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Corn+Soybean Digest

Cars Run on Algae, Too

Imagine, rockets and airplanes using biodiesel. It's not as far-fetched as you might think. Just listen to a bunch of biodiesel geeks and, literally, the sky's the limit.

At last month's National Biodiesel Conference, nearly 4,000 equipment manufacturers, government officials, plant production people and farmers participated in discussions about biodiesel — from raising feedstocks to producing and transporting the fuel. Five or six years ago that group would barely fill a movie theatre.

On the feedstock front, where soybeans have provided nearly all the oil in the U.S. for biodiesel production, the discussion centered around the food vs. fuel debate. That led, of course, to alternative feedstocks, such as the standard canola, rapeseed, jatropha and even mustard.

But now, the big buzz is about algae. Yep, the green slime that most of us typically squeegee off the inside of our aquariums. In fact, when the general session folks were polled about their interest level in algae, they cheered like their team had won the Super Bowl.

Even Joe Jobe, National Biodiesel Board executive director, kicked off the opening session by unveiling a Mercedes Benz C320 that runs on an algae-based biodiesel developed by Solazyme. Solazyme hopes to begin mass producing Soladiesel at a competitive price within three years.

Apparently, you can squeeze the dickens — I mean oil — out of those little algae, who produce oil naturally. Raw algae can then be processed to make biocrude, the renewable equivalent of petroleum.

Jonathan Wolfson, Solazyme CEO, says, “Cars perform wonderfully with less knocking than petro diesel. We can even make biojet fuel, too.”

There's no choice but to go the algae route in the future, says Jawahar Pavasia, an exhibitor from India who's marketing a closed-loop system that could operate on desert land, or marginal lands unsuitable for food crops.

“We have our first plant opening in India next month,” says Pavasia. “Still, we're three to five years away before we'll make an impact. Algae farming is a coming industry.”

John Sheehan from LiveFuels agrees. “Algae has been researched for 20 years and now we're going to try and commercialize it,” he says. “We're going to start by growing algae in open ponds and bubbling CO2 through it to produce the algae blooms.”

Sheehan predicts it will be five to 10 years before you'll see algae produced in any kind of large scale. “But, we'll find niche ways to produce it in the next three years,” he says.

So could algae dethrone soybeans? Doubtful. But if the technology comes to fruition, be assured you can read all about it in The Algae Digest, our new sister publication.

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