Within just two years, Americans could be filling their cars with clean-burning biodiesel made from algae.
That’s the ambitious assessment of Harrison Dillon, co-founder of synthetic biology company Solazyme, who believes the transition could move even faster if oil prices continue to climb north of $100 a gallon.
Solazyme is one of the leaders in the rapidly blooming algae-oil industry, and has recently entered talks with Chevron about distributing its fuel, Soladiesel. Other front-runners include Shell, working with HR Biopetroleum, Global Green Solutions, Valcent Products and International Energy.
Last December, Royal Dutch Shell announced a collaboration with HR Biopetroleum, a tiny government-funded start-up on the Hawaiian island of Kona. The oil giant has formed a new company called Cellana, which will grow algae on a 100,000-hectare site using seawater ponds and sunlight. Shell has refused to comment on how much it has invested in the project.
Other companies are shifting away from ponds because of the problems of water evaporation and the risk of contamination by other algae species blown in with the wind. However, if algae is grown indoors using electric light, the power used could negate the CO2 sequestered by the plants.
The Vertigro Bio Reactor System has been designed to avoid both problems. Algae is grown within plastic bubbles hanging from racks in a greenhouse. Vertigro is a joint venture by and Global Green Solutions, a giant with offices in El Paso, Vancouver, London, Brussels and Johannesburg, and Valcent Products of Texas. During a 90-day continual production test, algae was being harvested at an average of one gram (dry weight) per liter, which the company estimates would equate to 33,000 gallons of algae oil per acre per year. Such an output is a third more than a pond system could produce, the team estimates.