I”m sitting in the back of the ballroom at the Monte Carlo in Las Vegas where the National Algae Association is holding its West Coast meeting. The mood here is focused, straightforward, geeky, startup-ish. Gone is the euphoria of the beginning of the algae revolution. People are invested. Companies are brokering deals. Things are being built and sold. Algae is happening.
‘Algae.’ When you hear that word you may think of pond scum, slime, grime, or a pool that needs more chlorine. But these little green critters may soon offer more than meet the eye. Among the many possible new technologies being developed from algae are Omega-3 oils, clean burning algae diesel and clean burning algae gasoline, phytonutrients, nutraceuticals, carbohydrates, proteins and fats – for food and as building blocks for other things.
The “engine” that algae runs on, or rather, its “software” is the basic software for all life – DNA. More specifically, algae contain what may be the first software for life and perhaps one of the simplest genetic sequences. Considering the millions of strains of available algae, this software is available, right now, in nature, to perform many tasks that today we assign to more complex life forms (like creating protein from cows, or carbohydrates from plants).
Algae’s unique advantage is the speed at which it replicates itself. A colony of algae can replicate itself approximately once every two hours. It will continue to do this until it exhausts its resource base. Theoretical yields for open pond algae can be in the tens of thousands of pounds per acre per year; this can either be fuel, food, or fiber.
Algae also are uniquely useful at cleaning water. America produces approximately 1 trillion gallons of sewage annually, which currently has a negative energy cost and a high capital infrastructure cost to purify. Algae can convert sewage into an immediately usable energy form such as biodiesel.
Medical applications of algae are vast. Because algae contain the ability to convert sunlight into energy but also the ability to produce animal like oils, like Omega-3, they can be the basis for consumable products of very high value and low pollution. In contrast, the Omega-3 oil created from fish can contain extremely high levels of mercury and other dangerous heavy metals.
Algae fuel is already alive and well. With the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into the development of fuel from algae, it is on the fast track. So much so, in fact, that my wife and I drove the first ever car on algae gasoline across the country last fall. The “Algaeus” went over 5,000 miles on fuel made from Sapphire Energy, a company specializing in the development of large scale algae to fuel technology.
While perhaps not a panacea for all of our woes, algae may offer us a way to provide fuel, food and clean water at a fraction of the capital cost and a fraction of the environmental cost of our current systems.
For more information on algae, the “Algaeus” vehicle and on upcoming algae technologies and projects, visit www.JoshTickell.com
Josh Tickell is the best selling author of two books on alternative fuel and the award-winning director of the movie FUEL, which releases on DVD this June. He lives and works in Santa Monica, California with his wife Rebecca Harrell Tickell who is the author of the book, Hot, Rich and Green – The Secret Formula Women are Using to Get Rich and Save the Planet.