I know there are Gristmill readers with high hopes for algae-based biofuels. They will enjoy this piece in Popular Mechanics.

Here’s the hope:

Solix addresses these problems [algae’s finicky growing habits] by containing the algae in closed “photobioreactors” — triangular chambers made from sheets of polyethylene plastic (similar to a painter’s dropcloth) — and bubbling supplemental carbon dioxide through the system. Eventually, the source of the CO2 will be exhaust from power plants and other industrial processes, providing the added benefit of capturing a potent greenhouse gas before it reaches the atmosphere.

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Given the right conditions, algae can double its volume overnight. Unlike other biofuel feedstocks, such as soy or corn, it can be harvested day after day. Up to 50 percent of an alga’s body weight is comprised of oil, whereas oil-palm trees — currently the largest producer of oil to make biofuels — yield just about 20 percent of their weight in oil. Across the board, yields are already impressive: Soy produces some 50 gallons of oil per acre per year; canola, 150 gallons; and palm, 650 gallons. But algae is expected to produce 10,000 gallons per acre per year, and eventually even more.

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“If we were to replace all of the diesel that we use in the United States” with an algae derivative, says Solix CEO Douglas Henston, “we could do it on an area of land that’s about one-half of 1 percent of the current farm land that we use now.”

The trick, as always, is doing it on a mass-production scale in a way that’s cheap enough to compete against other fuels. There are demonstration projects uderway; it’s something to keep our eye on.

As a side note, is this not depressing?

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“There is no other resource that comes even close in magnitude to the potential for making oil,” says Sheehan, who worked in the lab’s algae program before it was shut down by the Department of Energy.


As another side note, while you’re on PM’s site, check out their green living section. Guess everybody’s got one now!