Climate Change, Development & Aid, Energy, Environment, Global Governance, Headlines, North America

ENERGY: Clean, Green Goo to Power Engines

Enrique Gili* - IPS/IFEJ

SAN DIEGO, California, Nov 19 2009 (IPS) - Stephen Mayfield, the recently appointed director of the University of California at San Diego's Algae Biotechnology lab, is taking on a Texas-sized challenge – giving birth to a nascent alternative energy industry.

Algae wallops its biofuel rivals, yielding 50 to 70 times more gallons of fuel per acre than corn ethanol. Credit: Jonathan Eng/IPS

Algae wallops its biofuel rivals, yielding 50 to 70 times more gallons of fuel per acre than corn ethanol. Credit: Jonathan Eng/IPS

Some say extracting oil from algae ranks in historic magnitude with the Manhattan Project – the Allied bid to build an atomic bomb before Nazi Germany – in terms of its promise to sustainably meet the demand for transportation fuel that underpins the global economy.

After years of inactivity in the biofuels sector, the race is on to produce "green crude". To achieve this goal, a handful of scientists and venture capitalists are willing to gamble on the next big thing, believing a bright green future lies in pond scum.

An idea that would have seemed ludicrous a decade ago is gaining credence, as it becomes ever clearer that alternative fuel sources will be needed to mitigate the effects of global warming and to meet future energy needs.

In 2008, the United States consumed 140 billion gallons of transportation fuel. Worldwide, that figure was more than 320 billion gallons.

Mayfield envisions a day when algae are produced on a vast scale both in the United States and overseas. "All the oil guys know we're out of oil," he told IPS.

While the ability of oil-producing countries to meet future energy demands is subject to dispute, energy experts acknowledge there are several factors driving a renewed interest in alternative fuel. A broad consensus exists among scientists, corporations, and policy makers that conflict, climate change, and politics are a volatile mix.

"We're not in Iraq because al Qaeda was there, we're in Iraq because the oil is there," said Mayfield.

He explained that he and his colleagues realised they had to get their "butts in gear" when the price of gas rose to four dollars a gallon in the United States, coinciding with dire news from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that curbing carbon dioxide (CO2) was imperative to prevent an economic and environmental collapse.

Not wanting to waste a good energy crisis, the San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology was launched in 2008. The lab is designed to unlock the algae's industry potential under the aegis of the Scripps Oceanographic Institute, the Salk Institute and UC San Diego.

Mayfield was still in the process of unpacking boxes as he explained the lab's premise. "The oil that comes out of algae is very similar to the crude oil that you pump out of the ground," he said.

San Diego academics are no strangers to the business sector. Mayfield, along with other UC San Diego colleagues, entered the biofuels industry several years ago. He is one of the founding members of Sapphire Energy, a company with 100 million dollars in funds from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and investment partners.

Clustered around the university are 15 start-up companies pursuing similar goals. "We need [to be] all in. The world will consume as much energy as we ever make," said Mayfield.

Graphing the correlation between GDP and energy consumption, he illustrated the rising demand for fuel as economies grow. "The competition for energy is insatiable," he said.

Algae attract research dollars for several reasons. Fast-growing and ubiquitous, these single-celled organisms convert sunshine into lipids, which in turn can be converted into transportation fuels without much modification. Algae wallops other biofuel rivals, yielding1,500 gallons of fuel per acre – 50 to 70 times more than corn ethanol.

Adding to the appeal, algae favours murky, even saline water, and arid climate conditions. This potentially opens up deserts and other marginal lands deemed unsuitable for food production as locations for algae feedstock plants.

Moreover, algae absorb carbon during photosynthesis, compensating for the CO2 released during fuel consumption. Preliminary studies suggest algae-based fuels produce 60 percent less CO2 compared to petroleum, over the lifecycle of both products.

The downside is the cost. The oil and gas industry possess a considerable advantage in terms of economies of scale, when it comes to the discovery, production and delivery of transportation fuel to global energy markets. Pumping oil out of the ground is still cheap when compared to reinventing a business model premised on algae.

The United States has been down this road before. The U.S. government financed algae research from 1978 to 1996 with mixed results. The Department of Energy (DOE) ultimately determined algae couldn't be produced in sufficient quantities, at a price low enough to compete with petroleum.

According the Al Darzins, a principal group manager at the DOE's National Renewable Energy Lab, the cut in funding had more to with the near record low price of crude than the viability of algae.

"If you could produce a barrel of algae oil during that period, it would have been in the 60- to 80-dollar range. Of course, that couldn't compete with a 20-dollar petroleum oil barrel," he said.

However, due to warnings about global warming, and worries over energy security, algae is now getting a second look. Clean energy proponents claim that within five to 10 years, the technology will exist to produce algae-based fuels in large quantities.

The National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) re-established its algae research programme in 2006. Presently, there are about 150 companies around the world addressing the algae question.

"I'm optimistic that this could be a game changer. But I'm also realistic in the fact that there are a lot of challenges on the engineering and the biology side we have to solve," Darzins told IPS.

California's carbon strategy is perhaps a precursor to the Copenhagen Climate Summit next month. There's a statewide mandate to cut CO2 emissions, improve gas mileage, and encourage green-tech projects. State law requires investor-owned utilities to procure 20 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2010. That number is set to increase to 33 percent by 2020.

Meeting those goals has spurred development and investment in achieving clean technologies. In San Diego, there are 153 companies focusing on every aspect of the renewable energy sector, from building electric cars to making affordable residential solar panels.

When politicos gather in Copenhagen, they'll be looking for ways to ease the pain of transitioning to a low-carbon economy. Investigating technologies that can pave the way to a greener future should be one of them.

*This story is part of a series of features on sustainable development by IPS and IFEJ – International Federation of Environmental Journalists for Communicators for Sustainable Development (

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