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

Video British Fighters On Frontline of ISIS Information War

It’s estimated that several hundred British citizens are fighting for Islamic State alongside other foreign jihadists More

Multimedia Hit Song Delivers Ebola Message in Liberia

'Ebola in Town' has danceable beat, while also delivering serious message about avoiding infection More

Video New Technology Gives Surgeons Unprecedented Views of Patients’ Bodies

Technology offers real-time, interactive, medical visualization and is multi-dimensional 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.
Native Bees May Help Save Cropsi
X
Deborah Block
August 22, 2014 12:23 AM
U.S. President Barack Obama has called for a federal strategy to promote the health of bees that have been declining. The honeybee has been waning due to parasites, disease and pesticides. Wild bees may be used to take over their role as crop pollinators. Scientists first need to learn a lot more about wild bees, says biologist Sam Droege, who is pioneering the first national inventory on native bees. VOA’s Deborah Block went to his research laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland, to bring you more.
Video

Video Native Bees May Help Save Crops

U.S. President Barack Obama has called for a federal strategy to promote the health of bees that have been declining. The honeybee has been waning due to parasites, disease and pesticides. Wild bees may be used to take over their role as crop pollinators. Scientists first need to learn a lot more about wild bees, says biologist Sam Droege, who is pioneering the first national inventory on native bees. VOA’s Deborah Block went to his research laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland, to bring you more.
Video

Video US Defense Officials Plan for Long-Term Strategy to Contain Islamic State

U.S. defense officials say American air strikes in Iraq have helped deter Islamic State militants for the time being, but that a broad international effort is needed to defeat the extremists permanently. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned Thursday that the group formerly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, is better organized, and financially and militarily stronger than any other known terrorist group. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Drug-Resistant Malaria Spreads in Southeast Asia

On Thailand’s border with Myanmar, also known as Burma, a malaria research and treatment clinic is stepping up efforts to eliminate a drug-resistant form of the parasite - before it spreads abroad. Steve Sandford reports from Mae Sot, Thailand.
Video

Video Gaza Conflict, Hamas Popularity Challenge Abbas

The Palestinian unity government of Mahmoud Abbas has failed to convince Hamas to agree to Egyptian-negotiated terms with Israel on a Gaza cease-fire. VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports on what the Gaza conflict means for President Abbas, with whom U.S. officials have worked for years on a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Video

Video Nigeria's 'Nollywood' Movie Industry Rolls in High Gear

Twenty years after its birth in a video shop in Lagos, Nigeria's "Nollywood" is one of the most prolific film industries on earth. Despite low budgets and whirlwind production schedules, Nigerian films are wildly popular in Africa and industry professionals say they hope, in the future, their films will be as great in quality as they are in quantity. Heather Murdock has more for VOA from Lagos.
Video

Video UN Launches 'Biggest Aid Operation in 30 Years' in Iraq

The United Nations has launched what it describes as one of the biggest aid operations in 30 years in northern Iraq, as hundreds of thousands of refugees flee the extremist Sunni militant group calling itself the Islamic State. As Kurdish and Iraqi forces battle the Sunni insurgents, the fighting has forced more people to flee their homes. Kurdish authorities say the international community must act now to avert a humanitarian catastrophe. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video Cambodian American Hip Hop Artist Sings of Personal Struggles

A growing underground movement of Cambodian American hip hop artists is rapping about the struggles of living in urban America. Most, if not all of them, are refugees or children of refugees who came to the United States from Cambodia to escape the Khmer Rouge genocide of the 1970s. Through their music, the artists hope to give voice to immigrants who have been struggling quietly for years. Elizabeth Lee reports from Long Beach, California.
Video

Video African Media Tries to Educate Public About Ebola

While the Ebola epidemic continues to claim lives in West Africa, information technology specialists, together with radio and TV reporters, are battling misinformation and prejudice about the disease - using social media to educate the public about the deadly virus. VOA’s George Putic has more.

AppleAndroid