Algae, the photosynthetic organisms that float at the ocean’s surface, already produce roughly three quarters of the planet’s oxygen. But one group of scientists think these simple cells could do even more to clean the atmosphere.
Algenol, a Florida-based biotech company founded in 2006, has patented a way for the blue-green, single-celled organisms to produce four key fuels — ethanol, gasoline, diesel and jet fuel — all for a little under $1.30 a gallon and with two-thirds less greenhouse gas emissions.
While it may sound strange to think of pulling up to a gas station to buy algae, supporters point out that’s what drivers are already doing: crude oil pumped from underground is often derived from algae that settled on the seafloor eons ago and decayed into a waxy substance known as kerogen. When heated by pressure, kerogen liquifies into either oil or natural gas. Essentially, Algenol has condensed the timeline, creating the biofuels at their four-acre plant, rather than waiting for them to be drilled out of the crust.
In broad strokes, Algenol’s technology looks similar to what many biofuel companies already do to ferment sugars from corn, soybeans or animal fats into fuels like ethanol. But its method requires no farmland or freshwater. Instead, Algenol’s algae hangs in bags of seawater and is exposed to the Florida sunshine and carbon-dioxide to produce the sugars required for ethanol directly. That’s where the science gets tricky: by adding enzymes, the process enhances algae’s fermentation, so that it devotes its energy to producing sugar for fuel rather than its own maintenance and survival. After that, the spent “green crude” by-product is further refined into other fuels. The company boasts that the process is far more efficient than anything farm-raised, converting more than 85 percent of its inputs into fuel.
It’s an impressive scientific achievement, but Algenol’s financials face strong headwinds. A recent glut of oil from worldwide markets caused a steep drop in prices at the pump, creating obstacles to market penetration and slowing emergent technologies. And major support from the federal government, in the form of grants, loans and tax credits, largely expired in 2011. In late October, the company announced a 20 percent reduction in the workforce and the Algenol’s founder, Paul Woods, stepped down.
While cheap gas may be a boon to consumers’ pocketbooks now, eventually we will all have to pay the steep price for its pollution. It’s up to us to pick what kind of algae we want to keep putting in our cars.