Photosynthesis is one of the very first topics taught in biology. The process by which plants use the sun to convert light energy into chemical energy is at the basis of life as we know it. And while humans have adapted solar technology to build off of Mother Nature's time-tested solution, a few companies have begun to use algae as a source of energy, again catalyzed by the sun. Based in South San Francisco, Solazyme is one of a few companies creating high-value renewable oil and bioproducts from low-cost plant-based sugars. Currently, Solazyme is focused on producing three kinds of products based on the algae: fuels, nutritional products, and skin and personal care items. Here at TRANSLOGIC, we are most interested in the fuels they make and the cars that run them.

Last year, Volkswagen announced a partnership with Solazyme and Amyris, another leader in renewable fuels, to evaluate emissions reductions and demonstrate their TDI technology's performance when powered by renewable biofuels. In the partnership, VW handed over a 2012 Passat TDI and a 2012 Jetta TDI to be used for testing.

Volkswagen Passat TDI

"Partnering with two leaders in advanced biofuel technology supports Volkswagen's goal of offering a competitive suite of technologies that help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve fuel efficiency and fit the diverse needs of our customers," said Prof. Dr. Jürgen Leohold, Head of Volkswagen Group Research.

Biodiesel actually burns cleaner than fossil-fuel based diesel. In addition, the fuels from Solazyme don't appear to negativelyaffect the vehicle's performance. Those two criteria are critical for larger scale development of producing oil from algae.

The process starts with the algae growing in a dark fementation vessel where they will eat their sugar-based growth media. The result is an oil very similar to vegetable oil. (We've seen many diesel conversions that run on veggie oil.) Interestingly, Solazyme's process does not require solar energy for photosynthesis like other processes. In fact, Solazyme claims their yields are higher because of it.

In addition to the use of their biofuel in TDI Volkswagens, Solazyme has experimented on a few Navy vessels that have now consumed over 1 million gallons of their fuel.


Some of the advantages of using algae for fuel is the ease of growth compared with growing corn (the basis of E85 ethanol fuel) for a full season, then processing. Also, algae production doesn't require arable land like corn, and can be made almost anywhere. Because corn is both used in food production for humans and animals, basing oil fuels off it can tend to cause prices to rise. Algae doesn't have this affect.

However, there are some disadvantages. For instance, the production volumes. Many still think we are a few decades away from the massive scale that would be required to completely take over our consumption of fossil fuels or fuels from corn and grain.

But as with many environmental challenges, there is often a solution. Volkswagen hopes to bring us closer to one.

"Volkswagen has continually been at the forefront of automotive innovation providing safe, quality, and environmentally sound vehicles to consumers," said Rogerio Manso, Chief Commercialization Officer, Solazyme. "Solazyme's 100 percent drop-in renewable diesel is compatible with existing infrastructure and vehicles, and provides the world-class engine manufacturer with an advanced diesel replacement that drives significant Greenhouse Gases (GHG) as well as ground-level emission reductions."

Solazyme Algae-Derived Biodiesel: TRANSLOGIC 126

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