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

Egypt's Suez Canal Dreams Tempered by Continued Unrest

Seen as a potential driver of recovery, Cairo’s plan to expand waterway had been raising hopes to give country much needed economic boost More

Ebola Maternity Ward in Sierra Leone First of its Kind

Country already had one of world's highest maternal mortality rates before Ebola arrived, virus has added even more complications to health care More

Malaysia Flight 370 Disappearance Ruled Accident

Aircraft disappeared on March 8, 2014; with ruling, families of 239 passengers and crew can now seek compensation from airline More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
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.
Groundbreaking Hand-Painted Documentary About Van Gogh in Productioni
X
George Putic
January 29, 2015 9:43 PM
The troubled life of the famous 19th century Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh has been told through many books and films, but never in the way a group of filmmakers now intends to do. "Loving Vincent " will be the first ever feature-length film made of animated hand-painted images, done in the style of the late artist. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Groundbreaking Hand-Painted Documentary About Van Gogh in Production

The troubled life of the famous 19th century Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh has been told through many books and films, but never in the way a group of filmmakers now intends to do. "Loving Vincent " will be the first ever feature-length film made of animated hand-painted images, done in the style of the late artist. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Rock-Consuming Organisms Alter Views of Life Processes

Scientists thought they knew much about how life works, until a discovery more than two decades ago challenged conventional beliefs. Scientists found that there are organisms that breathe rocks. And it is only recently that the scientific community is accepting that there are organisms that could get energy out of rocks. Correspondent Elizabeth Lee reports.
Video

Video Paris Attacks Highlight Global Weapons Black Market

As law enforcement officials piece together how the Paris and Belgian terror cells carried out their recent attacks, questions are being asked about how they obtained military grade assault weapons - which are illegal in the European Union. As VOA's Jeff Swicord reports, experts say there is a very active worldwide black market for these weapons, and criminals and terrorists are buying.
Video

Video Activists Accuse China of Targeting Religious Freedom

The U.S.-based Chinese religious rights group ChinaAid says 2014 was the worst year for religious freedom in China since the end of the Cultural Revolution. As Ye Fan reports, activists say Beijing has been tightening religious controls ever since Chinese leader Xi Jinping came to office. Hu Wei narrates.
Video

Video Super Bowl Ads Compete for Eyes on TV, Web

Super Bowl Sunday (Feb. 1) is about more than just the NFL's American football championship and big parties to watch the game. Viewers also tune in for the world famous commercials that send Facebook and Twitter abuzz. Daniela Schrier reports on the social media rewards for America’s priciest advertising.
Video

Video Theologians Cast Doubt on Morality of Drone Strikes

In 2006, stirred by photos of U.S. soldiers mistreating Iraqi prisoners, a group of American faith leaders and academics launched the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. It played an important role in getting Congress to investigate, and the president to ban, torture. VOA's Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Freedom on Decline Worldwide, Report Says

The state of global freedom declined for the ninth consecutive year in 2014, according to global watchdog Freedom House's annual report released Wednesday. VOA's William Gallo has more.
Video

Video MRI Seems to Help Diagnose Prostate Cancer, Preliminary Study Shows

Just as with mammography used to detect breast cancer, there's a lot of controversy about tests used to diagnose prostate cancer. Fortunately, a new study shows doctors may now have a more reliable way to diagnose prostate cancer for high risk patients. More from VOA's Carol Pearson.
Video

Video Smartphones About to Make Leap, Carry Basic Senses

Long-distance communication contains mostly sounds and pictures - for now. But scientists in Britain say they are close to creating additions for our smartphones that will make it possible to send taste, smell and even a basic touch. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Former Sudan 'Lost Boy' Becomes Chess Master in NYC

In the mid-1980’s, thousands of Sudanese boys escaped the country's civil war by walking for weeks, then months and finally for more than a year, up to 1,500 kilometers across three countries. The so-called Lost Boys of the Sudan had little time for games. But one of them later mastered the game of chess, and now teaches it to children in the New York area. VOA’s Bernard Shusman in New York has his story.
Video

Video NASA Monitors Earth’s Vital Signs From Space

The U.S. space agency, NASA, is wrapping up its busiest 12-month period in more than a decade, with three missions launched in 2014 and two this month, one in early January and the fifth scheduled for January 29. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, the instruments being lifted into orbit are focused on Earth’s vital life support systems and how they are responding to a warmer planet.
Video

Video Crowded Republican Presidential Field Off to Early Start for 2016

It seems early, but the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign is already heating up. Though no one has officially announced a candidacy, several potential Republican contenders have been busy speaking to conservative groups about making a White House run next year. Many of the possible contenders are critical of the Obama administration’s foreign policy record. VOA national correspondent Jim Malone reports.

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More

All About America

AppleAndroid