Algae biofuel develops momentum; could we see $30 bbl fuel?

Algae keeps nosing around clean energy news.

It doesn't have the sunny cache of solar or the exotic qualities of wind, tidal and geothermal power. But the rapidity of algae fuel's reported advances are hard to ignore. At least for this former reporter.

In my backyard at the University of California, Merced, researchers received a grant to "perform a comprehensive life cycle analysis study of algae biofuels." The money, a modest $142,747, is part of about $3.5 million issued by the California Energy Commission's Public Interest Energy Research program.

Algae takes a back seat in the grant to other projects that include improving grid reliability, energy efficiency and automobile fuel economy. But, hey, it's algae. Pond scum. This is the stuff that may be grown in wastewater settling ponds, harvested and turned into diesel fuel. Or food additives, you never know.

But the important thing is algae wasn't left out. It's not cold fusion. This stuff shows true promise as an alternative energy source.

CEC Commissioner Jeffrey Byron put it this way in a statement from the agency: "California's strength comes from the ability to invest in energy research across the board."

No kidding. And this pond scum just may keep oil prices from breaking the bank. Cambridge, Mass.-based Joule Unlimited announced that it has created a "cynobacterium" that secrete a product identical to ethanol or diesel fuel, according to Joule biologist Dan Robertson, quoted in

This breakthrough, the company says, could enable the production of 15,000 gallons of diesel per acre annually. The company says it can do it for $30 a barrel.

That has yet to be proved commercially, of course. But developments are coming hot and heavy across the globe. rattled off a handful of promising developments in Australia, topping off the list with serious production efforts by Aurora Algae and Algae.Tec.

And, an aggregator of stories, lists multiple posts daily. One that caught my eye highlighted a peer review of the draft report “Biofuels and the Environment: First Triennial Report to Congress,” scheduled by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The report will give Congress a taste of what's coming.

Expect pond scum to do more than lurk in a puddle on the floor with lobbyists during discussion.

I do like to include practical applications in these rants. Nothing epitomizes that more than the biofuel-powered Bentley Continental Supersports convertible, reportedly capable of more than 200 mph. The vehicle debuted this week at the Geneva Auto Show in Switzerland. Ami Cholia of writes: "an on-board fuel supply system monitors the content of the fuel tank to make sure that power and torque remain constant regardless of the ratio of petrol to biofuel."

Pretty cool. So it can handle anything you throw at it and still go fast. We put fuel oil in a bug once and it ran. Barely. We had to clean the plugs, but it got us out of a jam.

The Bentley, I assume, would be better.

Biofuels still must prove themselves. Ethanol, even as an additive, has gotten mixed reviews. For instance, the lawnmower mechanic in Old Town Clovis told me if I kept using that "cheap garbage gas" I'd continue to have problems with my mower's carburetor. Her gripe? Ethanol. It gets gummy and nasty if allowed to sit too long. (Hint: use stabilizer.)

UC Merced plans to analyze emerging algae biofuels technology and provide feedback on the rather interesting concept of extracting fuel that doesn't require much land, water or tending. And pond scum grows rapidly in any kind of water. The leftover material, after oil extraction, could be used for fertilizer.

"We will consider the efficient use of residual algae biomass as an energy rich waste stream and new harvesting techniques that could improve the sustainability of the overall process," wrote J. Elliott Campbell and Gerardo Diaz of UC Merced and Joseph M. Norbeck of University of California, Riverside.

As I read over their proposal, I determined that the process of extracting and refining sounds far above my paygrade. But as I was scanning through one of the many algae related websites, I found this do-it-yourself book: "Making Algae Biodiesel at Home" (, $99.99). It says it can, among other things, show the home brewer how to build an 80-gallon algae photobioreactor "for less than $215."

Somehow it doesn't sound as promising as my once prolific beer-brewing efforts in Anchorage before I was married. But who knows? The practice may catch on.

All you need is a biofuel Bentley.