Not long ago I was at my desk looking to write about some aspect of where we’re heading. Then I flicked on the little TV beside me to watch the news, and what did I see but a piece about algae as a fuel source. Clearly a sign.

The news was about a Canadian company called Pond Biofuels that’s using algae to treat the waste from a cement plant in St. Mary’s, Ontario. It’s also algae in the process to create fuel of a sort that might ultimately keep our trucks running.

Pond scum had finally met the mainstream press. Hurrah! The potential of algae as a fuel source was in the public eye.

In this case the company converts raw smokestack emissions from heavyindustry into algal biomass. It says 2,200 pounds of algae can yield 26 gallons or more of diesel.

It’s not a new idea, the power of algae, but until recently it’s been mainly a subject of interest to quasi-geeks like me – and an awful lot of researchers since the 1970s, including Exxon and other big guys.

In fact, algae-based biodiesel has already been for sale. Last year, four PropelFuels retail filling stations in California began selling algae-derived fuel made by Solazyme Inc., a world first. The latter’s algae-based SoladieselBD – in a 20% blend with ordinary diesel – was sold in a month-long pilot program to test consumer response. Retail buyers liked it a lot, apparently. In a survey, 92% of them said they’d be more likely to buy algae-derived fuel for its environmental benefits and nearly 40% said they would pay a premium for it.

Solazyme’s algae fuel meets ASTM quality specs and is compatible with existing diesel engines. It was being sold at the same price as conventional diesel fuels. No word on what’s next with this experiment.

This isn’t the algae-based fuel I’ve been enthusing about for a few years now. In the Solazyme technology, plant sugars are converted into oils by feeding them to microalgae in standard industrial fermentation equipment. Those sugars come from familiar sources like corn, forest residue, and sugar cane.

So it’s really just a much faster way of producing fairly ordinary biodiesel.  

The company says testing undertaken by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory shows that, in a 20% blend, SoladieselBD “significantly outperforms ultra-low-sulfur diesel in total hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide and particulate matter tailpipe emissions. This includes a 30% reduction in particulates and a 20% reduction in CO.”

That’s great, but the algae-based fuel I’ve written about before 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. One proponent claims if we devoted one-tenth the land mass of New Mexico to making ordinary pond 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.

Critics complain that years of research and lots of government funding have yet to discover a commercialization answer.

My conclusion? I’m sufficiently skeptical to have rejected all the fear-mongering about the end of fossil fuels long ago. We have options, and not just the relatively short-term solution offered by natural gas. I’m far more keen on bio DME, or dimethyl ether, than natural gas, but it’s algae that I find really fascinating.

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