IT’S A SLIMY BUSINESS
For the better part of a year now I’ve been resisting the urge to turn all evangelical on you in a Willie Nelson sort of way. I’m talking about his passionate support of crop-based biofuels, certainly not his view of gods and the universe and all that. I have no idea what he thinks of such stuff anyway. Nor do I care.
In my case there’s a lot less passion involved, rather a more intellectual conviction that one particular fuel source holds serious promise for our longer-term future. And it ain’t natural gas. Not Willie-style biofuel, either.
It’s algae. Most readily imagined as pond scum, I suppose. It’s infinitely renewable, and by many accounts a great source of biodiesel fuel to keep us rolling long into the future. Until some variation on the fuel-cell theme takes us away, finally, from the joys of internal-combustion engines. I’ll be long gone before that happens. And probably before algae has the chance to engineer its coup as well. Or at least that’s what I was writing earlier this year.
The reason I’m raising the subject here is that algae-based biodiesel is already for sale. As of last week, four PropelFuels
filling stations in California are selling algae-derived fuel made by Solazyme, Inc.
It’s a world first. The latter’s algae-based SoladieselBD — in a 20% blend with ordinary diesel — is being sold in a month-long pilot program to test consumer response.
Solazyme’s algae fuel is said to meet or exceed ASTM quality specs and is compatible with existing diesel engines. It’s being sold at the same price as conventional diesel fuels.
Now, before anybody gets too excited like I did when I first saw this story, this isn’t the algae-based fuel I’ve been enthusing about. In the Solazyme technology, plant sugars are converted into oils by feeding them to microalgae in standard industrial fermentation equipment. And those sugars come from good old normal sources like corn, forest residue, switchgrass, and sugar cane. So it’s really just a much faster way of producing fairly ordinary biodiesel.
The company says that testing undertaken by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory shows that, in a 20% blend, SoladieselBD "significantly outperforms ultra-low-sulfur diesel in total hydrocarbons (THC), carbon monoxide (CO) and particulate matter tailpipe emissions. This includes an approximate 30% reduction in particulates, a 20% reduction in CO, and an approximate 10% reduction in THC."
That’s great, but the algae-based fuel I’ve been writing about is different. As I understand things, and I’m no chemist, in that case algae isn’t a chemical trigger, rather it’s the source. Turns out there’s oil in that pond scum, and lots of it, because with certain algae, between 50 and 60% of its composition by weight is something called lipid oil. And that’s the stuff that gets converted into fuel by a process of photosynthesis.
Algae grows easily and very quickly, and in fact one proponent of this option says if we devoted one-tenth the land mass of New Mexico to making such ‘scum’ and then extracting the oil from it, we’d cover all U.S. transportation-fuel needs. Cars, trucks, trains, mopeds, and whatever else included.
New Mexico is a little less than half the area of Alberta, to bring the comparison home, so one-twentieth of that province’s area turned over to algae production would, hypothetically, provide for all U.S. needs — and a lot less would cover our own transport fuel demand. Better yet, unlike corn grown to make fuel, algae wouldn’t need to occupy farmland, instead thriving in purpose-built ponds. Or more likely these weird ‘virtual’ ponds as seen in the accompanying photo of an Exxon algae facility, part of a $600-million investment.