Pond Scum: The New Biodiesel

(Image credit: Currie Community High School, UK)

I was at a bluegrass concert last night, idly absorbing mandolin grooves when the lead singer shouted out something about algae being an amazing new source of biofuel. The claim was so random that I figured a) he was totally off, b) he was referring to some scientist’s garage experiment, or c) there was something to it.

The correct answer turned out to be c). In fact, there’s so much to this source of fuel that I’m amazed at the dearth of mainstream press coverage surrounding it. Tom Riesing, an investment banker-turned-permaculturist, produced a convincing document extolling algae as a sustainable and—most importantly—executable new source of fuel.

Algae contains fat, carbohydrates, and protein. Some of the micro-algae contain up to 60% fat. Once the fat is ‘harvested’— some 70% can be harvested by pressing—what remains becomes a good animal feed or can be processed to produce ethanol.

Micro-algae is, by a factor of 8 to 25 for palm oil. and a factor of 40 to 120 for rapeseed, the highest potential energy yield temperate vegetable oil crop. Using open outdoor racetrack ponds, only 15,000 square miles could produce enough algae to meet all of the USA’s ground transportation needs. Transportation accounts for 67% of US oil consumption according to the Atlantic Monthly, July/August 2005.

So you cultivate the stuff on an existing medium, racetrack ponds, and you get a yield that could power most of the country. Not bad. He adds that the research into algae’s fuel-producing properties began during the first fuel crisis in recent memory, which took place in the 1970s.

During the oil crisis of the 1970s, Congress funded the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) within the Department of Energy to investigate alternative fuels and energy sources. Between 1978 and 1996, the Aquatic Species Program (ASP) focused on the production of biodiesel from high lipid-content algae growing in outdoor ponds and using CO2 from coal-fired power plants to increase the rate of algae growth and reduce carbon emissions. Prior to this program, very little work had been done to understand the growth process and metabolic composition of algae.

What a wonderful reminder that crises, if nothing else, spur innovation.

Algae fuel startups have sprouted up around the nation. Star among these is GreenFuel Technologies Corporation, founded in 2005, which successfully grows algae in power plant carbon dioxide emissions. The algae piggybacks on existing natural gas plants, growing off emissions and sunlight before being processed into biofuel, ethanol, and livestock feed.

Does it get any more sustainable than this?

What’s more, the company has serious clout behind its technology and management. It spun off from the rocket scientists at Massachusetts-based Payload Systems, who have consulted with the likes of NASA and MIT. Industrial tycoon Lee Blatnavik, whom Forbes listed as the 40th richest American in 2006, was GreenFuel’s first investor. Former DOW Chemical executive Simon Upfill-Brown was recruited as the new CEO two days ago.

Can anyone else detect a whiff of lucrative opportunity here? This sustainable industry—and others like it—are quietly building momentum, carving out a role as big business’ new protégés. Once politicians put the appropriate policies into place, I imagine the algae talk will evolve from bluegrass band statements to straight buzz.