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Company explores algae as oil alternative

June 20, 2008 8:14:38 PM PDT
The price at the pump continues to skyrocket and without a doubt diesel fuel tops the list as most expensive. Now one Bay Area company is hoping to change that with a little help from mother nature.

We've all heard of diesel and cooking grease used as alternative fuels, but now a Bay Area company believes it has a viable alternative - oil made from algae.

It may sound like a normal vehicle, but this jeep might be one of the first on the road to a refining revolution. It's powered by a fuel its makers say is chemically indistinguishable from the diesel at the pump - a fuel made from algae. It's not a new concept.

"What has changed recently is that the bio-technology tools to make this a very efficient and low-cost oil production process are only just now coming into existence," said Harrison Dillon, Solazyme.

Solazyme's Harrison Dillon is hoping to take those tools to the bank by taking them to the pump. He makes his fuel starting with plant-based materials, like wood chips and corn stalk. He feeds them to single-celled algae - which convert them into oil.

"To make oil at a cost that's really competitive is something that requires a lot of bio-technology optimization," said Dillon.

That's what Dillon hopes will set his process apart from others. He's using different strains of DNA to pump up the algae's production. In a cooler is where they store some of the big bins of oil that they've already made, and while it seems like there's a lot, the problem is mass quantity is necessary in order to make this feasible on an economic scale.

Chris Field with the Carnegie Institution for Science says that's the tough part.

"If you can figure out a way to make those things cheap enough so the energy and the algae can be extracted at an advantageous price, than it's a very attractive way to produce either liquid fuels or chemicals," said Field.

Dillon thinks his company may be at that level in three years especially if fuel prices keep going up.

"It's true that as oil prices go higher, the urgency for bringing our technology into commercial reality gets higher," said Dillon.

He also says it's a green technology with lower emissions than today's diesel and it's a technology that parlays into many uses: fuel, plastics, cosmetics, and edible oils.

"So our technology is not food versus fuel. Our technology is food and fuel," said Dillon.

And while that technology is mainly humming in the lab right now, it could one day be flowing from a pump near you.

"It's an exciting new era in energy and that we need to figure out a way to make sustainable use of the natural opportunities that are there," said Field.

Solazyme says their diesel fuel will work with all of their existing infrastructure used to transport and deliver diesel. He thinks if and when they end up hitting the market, it would be a smooth transition.

Click here to learn more about Solarzyme.

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