"Whoa, these are kind of spastic."
"Look, that one's a hamburger!"
Biologist Laura Beer and I were bent over a microscope at the Colorado School of Mines, in Golden, checking out a zinging, banging battlefield of single-celled green algae and sunny, UFO-shaped diatoms.
"Oooh, is that the Tetraselmis?"
Ph.D. candidate Jonathan Meuser ambled over from where he'd been isolating mutant algae, and now we all watched as a fat green critter, magnified by 1,000, kicked his little flagella. "Look at that one go," said Laura, a fit blonde in a sleek fleece top. "You could just play here all day."
The environmental-science lab was busy with machines and young, hipster researchers fussing with beakers and vials of neon-bright algae. Prayer flags hung from the ceiling, and a topo map of Mount McKinley took up most of a wall. The scientists were studying algae strains that could turn carbon dioxide into space food and create next-generation biofuels.
Weren't they a little behind the curve? Recent studies have shown that we might as well torch the rainforests ourselves when we fill up with ethanol or biodiesel. One, published by Nature Conservancy regional science director Joe Fargione in the journal Science, calculated that it could take 93 years of reduced emissions from running corn ethanol to make up for the carbon released when grassland is cleared to grow that corn—and 320 years if we cleared rainforest to grow soy for biodiesel.
But as I learned in Colorado, that doesn't mean biofuels are dead—quite the opposite. "It's been positive, positive, positive," Meuser said. "Then there's one negative and everyone's like, I knew it! It sucks!" The key, researchers say, is to get our biofuels not from cropland but from organic waste, whether it's turkey feathers, chicken poop, or coal-plant flue gases.
Some of this is low-hanging fruit, the same oil-to-fuel conversion that makes french-fry grease run your live-in school bus. Last fall, a British team called Biotruck crossed the Sahara in a pickup that ran on chocolate waste from a candy factory. And in March, New Zealander Pete Bethune set off from Spain on his second attempt to break the 75-day round-the-world record in Earthrace, a biodiesel powerboat he's run on everything from cruise-ship waste oil to liposuctioned fat—a few ounces off his own skinny frame and 20 pounds donated from two larger friends. ("I cooked it up in a big crayfish pot on the stove," he explained.)
The hopes for more large-scale biomass energy, however, lie in the little "beasties," as one British researcher put it, that digest organic waste, including bacteria that can finish off a meal of sewage or switchgrass with a dainty burp of hydrogen, methane, or ethanol. General Motors has entered into a partnership with a startup called Coskata to let patented microbes turn everything from landfill waste to old tires into ethanol. Researchers at the University of Arkansas have experimented with turning poultry litter—the bedding and droppings under chickens—into biofuel, while British researchers have fed delicious, chewy nougat (more candy!) to bacteria to create hydrogen.
And then there's algae. While bacteria digest carbon in the form of organic matter, algae can suck it straight from the air, like a freshman with a bong. Here's an organism that can slurp up our biggest waste problem and, through photosynthesis, turn it into two high-value commodities: algae meal, a protein that's already sold in health-food stores as spirulina and chlorella, and algae oil, which can be turned into biodiesel. "Where do you think petroleum came from—ancient dinosaurs?" says Isaac Berzin, an Israeli-born chemical engineer whose Cambridge, Massachusetts–based GreenFuel Technologies has run algae-to-biofuels test projects at power plants in Louisiana, Arizona, and Kansas. "No, from ancient organic material, which was mostly algae. It's how God created the world, right?"
Scientists like Berzin tend to get a little moony over algae: Its cells can divide every six hours and it thrives everywhere from the geysers of Yellowstone to the Arctic to the Dead Sea. "They're very, very adaptive," Berzin says. "And they're kind of cute when you look in the microscope and see them swimming around with their little mustaches." He sent me a video clip that showed algae cells "kissing," and I had to admit they were adorable.
