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Can Algae Power the Future?

When you think about renewable energy, the usual suspects come to mind. Solar farms in the American Southwest. Wind energy in the central plains. Even tidal energy along the coasts and biofuels everywhere in between.

Yet one area that doesn’t get much focus is algae, the simple organism that turns energy from the sun into the same type of crude oil that fills American refineries.

Let’s take a quick step back. Every type of energy is generated by the sun, as you may have learned in high school. Solar radiation causes wind to blow, tides to roll, and once provided the building blocks for the hydrocarbons that make up oil, coal, and natural gas. Some of that energy has taken millions of years to form. Algae, on the other hand, almost instantly converts photons into energy. “It’s the most efficient way we know of to create liquid fuels,” says Tim Zenk, vice president of corporate affairs at Sapphire Energy, a company bringing algae energy to scalable production. Whereas other types of plants spend energy building trunks and leaves and flowers, algae can produce almost pure energy from photosynthesis.

Different strains of algae, competing for dominance.

Here’s why algae matters. Over the next two decades, the U.S. Department of Energy has projected an oil shortfall of up to 30 million barrels each day. Even a small fraction of that can seriously disrupt the U.S. economy, which runs most transportation and development on fossil fuels. More solar and wind development can meet new demand, but can’t produce a liquid to fill your gas tank or airplane engine. On top of that is the security dilemma posed by importing energy from often unfriendly or even hostile countries. The Pentagon specifically, along with the Pew Environment Group, has worked toward making the military more energy independent.

Some Sapphire leaders gave me a tour of the growing companyto see its labs and swirling beakers filled with green gunk. It may be a little messy, but it’s an idea even the federal government has gotten behind with a $104 million grant and loan package from Washington. A bipartisan group of lawmakers has visited Sapphire to see how the process works.

What does oil from algae look like? Just like crude from anywhere else.

One reason for the broad support: algae is ubiquitous. It’s everywhere. And it’s easy to replicate—most strains are asexual and spend their days dividing into newer and newer generations. In one lab, several beakers were attached to machines that clicked what seemed like every few seconds. “Every click is a new generation,” one researcher told me.

What’s more, it can be bred without too much difficulty into more and more efficient strains. Imagine one peach that’s sweet and another that grows quickly. Crossbreed them and ideally you get a peach with both characteristics. Sapphire is doing the same with thousands of algae strains, cross breeding every hour of the day to find more and more efficient strains that can pump out oil faster and more cheaply.

Sapphire's more leisurely side.

Still, algae isn’t quite a silver bullet. Renewably-produced oil can be a big part of our future, but even the top scientists at Sapphire don’t expect it to completely overshadow current fossil fuel production. Currently, algae produces a few hundred barrels a day, far short of the 19 million barrels America consumes daily. “We think that algae can be the solution for the entire Department of Defense’s fleet [of ships, jets and vehicles] when we’re at larger scale,” says Zenk.

For now, it’s mostly scientists under 40 who fill Sapphire’s labs. They care about things like climate change more than their parents, I was told, and are keen to work on an emerging technology. Plus, who says energy research has to be all lab work? Sapphire was the only company I’ve ever visited to have its own company surfboard.

Comments

  1. Nitin
    India
    December 10, 2012, 9:41 am

    Is this applicable to some specific species of algae or to all?

  2. DanGan
    Madison, WI
    December 7, 2012, 2:10 pm

    I was very excited for algae in 2004, so much in fact I wrote a lengthy term paper for my econ 301. It’s almost 2013 and I am sad to see how many businesses have been bullied and breakthroughs stymied. The paper I had written (wrote?) 8 years ago could be resubmitted today nearly verbatim.
    That is, it has great potential, far superior to ethanol through sugar or corn and big oil is doing what they can to keep a truly renewable fuel down.

    I am a very big fan of the potential of algae, yes. Yes I am.

    PS IMA RYMA – LOVE IT!

  3. Shawn
    MA
    December 7, 2012, 11:51 am

    Why is there no ‘print’ function on this page? (ie. make a printer-friendly version.)

  4. Rod
    Colfax, CA
    December 3, 2012, 3:17 pm

    Dr. Corcoran, the CO2 released when the algae-created fuel is burned is CO2 that the algae just absorbed, so there is no net release of CO2.

  5. Dr. Richard Corcoran
    Santa Cruz, CA
    December 1, 2012, 11:01 am

    Its still a fuel that is carbon based and will produce CO2 when burned. Would love to show you my house where solar power produces energy for the home and our electric cars: a Nissan LEAF, and a Chevy Volt. Our annual expenses in electricity are $300 for our home (3700 sq. ft.) and TWO cars. We are also in the process of doing an energy upgrade to the house and adding soar hot water. This will improve the energy efficiency of the home by another 40%. Technology which is here now, and CO2 reducing!

  6. Dan Stone
    December 1, 2012, 3:14 am

    And great question, Austin. I asked the same one during my visit. Being asexual doesn’t mean they clone themselves. It comes down to harnessing genes. Then, very carefully, combining attractive genes to evolve a new, more advanced offspring.

  7. Dan Stone
    December 1, 2012, 3:11 am

    Ima that’s undoubtedly the first poem I’ve ever read about algae. Nicely done.

  8. frank
    November 30, 2012, 6:12 pm

    Because algae, I can see our human’s future, we wouldn’t die on fossil fuel. Let us continue support algae renewable energy production, keep it posted all the time.

  9. Elena Herrera
    Kingsburg Ca
    November 30, 2012, 4:16 pm

    Keep up the good work NATGEO

  10. Ima Ryma
    November 30, 2012, 3:05 am

    Algaes’ being scrutinized by
    U.S. Department of Defense.
    Uncle Sam may want algae – why?
    To fuel the forces in a sense.
    The algae takes the sunshine in
    And craps it out as crude oil quick,
    The kind that can run an engine.
    So the green gunk is more than ick.
    Maybe generals have affairs,
    And embarrass the Pentagon,
    But with algae there’s no such cares.
    Constant renewal gets it on.

    We will thank algae more and more,
    As we do jump from war to war.

  11. Austin
    November 29, 2012, 10:01 pm

    Fascinating. I’d love for this to take off. Algae could be grown in wastewater–killing two birds with one stone.

    One question, though: If “most strains are asexual,” how is algae crossbred?