Algae: Slime to the Rescue

A lot of folks are hoping a slimy green superhero called algae will emerge from its murky lagoon to help us defeat the dual threats of oil dependency and climate change. Many believe algae is the next-generation biofuel with the best potential to offset oil consumption, especially of heavy oils such as diesel and jet fuel, which power the planes, big rigs, trains, and bulldozers that aren't well served by batteries. Algae can yield up to 100 times more oil per acre than today's biofuel crops, and it doesn't require soil or fertilizer. The unicellular organism can double its mass every 24 hours and thrives on sunlight, carbon dioxide, and brackish or salty water – all of which are plentiful in Texas. In Austin, work is well under way to bring algae to the forefront of the industry.

Norm Whitton is responsible for much of the local algal progress. The oil-industry veteran of nearly 30 years spoke last week at Algae: Pond Powered Biofuels, a forum held by the University of Texas' Clean Energy Incubator. He recalled living in Singapore in 2001 and consulting on a massive new Chinese oil refinery. When he realized that China hoped to satisfy its fast-growing consumption with the same oil sources as the U.S., he extrapolated the results and said to himself: "Wow, I'm scared. I've got to do something." Since 2006, Whitton's company, Sunrise Ridge Algae Inc., has been collaborating with the city of Austin's Hornsby Bend Biosolids Management Plant (the destination for everything you flush down the toilet) and various departments from UT, which claims to maintain the largest algae species library in the world.

Whitton envisions a 500- to 600-acre local algae plant that pumps Austin's wastewater and CO2 (captured from a nearby natural-gas power plant) into closed ponds that look like giant water beds. Today, algae must be dried out or treated with a chemical called hexane to extract its oily contents. But Robert Hebner, director of UT's Center for Electromechanics, is perfecting ways of tearing open algae cells with electromagnetic fields – a more efficient way to extract the oil. At a current cost of $10-40 a gallon, algae power is still a long way off, but venture capitalists, oil companies, airplane makers, and state and federal governments are all taking notice and taking out their checkbooks. Investments in algae development have jumped from $2 million in 2004 to more than $206 million this year.

Whitton hopes to be producing algae commercially in four to five years and thinks plants like his will one day fill the role of today's myriad small and large oil producers, while he foresees companies such as Shell, BP, and Chevron continuing to manage the refining and distribution, much as they do today. Whitton is optimistic about algae, but he's cautious, too: "It would be nice if something came along to solve our problem so that we didn't have to change our lifestyle," he said. "The reality is that 'it' isn't here yet."

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