Go green: Algae could be next hot biofuel

By Les Blumenthal | McClatchy Newspapers

A 75-gallon tank of goo that in the course of a week or so changed color from lime green to almost black was one of the stars of last summer’s Farnborough International Air Show in England.

As airlines ordered hundreds of planes worth billions of dollars at the world’s largest air show, the tank, or bioreactor, was a near-perfect breeding ground for what could become the fuel of the future: the lowly algae.

Aerospace companies and airlines are betting that algae, simple organisms that come in some 30,000 species, many of which can be genetically modified, will prove to be a green fuel that can power jet planes. Algae also could be blended into diesel and gasoline, and perhaps could even replace petroleum-based diesel and gasoline one day.

As the infant industry organizes, algae must make their case for the kinds of tax breaks, market incentives, loans, and research and development backing that other biofuel sectors have. Though corn and soybean growers long have lobbied in Washington, the Algal Biomass Organization is a new kid on the block.

“We are up against formidable opposition from competing interests,” Jason Pyle, the chief executive of Sapphire Energy, stated during an algae industry meeting in Seattle earlier this fall. Sapphire, a San Diego company, already has made a type of gasoline using algae that meets fuel quality standards, is compatible with current gasoline-manufacturing infrastructure and achieved a 91 octane rating.

Pyle said that current policy favored such alternative fuels as corn for ethanol or soybeans for biodiesel and provided only limited assistance to algae-related products. He said that one of the top priorities for the new Congress and the Obama administration in their first 100 days would be to write a comprehensive energy bill. Pyle said it was crucial that the algae industry make its presence known.

In addition to algae, biofuel researchers have looked at jatropha ˜ a bush that grows in arid environments, needs little water and yields more oil than corn ˜ and halophytes, salt-tolerant plants such as seashore mallow.

Virgin Atlantic ˜ which is a member of the Seattle-based Algal Biomass Organization along with Boeing, Air New Zealand and Continental Airlines ˜ successfully tested a green aviation fuel based on jatropha on a 747 flight from London to Amsterdam. Air New Zealand plans similar testing.

Though jatropha has attracted a lot of attention, Darrin Morgan, who heads Boeing’s effort to develop biofuels and is one of the Algal Biomass Organization’s chairmen, said algae might be the best bet in the long run. If algae-based fuel can be certified for commercial use and large enough quantities can be produced, Morgan said, it’s realistic that it would be used in commercial aviation in three to five years. “It would be possible to fly on 100 percent (algae), but most likely it will be a blend,” he said.

NASA has been looking at algae as a jet fuel and for other uses in outer space. While most of the interest in developing algae farms has focused on southern California and Arizona, where it’s sunny, or near coal-fired generating plants, where carbon dioxide emissions could be used as plant food, it’s possible to grow algae anywhere. They can flourish in salt water, fresh water, brackish water or wastewater.

Last year’s energy bill requires the production of 36 billion gallons of renewable fuel by 2022 and also required the department to report to Congress on the feasibility of algae as a biofuel. Ethanol and biodiesel manufacturers think that provides more than enough room for the algae industry. The Algal Biomass Organization is composed of companies such as Boeing, the airlines and Sapphire, along with researchers, entrepreneurs, harvesters, processors and end users of algae. There’s been some disagreement over how quickly to move on the lobbying front. Everyone has an opinion; everyone is strong-willed,” said Tom Byrne, the group’s secretary and a renewable fuel consultant from Go green: Algae could be next hot biofuel Minnesota.

“This is still in its early stages.” Boeing’s decision to put up an algae exhibit at the Farnborough air show generated a lot of interest within the aerospace industry, Morgan said. The issue no longer is whether jets can use fuels based on such plants as algae but how quickly production facilities can scale up, he said.