What's Jimmy Carter Got To Do With Algae Bio-Diesel?
"Greensters" (green oldsters) won't forget the gas station waiting lines that were routine under the US Presidential Administration of Jimmy Carter. On the plus side, the inconvenience alone led to people buying more efficient vehicles. This, in turn, had a negative feedback loop: Japan, Inc. got to eat Detroit's lunch with a dash of reliability & quality: efficiency was almost a side-dish by the time Motown car designers smelled the coffee.
Turns out, Jimmy's foresight had another plus side that, to this day, shows no sign of a negative feedback loop. Through a $25 million dollar biodiesel research program, his Administration set in motion the creation of an intellectual property bank that is a foundation of today's booming algae-based biodiesel industry. The private sector payback - although many years delayed - is likely to be significant.
Before we go on, I get a lick in. Free market Utopians are wrong. In the story that follows, algae biodiesel startup Solazyme shows us that government work creates value for the private sector. Good for climate change, national security, and adapting to skyrocketing diesel prices, too.
The $25 million Aquatic Species Program was set up in 1978 by the Carter Administration to investigate high-oil types of algae that could be grown for biodiesel. The project, run by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, found algae farms producing the plants in shallow ponds could supply enough biodiesel to completely replace fossil oil for transportation and home heating.
Since I'm feeling a little more political than usual (owing to the primary season), I note that it was the Clinton Administration that moved the alternative liquid fuel train onto a one-way corn-based ethanol track.
But by 1995, oil prices had settled down again and President Clinton's government was looking for budget cuts. The NREL decided to concentrate on ethanol and closed the ASP. However, its collection of more than 3,000 strains of algae is still open to researchers at the University of Hawaii and is widely regarded as the intellectual property backbone for today's algae-to-fuel startups.
Favorite tradeoff quote:
Other companies are shifting away from ponds because of the problems of water evaporation and the risk of contamination by other algae species blown in with the wind. However, if algae is grown indoors using electric light, the power used could negate the CO2 sequestered by the plants.
And two wonderful money quotes:
The Vertigro Bio Reactor System has been designed to avoid both problems. Algae is grown within plastic bubbles hanging from racks in a greenhouse. [pictured]
"Once algae starts growing, light only penetrates one inch. By going vertical, we can increase the surface area and the volume that gets exposed to sunlight," he [Michael Gilbert] says. "We also try to use every drop of water we can. There's no evaporation, we only lose what's bound up in the algae oil and the plant."
TreeHugger highly recommends the entire article, by Liz Turner, for Green Fuels Forcast. Gets our 5* rating.
Here's the TreeHugger Solazyme "see also" list of earlier posts.
Chevron Backs Solazyme to Develop Algal Biodiesel Technology ...
Solazyme B100 Algae Biodiesel Goes on the Road
Lester Brown: Time's Up, Coal
Geneticist Craig Venter Wants to Create Fuel from CO2
TreeHugger Gets Naked & Wet With William