercial amounts of algae fuel in three to five years. Investors included Bill Gates investment company, Cascade Investment, LLC. In June Sapphire received $50 million from investors.
the beginning of the month, Arizona State University (ASU) announced
its partnership with Heliae Development, LLC and Science Foundation
Arizona (SFAz) to develop a kerosene-based jet fuel derived from algae.
Last year ASU researched using algae as jet fuel, in conjunction with
UOP, a Honeywell company.
Seven days later Solazyme Inc. announced it produced the first algae-derived jet fuel. To date, the company is the only one that has produced fuels that passed specification testing.
In January Solazyme introduced the world’s first cars to run on algae biodiesel at the Sundance Film Festival during the premiere of the documentary Field’s of Fuel. Watch Solazyme’s video about the making of algae biodiesel:
“Five years ago, we could not find a single venture capital firm that had ever heard of the concept of a biofuel,” Harrison Dillon, president and chief technology officer of Solazyme, told PBS' NewsHour last spring.
Times have changed, and now venture capitalists are banking on algae biodiesel as the next big fuel. The claims made by Green Chip Stocks (GCS) about algae are a good example. In a report, GCS claims that algae biodiesel could “supply all U.S. diesel power using a mere 0.2 percent of the nation’s land.”
“Venture capital in energy has reached a critical mass,” said Daniel Yergin, energy historian and consultant. “Enough is happening so that significant things will come out of this. With the same intent to do in energy what they did in biotech, they bring not only money and discipline, but they are results-oriented.”
"Algae have the potential to produce a huge amount of oil," said Kathe Andrews-Cramer, the technical lead researcher for biofuels and bioenergy programs at Sandia National Laboratories, in Albuquerque, NM. "We could replace certainly all of our diesel fuel with algal-derived oils, and possibly replace a lot more than that."
“If the U.S. put 15 million acres of desert into algae production, we could produce enough volume of liquid fuels to get us off the Middle East oil addiction and give Iowa back to the songbirds,” said B. Gregory Mitchell, algae research biologist at the University of California, San Diego.
The fastest growing plant in the world, algae does not require farm land or potable water. Since algae absorb carbon dioxide as they grow, algae fuel is considered to be ”carbon neutral.’ A non-food source, algae is a better fuel source than food-based ethanol. According to Qiang Hu, an ASU researcher, “There is no inherent conflict of using food crop plants for fuel rather than for food.”
In the 1970s the Carter administration began what was then called the Solar Energy Research Institute, and then consolidated all energy research under the Department of Energy. The Aquatic Species Program began in 1978 to research the production of biodiesel from algae. The Clinton administration discontinued the program in 1996, and two years later the DOE compiled their research into a report.
According to the DOE’s report, during the program’s 18 years, “tremendous advances were made in the science of manipulating the metabolism of algae and the engineering of microalgae algae production systems.”