From organism to oil
Turning pond scum into oil isn’t easy, but as a hypothetical energy system, it’s elegant. The theory is that algae will produce more burnable fuel on less land than regular crops, perhaps something like a thousand gallons of oil per acre instead of a few dozen from conventional plants. The food-versus-fuel debates that plague biofuels like corn-based ethanol would disappear. Plus, it’s possible the algae could be engineered to make high-energy fuels suitable even for airplanes. It’s these possibilities that sold the Carter administration’s energy officials.
Phycologists, the people who study algae, discovered that under certain circumstances, some algae start cranking out far more oil than normal. Restrict their nutrients, and for some reason they start producing lots of oil. But they also stop growing. If the scientists could keep the algae multiplying and pull the “lipid trigger” anyway, they’d be in fat city. But their understanding of the biology was incomplete, and the task wasn’t easy. It would take some time and effort to know if and when their the process would become cheap enough to compete with crude. …
Another challenge was getting the algae to keep growing without injecting a lot of energy into the system. They installed large open ponds near Roswell, New Mexico, and began trying to produce tiny algae at oil tanker scales. It worked, but there were problems. Again, it would take some time and effort to know if and when everything would work together.
The program did not get time or the money to find out. By the time Bill Clinton took office, funding for the program had dwindled to a trickle, and in 1996, the Department of Energy abandoned the program to focus all its biofuel efforts on ethanol. A dark decade fell upon the field of algal biofuel. There wasn’t even money available to take care of the algal collection that had been so painstakingly created.
In an effort to salvage some of the science, a few hundred strains of algae were sent to the University of Hawaii, but the refuge proved less than ideal. When a National Science Foundation grant ran out in 2004, it became difficult to continue the laborious work of maintaining the collection. The organisms sit in rows of test tubes living and reproducing. Every two months, they have to be transferred, “passaged,” to a new nutrient-rich tube. Random genetic mutations can enter a population and lead to permanent genetic changes. The algae can die.
It’s not exactly clear how it happened, but a review released earlier this year found that more than half the genetic legacy (.pdf) of the program had been lost. Only 23 of the 51 strains that were extensively studied during the program remain alive and extant. The losses to the rest of the algal cultures in the collection have been even worse.
“The really bloody shame is that of those 3,000, there are maybe 100 to 150 strains that remain at the University of Hawaii,” said Al Darzins, who heads up the resurgent algal biofuels research program at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
On January 2, 2008, oil hit $100 a barrel for the first time. Despite some ups-and-downs, the price of oil remains substantially higher than it was through much of the 1990s. As a result, more than 50 companies are now at work on some aspect of biofuel production from algae. …