Back to "Back to the Future"

Remember the "Back to the Future" movies staring Michael J. Fox? Remember the Professor character played by Christopher Lloyd who refueled his DeLorean-based time machine with banana peels and half-filled beer cans? Well, we are approaching a similar solution. Not banana peels for fuel, but pond scum instead. Pond scum biodiesel fuel!

Diesel fuel is a small market next to gasoline - only 40 Billion gallons a year or thereabouts compared to about 140 Billion gallons. Still 40 Billion is nothing to laugh at. Biofuels production in the U.S. is still under one billion gals/year. In all of Europe it is 1.4 billion gallons. To ramp up production may cause as much disturbance in soy and other oil-rich crops as ethanol has caused in corn and other food prices. But algae, well that's another story. It grows where and when people don't want it. It is part of nature's system of reprocessing chemicals in water and air, powered by sunlight. Algae grows very quickly and, like all plants, it eats CO2.

I am not a biologist. The information on algae biodiesel is available in the Nov. 3 issue of BusinessWeek's What's Next section. One venture firm is Imperium Renewables of Seattle, which readers will likely be familiar with. Investments and research are now underway to get to the most commercially viable production system and to get that system up to sufficient size. What strain of algae is most productive and resilient? Which is easiest to process to biofuel?

A production rate of 8 billion gallons a year would allow every US gallon of diesel fuel to be B20 biodiesel. I just hope we get the algae to work with us. What if the best kind of algae for biofuel smells like skunk? Or eats thru piping? Or is toxic to the touch? We'll have to go to the near future to find out.

[Source: BusinessWeek]

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