One of the coolest things about blogging is getting to post about exciting things with a world of readers – not that there are many of you yet, so please, link this blog to your e-friends! – who may not have the faintest knowledge of what’s up for discussion.
Today: algal oil.
Huh? Oil, yes, understood, the stuff we use to power cars and heat homes and it comes from under the earth, usually from too-hot places with awful endemic attitudes toward over half their populations. Oil, got it. But algal? As in, algae, the stuff in the sea?
As this London Guardian article details, there’s a new – and renewable – force for running engines, and it will be put on trial by none other than the US Navy in a trial of marine fuel, for which some or perhaps all of ordinary “bunker” fuels may someday be substituted. This change is big, because using biofuels instead of the usual up-from-the-earth fuels will absolutely transform the world’s shipping fleets.
The history of using oil instead of coal to fuel ships goes back to Winston Churchill, he of the cigars and round hats, before he took the helm as Prime Minister of Great Britain. A century ago, as Navy Minister, he was persuaded that burning oil rather than coal would make the Britisih navy more efficient. He ordered the change. It worked. As the Guardian describes, “Two years later he bought for the UK government a 51% controlling interest in the then-small Anglo-Persian Oil Company. Within a few years, the company changed its name to BP, and is now the world’s fourth largest corporation.”
Unfortunately, it’s still oil. Black gold. Texas tea. Protecting the flow of it has cost lives, pain and billions of dollars.
But algal oil? It can be produced virtually anywhere. Right now, most of it comes from Pennsylvania, produced by a firm called Solazyme. It’s manufactured in giant fermentation tanks where the captive algae munch on such low-cost delicacies as crop and forest wastes. They’re fantastically cooperative, the algae. No risk of wandering. Happy to stay warm and fed.
Yet they need not be kept indoors. The Guardian once more: “Craig Venter, the scientist who first sequenced the human genome and designed the first synthetic cell, is trying to develop a genetically engineered algae fuel that depends only on sunlight and sea water and can be grown and harvested at sea. In an interview in this month’s Scientific American, he said: “We need three major ingredients: CO2, sunlight and seawater, aside from having the facility and refinery to convert those things. We’re looking at sites around the world that have the major ingredient. To us, this is a long-term plan.’” (My suggestion: look only at sites in nations whose sex ratio at birth is staying constant, rather than skewing male. You’ll save a great deal of money and worry.)
And as any beach dweller knows, algae are diverse. With that diversity comes new potential. Says a Solazyme spokesperson: “We have tested thousands of algae, found in swamps, in mountains and at sea and we know we can be competitive. By using different strains of algae we can produce different kinds of oils.”
Different kinds of oils. From tiny green plants. The mind boggles.
Every time it seems things couldn’t be worse, there’s a spark of hope, light at the end of the tunnel. Science fiction veers toward contemporary truth. A new path is struck.
Let’s take it.