It takes approximately 150 million years for organic matter to become oil that we pump out of the ground. We all know the ramifications of this – finite oil supplies, ever-growing demand for a limited resource, economic upheaval as supplies dwindle in our energy-hungry world. We also know the basics of renewable energy – government subsidized ethanol production, rising corn (and food) prices, a lifetime, government-guaranteed annuity for ArcherDanielsMidland, etc. And the attendant problems of switching our vast base of petroleum-based engines to alcohol.
But what if we could reduce that 150-million-year cycle to three days? What if we could create, in that three days, a grade of crude oil that is as high, or higher, than any currently available bio-oil? An oil that is really oil, not an alcohol substitute for oil.
Although algae-based oils have been discussed for decades, this is first time that a scalable, industrial-grade process for producing them has been developed. The implications for this, if it ultimately proves viable, are enormous. Paired with high-performance, clean diesel technology — such as that developed by Audi and Peugeot for their endurance racing teams — could significantly change the automotive landscape.
What about CO2 emissions? According to Solazyme:
The algal biodiesel fueling the car is made through Solazyme’s proprietary process for manufacturing high-value, functionally-tailored oils from algae. This process, which uses standard industrial fermentation equipment, yields a biofuel that significantly reduces greenhouse gas emissions and is biodegradable, nontoxic and safe.
That almost sounds too good to be true, and maybe it is. But it’s clear (at least to me) that the current approach to ethanol is not even a short-term solution. Trading food for driving is a dumb approach. It takes at least six months to grow a crop of corn for ethanol, then you have to break it down into its constituent parts to make the fuel, which basically wastes all the corn parts. With single-cell algae you don’t have to wait six months, and you don’t have to break it down nearly as much.
This isn’t a panacea. The algae has to be fed sugar to grow, and the sugar comes from corn syrup, sugar cane, wood chips, etc. So it’s still going to require some sort of organic matter. But it doesn’t have to be a primary food stock. This looks like something worth watching.