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Solazyme founder Harrison Dillon: Why the U.S. Navy wants our green jet fuel

Solazyme founder Harrison Dillon: Why the U.S. Navy wants our green jet fuel

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Solazyme's founder and CTO says it was the first biofuel company to move past PowerPoints and give the Navy what it wants: green, algae-based jet fuel.

The Navy is going green. Solazyme, the San Francisco-based renewable oil and green bioproducts company, recently delivered its 100 percent algae-based jet fuel to the U.S. Navy for testing and certification.

The fuel, showcased at last week’s Farnborough International Air Show in the U.K., is called Solajet HRJ-5, and it provides an 85 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions compared to traditional fossil fuels. It is designed to meet all of the requirements for Naval renewable aviation fuel. In early testing, it also met the fuel requirements of the Air Force and commercial aviation industry.

Last week I spoke to Harrison Dillon, president, chief technology officer, and co-founder of Solazyme. He told me they were the first biofuel company to move past PowerPoints and give the Navy what they wanted.

You just delivered 1,500 gallons of 100 percent algae-based jet fuel to the U.S. Navy. Can you walk me through how you make fuel out of algae?

The way our technology works is we feed biomass to algae in a fermentation process. So it works in the dark, using big steel tanks.

I’m picturing a brewery.

Yes, but 100 times bigger than that.

You put the biomass, which is sugar, into the steel tanks and infuse our algae. The algae converts the sugar into crude oil. The process takes a few days, then we pull the algae out of the tank. At the beginning the algae has no oil, but then it consumes the sugar, converts it to oil and stores the oil in its cells. So you take the algae out and dry it, and 80 percent of it is oil. That’s a big metric people use when you’re cultivating a microbe. If your product is only 8 percent oil, for instance, that’s not very efficient.

Then we take the oil in a tanker truck to a regular oil refinery. One of our philosophies is to do things that are compatible with existing structures. We can go into large-scale fermentation factories and go to existing refineries.

Harrison Dillon and a refinery worker sampling a vial of the jet fuel from the tanker truck of 1,500 gallons that was sent to the Navy.

Where does your algae come from?

These are unicellular organisms. We spent years screening thousands of strains of algae to find the one that is most efficient at producing oil. There are a lot of sources for these algae, including some companies that sell the strains. Anyone could find these strains, but it’s pretty technical to [do what we’re doing].

How long has this process taken—figuring out how to make jet fuel?

The company is seven years old. The process with the tank and growing the algae has been in development for about four years. Before that, we spent a few years growing the algae in ponds using sunlight, and we realized that would never work. The cost of making a gallon of oil by growing algae in the sun is about $1,000 a gallon. We knew you could make oil that way, but you’re multiple decimal points off where you want to be.

We observed the process of feeding biomass to yeast to make ethanol, which is about $2 a gallon. So we realized if we fed it to algae, we could use that same process to make oil. That’s when we switched the approach.

The Navy has 19 rigorous requirements for renewable hydro-treated jet fuel. What are some of these?

It needs to have a certain density because there’s not a lot of room on a jet. There’s a measurement of how much energy per gallon, and obviously you want more energy per gallon. There are flashpoints, or freezing points, because it’s very cold in the sky. You have to be above a certain freezing point. The standards are pretty stringent.

How is this kind of jet fuel different from the fuel we’d use in our cars?

The process of refining our oil into jet fuel isn't fundamentally different than refining our oil into diesel fuel. You’re just tweaking the process a little to make the two products. The density of jet fuel is actually a little lower than diesel because if you drop the density you can keep it from solidifying at cold temperatures.

Do any changes need to be made in the aircraft to support this fuel?

You don’t need new engines, new pipelines or new gas pumps. We have to make the fuel meet every single fuel standard the Navy has so it can be used as a 100 percent drop-in replacement.

Now that the fuel has been delivered, what happens?

They’ll test it in laboratories. They’re not going to put it in a plane to test it. And in the next few weeks we’ll be delivering the rest of 20,000 gallons of diesel fuel, which will be used for ships.

Was security driving the Navy’s decision to use your fuel, or was it cost?

The U.S. military is the largest single user of petroleum in the would. There’s an important aspect of national energy security. You can use a renewable biomass like sugarcane, produce this oil, refine it into fuel and provide it to a military base, and you’re completely independent of the global supply chain of oil. So if there’s a disruption in the supply chain they can continue to make the fuel for their ships and jets.

But if [the Navy] didn’t think we could manufacture these fuels at a cost equal to or lower than petroleum-based fuels, they wouldn’t be interested. We will be able to make oil $60 to $80 a barrel within two years, and we’re not much higher than that now.

Are other branches of the military on board with this fuel?

The Air Force is certainly interested in these fuels as well. The Navy has a goal to operate at least 50 percent of its fleet on clean, renewable fuel by 2020. The Navy has led the way in putting a bold target out there and getting this program up and running.

How did this arrangement with the Navy come about?

We went to the military to pitch this to them about two years ago, and they said to us, “It sounds great, but every biofuel company in America has come through here telling us the same story. So if you really want to do this, you have to make fuel and not just show us a PowerPoint.”

So at our own expense, we made a barrel of fuel and sent it to them. They said, “You’re the only company that has made us the fuel. Let’s do it.”

Has the Navy promised you a flight in a jet using your fuel?

I’d love to fly in a fighter jet. But no promises have been made.

Images: Solazyme

Here's a Smart Video of Solazyme's Harrison Dillon talking about using algae to make renewable crude oil.

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Melanie D.G. Kaplan

Contributing Editor

Melanie D.G. Kaplan is a Washington, D.C.- based journalist. She is a regular contributor to The Washington Post and National Parks Magazine. Her website is www.melaniedgkaplan.com. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure