Advanced Biofuels Hope to Change the Climate for Transportation

Scientific American

Click here to listen to this podcast

If you drive a diesel vehicle in the Bay Area, you may have noticed something a little different at your Propel Fuels station. For the first time, Propel has started selling a biodiesel blend partially made from algae.

That's right. A photosynthetic microorganism was turned into fuel without having to die, be buried in sediment and cooked by eons of geologic processes into petroleum. Instead, the company Solazyme simply grows its algae in the dark, on a sugar diet. Starved of light, the algae digest sugar and produce oil, which the company harvests.

It's all part of an ongoing effort to make low-carbon fuels to replace diesel, gasoline and jet fuel. The idea is simple: the algae or other plants suck up CO2 when they grow, the same CO2 that is released when the fuel made from the algae is burned. So there's no net addition of the greenhouse gas to the atmosphere.

Solazyme is hardly alone. Companies like Kior and Ineos are using chemical and biological methods to turn wood into fuel. And experimental algae farms are springing up in San Diego and the deserts of New Mexico. The fuel of the future might not need epochs worth of fossilized sunshine, fulfilling some of the promise of advanced biofuels.

—David Biello

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

 

 

Follow Scientific American on Twitter @SciAm and @SciamBlogs.

Visit ScientificAmerican.com for the latest in science, health and technology news.

© 2013 ScientificAmerican.com. All rights reserved.