But what really makes biologists salivate is algae's off-the-charts energy potential. If emissions could be pumped right from a power plant's smokestack to an on-site "algae farm"—beds of microalgae suspended in water and exposed to the sun—the algae, with their scandalous replication rates, could turn every two tons of carbon dioxide into 1,500 pounds of protein and 500 pounds of oil.
"If you used algae to mitigate just 20 percent of the carbon dioxide emissions from U.S. power generation," Berzin says, "you'd be producing 2.8 million barrels of biodiesel per day—that's, like, 20 percent of our oil imports. How much do we buy from Saudi Arabia? Less than that." Down the road, a coal plant could get carbon credits for reducing its emissions—the equivalent of, say, $30 per ton saved—while the farmer could sell the algae meal and oil for hundreds of dollars a ton. "That's why the symbiosis is so wonderful," Berzin says. "It's perfect love."
Perfect love, of course, is elusive: Attempts in the 1980s by government researchers mostly used open ponds that required tons of water and raised more questions than answers: What about evaporation? Can you just sieve out algae that's suspended in water? How about flocculation (letting the algae clump and settle)? Most important, how can you bring down "farming" costs enough to deliver the algae oil for $1 to $2 a gallon? Some 200 startups are racing to answer these questions, running pilot projects, chasing investors, and chasing investors some more. To add incentive, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the research arm of the Pentagon, is seeking proposals for affordable ways to churn out thousands of gallons of a JP-8 jet fuel alternative from either algae or biomass.
Researchers, of course, are closely guarding the innovations they're hatching to make algae-based fuel a reality. But some may be closer than you think. Entrepreneurs at one California company, Solazyme, use genetically modified algae to turn switchgrass and woody debris into biofuel, which they're testing in a Mercedes. Berzin's GreenFuel Technologies used giant water-and-algae-filled plastic bags suspended from frames to test different algae species for local site conditions; he calculated yields of up to 1.7 million gallons of fuel a year for every 250 acres of land devoted to algae farming. (Soy, he says, yields 11,700 gallons in a similar space, and rapeseed, a European favorite, 42,800 gallons.) Berzin just signed a $92 million deal to install an algae farm at a cement plant in Europe, and expects to have a commercial contract with an American power plant this year.
Then there's Jim Sears, a systems engineer whose Boulder, Colorado–based A2BE Carbon Capture startup is working with scientists from New Mexico's Sandia and Los Alamos national labs, among others, on the DARPA solicitation. (Sears has worked with NASA and the National Institutes of Health, and he helped perfect the Hump-O-Meter, a device worn by cows that detects sexual activity, so that it would be strong enough to "withstand the rigor of the blissful moment.") For full-scale algae-fuel production, Sears has designed closed systems of 50-by-450-foot clear plastic photobioreactors (think water-bed bladders full of algae). With 16 to 32 million acres of photobioreactors spread around the world, Sears believes, some 3.66 gigatons of CO2 could be consumed each year. That's one-seventh of the way toward halting the world's emissions at 1990 levels by 2050. Sears's project, like the others here, is planned largely for nonarable land using mostly brackish water.
No one, of course, believes that algae can take us all the way home. "No matter how gaga or depressed you are about biofuels," says Daniel M. Kammen, the founder of Berkeley's Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory, "solar, wind, and, whether you like it or not, nuclear and hydro are going to be much bigger pieces in the end. If the forecasts coming out of my lab are correct, it would be crazy to truck liquid fuels around in 20 or 30 years."
Still, it's encouraging that tin-hat solutions like algae and garbage, things that seemed downright wacko not so long ago, are being seen as serious parts of the energy revolution. "The changes that I think we're going to see between the year 2000 and 2030," says Douglas Kirkpatrick, a program manager for DARPA's Strategic Technology office, "will be very similar in magnitude to the changes we saw between 1900 and 1930. In 1900, man had yet to fly, and the common mode of transportation was the horse."
In other words, he's saying, be patient. The future is coming—we just have to get it out of the trash. Me, I've got a gallon of algae biodiesel on the way from a catfish farm in Alabama. And I've upped my chocolate intake considerably. Never underestimate the possibilities of a little belly fat as a renewable resource.
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