Algae. I scrape it out of my daughter's goldfish tank every few days, but someday those single cell plants could be powering cars.
LiveFuels is partnering with Sandia National Labs to devise a version of car fuel out of algae. The algae would be grown in ponds and then sold off to refiners who could turn it into petroleum. The science comes from Sandia; LiveFuels handles the business side of things.
The company has already trademarked the name Supercrude (which, I think, was also the name of a Redd Foxx album in the '70s.)
LiveFuels says it can, potentially, get 10,000 gallons of useable hydrocarbons for an acre-size pond a year. The hydrocarbons will be boiled down into useable diesel or petroleum. The ponds will be fed by farm waste water.
"This stuff loves agricultural run-off," says CEO Lissa Morgenthaler-Jones.
The company is trying to capitalize on two major trends. One, global warming and the higher price of gas is prompting consumers and car makers to embrace alternative fuels such as ethanol and butanol.
Second, many believe we can harness microbes to do the dirty work of chemical transformation and fermentation for us. Dyadic International has found a prolific fungus that they believe can transform waste products from farms into fuel, while Microgy has a digester that turns a mix of cow manure and microbes into natural gas. Other microbe start-ups include Mascoma, Ceres, Cambrios, Fundamental Applied Biology (or FAB, get it?) and Synthetic Genomics.
What makes LiveFuels different than some of these is that it will make petroleum, which can be used in most cars. Most of these others are specializing in ethanol, an alcohol that can be added to petroleum and then burned in many, but not all, cars. Algae are a particularly oily microorganism, said Morgenthaler-Jones. The North Sea Deposit, among others, was created by prehistoric algal blooms, according to some scientists.
The catch? You just can't fill a moat full of dirty water and wake up to find petroleum in thirty days. Agonizing research lay ahead in figuring out how to optimize the algae for petrol production. And then these genetically enhanced algae have to be bred to survive life in ponds.
"The lab strains tend to be out-competed in the real world," she said.
The goal is to produce crude from algae by 2010. Change in the oil industry, though, has historically occurred slowly.