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

Obama: Alaskans Feel Signs of Climate Change

They're seeing bigger storm surges as sea ice melts, more wildfires, erosion of glaciers, shorelines More

Katrina Brought Enduring Changes to New Orleans

The city’s recovery is the result of the people and culture the city is famous for, as well as newcomers and start-up industries More

Magical Photo Slides Show Native Americans in Late 1800s

Walter McClintock spent 20 years photographing the Blackfoot Indians and their vanishing culture at the dawn of the modern age 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.
Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalatesi
X
August 27, 2015 2:08 AM
Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Is China's Economic Data Accurate?

Some investors say China's wild stock market gyrations have been made worse by worries about the reliability of that nation's economic data. And some critics say the reports can mislead investors by painting an unrealistically-strong picture of the economy. A key China scholar says Beijing is not fudging ((manipulating)) the numbers, but that the economy is evolving quickly from smoke-stack industries to services, and the ways of tracking new economic activity are falling behind the change. V
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Shipping Containers Provide Experimental Housing

Housing prices around the San Francisco Bay area are out of reach for many people, so some young entrepreneurs, artists and tech industry workers are creating their own houses using converted shipping containers. But as VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports from Oakland, the effort requires ingenuity and dealing with restrictive local laws.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video Technique May Eliminate Drill-and-Fill Dental Care

Many people dread visiting dentists because they're afraid of drills. Now, however, a technology developed by a British firm promises to eliminate the need for mechanical cleaning of dental cavities by speeding a natural process of tooth repair. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.
Video

Video French Experiment in Integrating Roma Under Threat

Plans to destroy France’s oldest slum have sparked an outcry on the part of its Roma residents. As Lisa Bryant reports from the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, rights groups argue the community is a fledgling experiment on integrating Roma who are often outcasts in many parts of Europe.
Video

Video Kenyans Turn to Agriculture for Business

Each year Kenyan universities continue to churn out graduates for the job market despite the already existing high rate of unemployment among youth in the country. Some of these young men and women have realized that agriculture can be as rewarding as any other business or job, and they are resorting to agribusiness in large numbers as a way of tackling unemployment. Rael Ombuor reports for VOA.
Video

Video First Women Graduate Elite Army Ranger School

Two women are making history for the U.S. Army by proving they are among the toughest of the tough. VOA's Carla Babb reports from Fort Benning, Georgia as 94 men and those two women rise as graduates of the difficult Ranger school.

VOA Blogs