A start-up called Sapphire Energy has taken what might be the farthest reaching step yet to turn algae into the kind of fuel you could pump into your gas tank. They’ve received funding from the likes of Bill Gates and others to build a commercial-scale facility that, they say, could be churning out 10,000 barrels of their “green crude” within five years.
For several years, researchers have been trying to figure out a way to coax fuel from what most of us think of as simple, slimy goo. It contains oil that can somehow be transformed into jet fuel, diesel fuel, and even something very much like petroleum. (See this National Renewable Energy Laboratory report on the government-funded “aquatic species” program to convert algae to biofuels, which began in the 1970s [.pdf file].)
But there are some obstacles: one is the ability to produce a barrel of the stuff for a reasonable sum. The other is that this “green crude” — as Sapphire Energy calls it — is still combusted the old fashioned way, which releases carbon dioxide into the air. The company’s Web site calls the fuel carbon-neutral, because of the CO2 used to grow the algae.
It’s certainly an example, I believe, of innovative thinking about alternative fuel sources. But it’s also a reminder that few options, if any, seem to exist that don’t carry consequences for the environment. I wonder what the next breakthrough will be…