News / Science & Technology

Algae Could Fuel Cleaner Road to Future

A motorist fuels up on algae-based biodiesel during a month-long test run of the product in the San Francisco Bay area. (Courtesy Solazyme)
A motorist fuels up on algae-based biodiesel during a month-long test run of the product in the San Francisco Bay area. (Courtesy Solazyme)
Jan Sluizer
Richard Battersby knows alternative vehicle fuels. As fleet director at the University of California-Davis, he has replaced gasoline-powered cars with hybrid and electric ones, as well as with vehicles that run on compressed gas or biodiesel.

He is especially excited about biodiesel, which he says could help wean America off foreign oil.

“It may not seem as big of an impact, but when you’re talking about potentially millions or billions of gallons in the United States, even a five percent reduction or a 20 percent reduction, is significant," Battersby said. "So, the more of the bio part of the biodiesel that we can bring in, the better off our nation is.”

The use of alternative fuels is growing in the United States. About twice as many electric vehicles were sold in the first half of 2013 compared to the first half of 2012, and sales of hybrid cars continue to rise. Since 2005, the federal government has required refiners to add ethanol - usually from corn - to gasoline.

Biological sources

Diesel made from a biological source like soybeans or corn oil, or used cooking oil from restaurants, is an important part of the alternative fuel mix.

Algae is another promising source of biodiesel fuel. Among the American companies making biodiesel is Propel Fuels, based in Redwood City, California.

“We think the key to transformation in the United States to changing the fuel mix is engaging those consumers, giving them options, educating them about fuels, and then people take care of the rest," said Matt Horton, CEO of Propel Fuels. "What Propel’s really about is giving people new choices. Bringing new kinds of fuels, alternative fuels, cleaner fuels to retail stations everywhere."

Propel products are available at 29 gas stations nationwide. Last year, it partnered with Solazyme, another local company with similar goals and philosophy. For 10 years, Solazyme has been working to find replacements for petroleum. Bob Ames, the company’s vice president in charge of fuels, says what they’ve come up with is unique.

“It all starts in the lab where what we do is we grow a proprietary strain of algae that are actually optimized to produce an oil that is a perfect oil, an algae oil, to make into fuel,” Ames said.

Algae oil technology

Solazyme has patented its algae-oil technology. Ames says the possibilities for the fast-growing aquatic plant are just beginning to be discovered, but Solazyme is especially excited about its algae-derived fuel because of its environmental benefits.

“It’s significantly cleaner," Ames said. "So, things like the particulate matter, the black soot coming out the back of a diesel pipe, that’s significantly reduced when you use an algae-based fuel.”

To test its marketability, Propel installed algae-based fuel pumps at four of its seven stations in the San Francisco Bay area. It was the first time Solazyne’s new biodiesel was offered to the public. The companies were pleased to see a 35 percent increase in biodiesel sales over the month-long test-run.

“Basically, it was offered at exactly the same price as the competing fuel, and what consumers told us by buying more of it is that they were willing to buy it because of the better environmental benefits,” Ames said.

Coming down to economics

Horton says the technology is ready, the fuel works, and consumers want it. A plus for algae is that it can be densely grown. So what’s the problem? Horton says it comes down to economics.

“You have to be able to produce these fuels in very, very large quantities to drive the prices down so that they are competitive,” he said.

Large quantities of Solazyme’s algae oil are being produced at its plant in Peoria, Illinois, as well as at a much smaller facility near San Francisco. A much larger facility expected to be in operation by the end of the year is currently under construction in Brazil in partnership with a Brazilian company.

Battersby is watching closely because during Solazyme and Propel’s 30-day experiment, algae-based fuel was also available for the diesel-powered vehicles at U.C. Davis. Battersby says drivers reported that it worked just fine.

“Solazyme has definitely set the bar very high," he said. "They’ve had spectacular success, and if they continue to grow the business as they seem to be, I think we’ll see algae-based biodiesel on retail pumps within the next five or 10 years.”

While no one expects algae to replace petroleum, those who believe in its potential say it could help put the world on a cleaner, more energy efficient road to the future.

You May Like

Photogallery Brussels Schools, Metro Reopen Under Heavy Guard

City remains under the highest threat alert level due to what authorities have described as a 'serious and imminent' threat of attack

Video Debt-ridden Refugees Await Onslaught of Lebanese Winter

Aid agencies are attempting to reduce potentially devastating consequences of freezing conditions and snowstorms that killed eight last year, including three Syrian refugees

UN Warns Air Pollution in Asia Pacific Has Rising Cost

Globally some seven million people a year die prematurely due to indoor and outdoor pollution with about 70 per cent of those deaths in region

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: Outdoor Economy from: Charleston
September 26, 2013 10:05 PM
There has been a lot of hope put into algae to help solve the feedstock dilemma with biodiesel production. It is good news to see Solazyme making some breakthroughs.

by: b cole from: texas
September 21, 2013 1:49 PM
In order to be profitable on algae to biofuel without a $1 per gallon subsidy you need to be on at least 110 acres using commercial/industrial growing, harvesting and extraction systems. You may want to check out the National Algae Association. They have lowered the CAPEX significantly.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against ISi
November 24, 2015 3:04 AM
The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs