Is filling up with algae fuel a decade away?

The prospect of tapping pond scum for fuel may not be so far off.

While significant hurdles remain -- algae-produced fats aren't as readily transformed into energy as, say, Texas tea -- many have joined the pursuit of commercialization and a recent study says plants could come on line in the next four to six years producing product competitive with conventional fuels.

Imagine driving down to the corner quick-rip grocer and filling it up with a little homegrown green.

A decade from now that might be possible.

Boulder, Colo.-based Pike Research reports that by 2020, "production of biofuels derived from crude algae oil will reach 61 million gallons per year." Writers of the Pike Research report, industry analyst Mackinnon Lawrence and Pike President Clint Wheelock acknowledged the amount was "barely a drop in the bucket for biofuels" but said the potential production would represent a market value of $1.3 billion.

Cruise the online data provided by Oilgae, a biofuels support organization based in India, and you'll start believing the hype. The industry-supported research group reported that significant investments into the sector have come from Exxon Mobile, Shell, BP and even Bill Gates. Oilgae calls algae "the only biofuel that can completely replace fossil fuels."

The Associated Press reported this week that South San Francisco-based Solazyme recently sold the U.S. Navy 150,000 gallons of algae-produced fuel for testing in ships and jets and that the company received a $21.8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to build a refinery in Riverside, Penn.

Algae definitely has its supporters. Rachel Ehrenberg of reported earlier this year that microalgae "have become a fledgling favorite in the renewable energy sector."

In January, the U.S. Department of Energy announced $44 million in funding for the National Alliance for Advanced Biofuels and Bioproducts. Led by the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, Mo., the organization will seek to develop a method for commercializing algae-derived biofuel and related products. The agency is hedging its bets in the biofuels realm, giving $33.8 million to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to investigate and develop processing options for other types of "advanced biofuels."

Lawrence and Wheelock of Pike Research say the ultimate threat comes from over-hype. The industry, they say, lacks large-scale projects to substantiate claims and needs significant investment to reach widespread
commercialization. "If early-mover companies and pilot projects run into serious setbacks, expect a retrenchment among private capital interests," the researchers say.

In the renewables pantheon, biofuels, mostly developed from corn in this country, often get the sideways glance. They require energy to produce, still must be burned and because of that create greenhouse gasses. On the plus side, they aren't foreign oil.

U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts a steady increase in domestic biofuels consumption, following current trends. The agency projects the strongest growth for renewable fuels used to generate electricity and those used in the transportation sector, citing programs like the federal renewable fuels standard. "Although fossil fuels continue to provide most of the energy consumed in the United States over the next 25 years ..., their share of overall energy use falls from 84 percent in 2008 to 78 percent in 2035," the agency said.

The Renewable Fuels Association in its 2010 outlook said that despite economic challenges, the U.S. ethanol industry has continued to expand. Production in 2009 reached an estimated 10.6 billion gallons, helping "support nearly 400,000 jobs in all sectors of the economy."

The association's outlook said "no fewer than 28 advanced biofuel companies are currently developing the much-needed technologies that will greatly expand ethanol production." Those facilities under development represent more than 170 million gallons of production and much more if they prove commercially successful, the report said.

The association said many employ cellulosic and advanced biofuel technologies and "hold the promise to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 100 percent compared to gasoline."

Ehrenberg of highlighted the research of a team from University of Virginia in Charlottesville, which examined the energy costs and environmental impacts of producing algae for fuel. The team, she wrote, found that "algae farms must minimize use of fertilizer and freshwater to compete with other biofuel plants."

Ehrenberg said the team suggested a solution would be placing algae operations next to "wastewater treatment plants or facilities that emit carbon dioxide."

Makes sense. I recall the "septic system" at our first place in Fairbanks, Alaska in 1969 was a pit in a tree-studded section of tundra. Great place for growing single-celled pond scum back then.

Now? Who knows?