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Fuel from microorganisms

One sunny afternoon in the early 1970's, during the OPEC-induced oil shock when gasoline prices sky-rocketed and real shortages caused long lines at the pump, University of California, San Diego biology professor Gordon Sato unveiled to me, a graduate student at the time, a grand vision of oil produced by photosynthetic algae as they lived out their microbial lives in shallow artificial lakes in the deserts of southern California and Arizona.

Now, one small company, Solazyme has actually produced fuel from algae for the U.S. armed services, diesel for use in ships as well as jet fuel. More recently, they have brought algae-produced gasoline to the pumps of California motorists. Solazyme has moved up to commercial sized batches, now growing it's algae in 500,000 liter vessels.

But there is a catch, one which leaves us far short of Sato's vision. Solazyme's algae run on sugar rather than sunlight.

From an economic and environmental standpoint, sunlight is obviously preferable. Sunlight is free; at least it is free if you have lots of sunny acres in which to grow your algae. But also, and more importantly, photosynthetic algae would make their oil from the carbon dioxide in the air, helping to reduce the carbon load of the atmosphere. Solazyme's algae require carbon dioxide that has already been fixed into sugars that is provided by conventional agriculture, using a lot of petroleum inputs. Solazyme is collaborating with agricultural giants like Bunge and Archer Daniels Midland to produce their fuel. The company is also producing special oils for skin care products and nutritional uses.

Photosynthetic algae that produce fuel efficiently work in very shallow spaces; otherwise they compete with each other for the available sunlight. To make it work well, you need huge open areas.

Another type of photosynthesis-produced fuel is being tried by Bio Fuel Systems of Spain. The company claims 5-10 barrels of photosynthetic Brent crude oil equivalent per hectare per day, using a type of marine phytoplankton. Spain, like southern California, has a lot of sunny land unsuitable for agriculture.

As far as I know, Sato never tried to put his algae biofuel dreams into operation. But his experiments with desert aquaculture, originally begun at California's Salton Sea, led eventually to the Manzanar project, which has planted nearly one million mangrove trees along the Eritrean coastline. The mangrove trees grow in salt water and provide lumber for villagers as well forming the base of an aquatic ecology, from which seafood can be harvested. Hargigo is the first prototype village, reportedly one of the hottest inhabited places on Earth, with an average annual rainfall of less than an inch. 

The Manzanar project was named for the Manzanar Japanese internment camp in the Owens Desert, where Sato and his parents were relocated during World War II. It was there, at Manzanar High School, that Sato learned his first lessons in desert agriculture.

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Steven A. Edwards, Ph.D.

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