Business uses algae to fuel cars

June 21, 2010 7:37:07 PM PDT
A small organism may play a big part in weaning Americans from their dependence on oil. A South San Francisco startup is actually powering cars with a new biofuel.

The algae-derived diesel gets poured right into the tank and can run a jeep. The fuel is refined from crude oil made from, believe it not, algae. It's that slimy, green scum that lines ponds, lakes and un-kept pools.

Jonathon Wolfson co-founded Solazyme, a company that's trying to bring algae to the pumps. He says it is no pipe dream.

"We've gotten very good with taking algae and getting them to make oil for us very quickly," says Wolfson.

It starts with petri dishes and beakers in the company's South San Francisco fermentation labs. They feed the algae with all kinds of biomass.

"We can feed them yard clippings, from a golf course or from your backyard or leaves. We can feed them wood chips," says Wolfson.

The algae fatten themselves and are taken through a process which eventually produces oil.

"They do it in big stainless steel tanks. They do it in a few days. We take the oil out and when you put it in a refinery, it comes out as the same kind of fuel that you would get at the gas station today," says Wolfson.

However, Wolfson says his fuel is bio-degradable and more sustainable than petroleum-based diesel.

"It's domestic, it's renewable and it dramatically reduces the carbon footprint. It allows us to get off foreign oil," says Wolfson.

And Wolfson says people won't notice the difference when they're driving.

But is algae diesel cost effective?

"We don't believe we have a product until we can sell at the same price as petroleum, which right now is in that $60 to $80 a barrel range and that's the target and we're just about there," says Wolfson.

And the ride is very nice.


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