WASHINGTON – A 75-gallon tank of goo that in the course of a week or so changed color from lime green to almost black was one of the stars of last summer’s Farnborough International Air Show in England.
As airlines ordered hundreds of planes worth billions of dollars at the world’s largest air show, the tank, or bioreactor, was a near-perfect breeding ground for what could become the fuel of the future: the lowly algae.
Aerospace companies and airlines are betting that algae – simple organisms that come in some 30,000 species, many of which can be genetically modified – will prove to be a green fuel that can power jet planes. Algae also could be blended into diesel and gasoline, and perhaps could even replace petroleum-based diesel and gasoline one day.
As the infant industry organizes, algae proponents must make their case for the kinds of tax breaks, market incentives, loans, and research and development backing that other biofuel sectors have. Though corn and soybean growers long have lobbied in Washington, the Algal Biomass Organization is a new kid on the block.
The organization will meet today in the nation’s capital to discuss how to convince Congress and the incoming Obama administration that algae are much more than the film inside your fish tank, the scum blooming in the neighborhood pond or, in one of their most complex forms, seaweed.
“We are up against formidable opposition from competing interests,” Jason Pyle, the chief executive of Sapphire Energy, said of resistance from ethanol and biodiesel groups during an algae industry meeting in Seattle earlier this fall.
Sapphire, a San Diego company, already has made a type of gasoline using algae that meets fuel quality standards, is compatible with current gasoline-manufacturing infrastructure and achieved a 91 octane rating.
Pyle said current policy favored such alternative fuels as corn for ethanol or soybeans for biodiesel and provided only limited assistance to algae-related products. He said one of the top priorities for the new Congress and the Obama administration in their first 100 days would be to write a comprehensive energy bill. Pyle said it was crucial that the algae industry make its presence known.
“The train is moving. … It hasn’t left the station yet,” Pyle said in urging the algae industry to make a concerted lobbying effort. “But we are approaching the final opportunity … to grab a seat on the energy train.”
In addition to algae, biofuel researchers have looked at jatropha – a bush that grows in arid environments, needs little water and yields more oil than corn – and halophytes, salt-tolerant plants such as seashore mallow.
First-generation biofuels made from corn, soybeans, sunflower seeds and rapeseed were rejected because they use valuable agriculture land and water, can result in deforestation in developing countries and the demand for them has driven up food prices and caused scattered food shortages.
Virgin Atlantic – which is a member of the Seattle-based Algal Biomass Organization along with Boeing, Air New Zealand and Continental Airlines – successfully tested a green aviation fuel based on jatropha on a 747 flight from London to Amsterdam. Air New Zealand plans a similar test.
Though jatropha has attracted a lot of attention, Darrin Morgan, who heads Boeing’s effort to develop biofuels and is one of the Algal Biomass Organization’s chairmen, said algae might be the best bet in the long run.
If algae-based fuel can be certified for commercial use and large enough quantities can be produced, Morgan said, it’s realistic that it would be used in commercial aviation in three to five years.
“It would be possible to fly on 100 percent (algae), but most likely it will be a blend,” he said.
The Department of Energy studied algae as a fuel source as far back as the 1970s but abandoned the research in 1996 to focus on ethanol. Last year’s energy bill required the department to report to Congress on the feasibility of algae as a biofuel.
NASA has been looking at algae as a jet fuel and for other uses in outer space.
“It’s hard not to get excited about algae’s potential,” said Paul Dickerson, the chief operating officer of the Energy Department’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.
While most of the interest in developing algae farms has focused on Southern California and Arizona, where it’s sunny, or near coal-fired generating plants, where carbon dioxide emissions could be used as plant food, it’s possible to grow algae anywhere. They can flourish in salt water, fresh water, brackish water or wastewater.
Last year’s energy bill requires the production of 36 billion gallons of renewable fuel by 2022. Ethanol and biodiesel manufacturers think that provides more than enough room for the algae industry.
“We don’t necessarily see them as competitors,” said Matt Hartwig, a spokesman for the Renewable Fuels Association, an ethanol trade group.
Michael Prolich of the National Biodiesel Board said, “We would welcome their work to grow the biodiesel industry.”
Lawmakers don’t see it necessarily as a zero-sum game.
“We shouldn’t be picking winners and losers,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and a leader on energy issues for the Democrats. “We need to create a level playing field with incentives.”
The Algal Biomass Organization is composed of companies such as Boeing, the airlines and Sapphire, along with researchers, entrepreneurs, harvesters, processors and end users of algae. There’s been some disagreement over how quickly to move on the lobbying front.
“Everyone has an opinion; everyone is strong-willed,” said Tom Byrne, the group’s secretary and a renewable fuel consultant from Minnesota. “This is still in its early stages.”
Boeing’s Morgan agrees, but he added that it’s important for the industry to have a voice in Washington.
Boeing’s decision to put up an algae exhibit at the Farnborough air show generated a lot of interest within the aerospace industry, Morgan said. The issue no longer is whether jets can use fuels based on such plants as algae but how quickly production facilities can scale up, he said.
“There are no algae farmers,” Morgan said. “There are lots of corn farmers, but no algae farmers. We are finding a receptive audience when it comes to policymakers and the general public, but we need a collective voice.”