Thinking Tech

The algae bloom of alternative energy

Posting in Energy

The recent decision by Exxon to put $600 million over five years into Craig Venter's Synthetics Genomics is the latest indication that algae is ready to try and do what corn failed to do -- provide a viable biofuel.

Read the phrase "algae bloom" and you're going to be scared.

It can close the local swimming hole, it can wreck your summer and the local seafood. It can kill your dog.

But there's another way to look at blooming algae. As money. As green energy.

The recent decision by Exxon to put $600 million over five years into Craig Venter's Synthetics Genomics is the latest indication that algae is ready to try and do what corn failed to do -- provide a viable biofuel.

SGI's idea is to grow algae in containers, eating carbon dioxide, then harvest lipids within the resulting algae as fuel. It's not new or original. Experiments have been underway for 50 years.

But now real algae plants are coming onstream, with firms like Petrosun claiming they can solve problems from hunger to the climate crisis using algae. A single plant in Rio Hondo, near Harlingen, Texas, claims to be capable of delivering the equivalent of 4 million gallons of oil per year.

(The picture above is an aerial view of that algae farm, credited to PetroSun by the folks at Fixgaia.)

Sounds like a lot. But divide that by 55 to get barrels, divide it by 365 to get the barrel equivalent per day, and you're talking 200 barrels. It's a stripper well. But at least it's a working one.

A year ago Earth2Tech identified 15 algae start-ups worth looking at. Synthetics Genomics was not among them, although PetroSun was.

There are more start-ups coming on stream. Joule Biotechnologies has just come out of stealth mode with a system it says goes beyond algae, with engineered bioorganisms turning Sun and wastewater directly into usable fuel.

Will it work? Maybe, maybe not. Point is there are a lot of companies putting real money into algae. The plants eat carbon dioxide, they deliver oil and a food source, and they are very efficient at it.

Maybe we can relax and learn to love the algae blooms.

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Dana Blankenhorn

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Dana Blankenhorn has written for the Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age's "NetMarketing" supplement and founded the Interactive Age Daily for CMP Media. He holds degrees from Rice and Northwestern universities. He is based in Atlanta. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure