Algae is Green in More Ways Than One: An Alternative Fuel

Santa Monica residents love their Priuses and other car companies have attempted to follow suit with their own brand of electric vehicles. Oil and alternative energy companies are therefore investing money to develop a surprising new fuel source compatible within the existing infrastructure. This source, made from algae, is the greenest fuel yet. 

Alternative fuel sources are a less scary investment for big oil companies looking for middle ground. The advent of electric cars and new technologies threaten to put oil-pumping companies out of business or force them to restructure, an expensive endeavor. To combat this hardship, oil companies have an interest in developing a fuel source that fits into their existing infrastructure.  This also keeps the consumer from having to purchase a new vehicle to go green.

A fact sheet on Exxon's Web site says that it is investing $600 million in algae conversion research. According to the Los Angeles Times, Exxon has been criticized by environmental groups in the past for not donating money to investigate green alternatives, but they are now stepping up and advertising their algae program as the newest kind of biofuel.

ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Company has joined up with a private scientific research company called Synthetic Genomics, Inc.  SGI's CEO and lead scientist is Dr. J. Craig Venter, known for building the first synthetic genome. Venter was on this list of Time Magazine's 100 Most Influential People for 2007 and 2008.

Exxon's money will be going to Venter's company to see if he can come up with a greener biofuel than what has been envisioned in the past. Exxon's fact sheet notes that biofuel made of palm, sugar cane, corn and soy produce less gallons per acre of growth every year. Exxon projects that algae could produce over 2000 gallons of fuel per an acre of production.

Not much is known about what the benefits of algae will be, since SGI is in its preliminary stage of testing. Exxon is testing photosynthetic strains of algae, meaning that no extra fertilizer and water would be needed to provide nutrients for growth, a difference from corn and other soil-based biofuels. Algae also consume carbon dioxide, which might help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

 Exxon's fact sheet said that the molecular structure of bio-oil derived from algae is similar to that of petroleum, ensuring that consumers can continue buying oil from gas stations and alluding to the fact that petroleum might still be used, just in smaller ratios or aided by a carbon-reduction process.

Another energy company, San Diego-based Sapphire Energy, is also experimenting with green crude algae use. It defines their fuel as "renewable gasoline," not "biofuel," which is increasingly becoming a "dirty" word as it is associated with deforestation and agricultural land clearance.

In September, Sapphire Energy sponsored a cross-country trip of the Algaeus, the first car to run on the algae-gasoline mix, said the Sapphire Energy Web site. The Algaeus, a 2008 Prius with an added battery pack, traveled for 10 days and 3,750 miles on the green crude mixture. Sapphire Energy reported that the Algaeus got 147 miles to the gallon when traveling through cities during its trip from San Francisco to New York City. It only got 52 mpg, however, when traveling on the open highway.

Scientific American blogger, David Biello, offers insight into how the Algaeus has reported getting the best mileage of any car—ever—and why, quite unusually, mileage in the city beats mpg on the open road. In his blog, Biello points out that only five percent of the gasoline was algae-derived. The Algaeus ran on 95 percent 91-octane fuel.

The better city-to-highway mpg might have had something to do with the fact that the added battery was recharged every time the brakes were pumped, Biello reports, meaning that stop-and-go traffic actually boosted energy levels. As a whole, algae rode backseat to the electricity and petrol which primarily sustained the car's power. 

The Algaeus received much press when it pulled into New York City in a calculated publicity move. The Algaeus' final stop coincided with the release of the documentary "Fuel," which investigated the environmental, political and health consequences of America's reliance on oil. Josh Tickell, the director of "Fuel," was the one driving the Algaeus across the country and ABC news reported that Tickell only stopped six times to refuel the vehicle.

Biofuels Digest reports that Sapphire Energy is testing 8,000 strains of algae daily in a New Mexico facility and that 11 different companies in southern California are currently developing algae fuel mixtures. Algae research is taking baby steps and no one knows quite what it will bring. The present technology does not differ greatly in its greenhouse gas emissions and it has yet to be seen if algae power will be effective without the aid of pricey battery add-ons. 

More research needs to be done before algae can prove itself as more than just another trend in the search for environmentally responsible transportation, but it is yet another step forward in the green revolution.