Here comes fat algae; research unveils potential commercial fuel production

Every couple of weeks appears to bring an algae fuel technological breakthrough, study or news of a pilot venture to bring the process from the laboratory to your corner fuel station.

Granted, fueling up with algae products is likely many years away. But it's being taken seriously. Right here in the San Joaquin Valley, experts at the University of California, Merced have been awarded a grant to analyze emerging algae biofuels technologies.

And the U.S. Department of Energy has recently announced that it will be accepting applications for $12 million in grants over the next three to four years for about five "laboratory or small pilot-scale projects that support the development of advanced biofuels." Technologies like cellusic ethanol or fuel-tank-ready butanol may be first to the gate, but algae research has a strong shot.

For instance, John Sheehan, who coordinates research on biofuels at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, just produced a 34-page study about a algae-to-fuel breakthrough discovered by scientists researching cancer treatments. The study was developed on behalf of VG Energy, a subsidiary of San Marino, Calif.-based. Viral Genetics Inc.

Those researchers found that molecules which disrupt the burning of fats, or lipids, in tumor cells "also encourage microscopic plant cells like algae to accumulate and even secrete fats," Sheehan wrote.

And those fats can be used for fuel. The more the better. Separating them out is the challenge. But Sheehan stated prominently that "VG Energy’s technology show the promise to compete with crude oil in today’s market."

Sheehan said getting algae cells to secrete lipids (by a factor of three) makes it easier to separate the oils from the water and the green glop from which it originates. And he said it "opens up the possibility that oil can be separated and recovered from the algae in a non-destructive way."

Recycling that material back into the system at a rate of 75 percent enables producers to possibly extract biodiesel and jet fuel for $94 a barrel, comparable with today's crude prices, Sheehan said. Crude, according to, pushed past $106 per barrel the end of March and up to $123 on the one-year forecast.

John Platt, a reporter for Mother Nature Network, wrote in a story of Sheehan's study that "biofuel researchers have been seeking a technique to accomplish this switch, known as the 'lipid trigger,' since the 1990s." If VG can master the concept, algae may be developed into a competitive product.

Algae already grows quickly and consumes CO2, which makes it possible coal-burning power plants may be interested in developing a side business in pond scum.

And if, like me, this entire algae-fuel concept intrigues you, there is even the opportunity for home brew. offers the ebook, "How to Make Biodiesel." Reminds me of my beer-making days when I was in my late 20s and early 30s and still working at the Anchorage Times.

This would be different, but not much (just don't drink multiple bottles). It would be possible to bottle that brew. The site says algae is easy to grow, needing a nice mix of sunlight, water and carbon dioxide.

The authors did kind of lose me when they talked about the ease of setting up a home bioreactor, described as "a controlled environment where you can grow algae in a faster phase." The bioreactor keeps out contamination and other unwanted substances.

I applaud their moxie, however. Perhaps this is the era of the alternative, one in which the shade-tree mechanic or obscure researcher toiling away for a relative pittance figures out a way -- or combination of ways -- that gets this country back to energy self-sufficiency.