Corn and soybean derived biofuels have long been the most promising options on the table for escaping the clutches of fast depleting petroleum. However, acquiring the space necessary to produce ethanol and biodiesel at the same consumption rate as fossil fuels would be impossible, so sustainable fingers are pointing to oilgae, or algae fuel. Algae produces 30 times more energy per acre than corn or soybeans and can grow in salt water, our worlds most abundant source. There are several startups bringing pond scum to fuel tanks, among them Solazyme who were caught driving around Sundance Film Festival this year with an oilgae-powered car.
US Biotech firm Solazyme unveiled an algae-fueled Mercedes C320 at the Sundance Film Festival in January marking the first real-world road test of biodiesel made from algae. Solazyme president and CTO Harrison Dillon said the Sundance test drive responds to “the need for a near-term solution that will also be cost effective and sustainable. Our technology combines all the key components: low carbon footprint, environmental sustainability, certified compatibility with existing vehicles and infrastructure, and energy security for our country,” in a press release. The company has since coupled with the Chevron Corporation and plan on producing algae-derived fuels for consumer use in the next three years.
Solazyme grows algae in fermentation tanks without sunlight, by feeding it sugar. Algae suitable for biofuels can be grown in open ponds or lakes or enclosed in heated greenhouse structures to promote year-long growth. And since the production of algae doesn’t hinder food and livestock feed production like corn and soybeans, its effect on the ecosystem and the food chain is significantly reduced.
But what’s a great idea without a catch? In open systems like natural ponds and lakes algae is susceptible to bacteria and contamination, and at the whim of the water and air temperature and access to light. In closed systems, algae grows in contained ponds or pools eliminating much of the risk of environmental variables, though requires more attention, equipment, and space. One of the commercial readiness hurdles is managing production at a feasible market price. Algae biofuels are still being researched and tested throughout the world and will someday (hopefully soon) offer us a cleaner way to get around.