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America's Fuel Source of the Future Could Be 'Pond Scum'

Rejoice, America: Researchers say the nation is equipped to produce "serious amounts" of algae biofuel.


Would you drive a Ford Scumliner? Or how about a Chevy Kelpette?

Autos from the black lagoon could be a reality in the coming decades, if experiments to transform algae into a fuel source prove successful. And if they do, America could be king in a new energy landscape dominated by algal biofuel. That's because our placid waterways and warm lakes are looking better than ever for the massive cultivation of slimes, oozes, glops and other kinds of green gold.

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America's potential headstart in the algae-fuel sector was recently heralded by researchers who found that the country is ready to grow "serious amounts of pond scum." In particular, the scientists are giddy about the possibilities of the Gulf Coast, which has a "good combination of warm temperatures, low evaporation, access to an abundance of water, and plenty of fuel-processing facilities," according to Mark Wigmosta, a hydrologist at the government-run Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Algae are an attractive prospect for futurists looking into the days past coal and gasoline's dominance. They're oil-rich organisms that grow in great abundance and could be relatively cheap to harvest, once muck-farmers get the process down. Algal oil isn't totally ideal, because like fossil fuel it produces climate-changing carbon dioxide. But algae naturally mitigate those emissions by sucking C02 out of the air during photosynthesis. It's an exciting-sounding dreck, one that even the Commander in Chief got pumped about during a 2002 speech at the University of Miami:

The new study from the Pacific Northwest lab estimates that the U.S. could generate up to 25 billion gallons of algae fuel yearly, satisfying one-twelfth of the nation's energy needs. That's 4 billion gallons more than a previous estimate that the researchers made. They arrived at their new figures after surveying all the places in the country conducive to algae farming – typically hot and humid regions near water that have little cloud cover. The key was establishing if there would be enough water available for grow ponds, they say:

Scientists estimate that fuel created with algae would use much more water than industrial processes used to harness energy from oil, wind, sunlight, or most other forms of raw energy. To produce 25 billion gallons of algae oil, the team estimates that the process annually would require the equivalent of about one-quarter of the amount of water that is now used each year in the entire United States for agriculture. While that is a huge amount, the team notes that the water would come from a multitude of sources: fresh groundwater, salty groundwater, and seawater.

Algae growers could channel these water sources in a variety of ways, they note: pumps to bring up saline water from deep under the earth's surface or maybe pipelines running from the ocean to fuel plants.

If you're thinking of investing in this oozing industry, note that Businessweek has dubbed 2013 the "make-or-break year" for algal oil. That's because several major players in the algae game, like the Bay Area's Solazyme and La Jolla's Synthetic Genomics, are racing to squeeze a commercially viable fuel out of multimillion-dollar investments and of years of R&D. After surveying potential customers, Solazyme has gone so far as to say that 92 percent of people would be more likely to load up with environmentally friendlier pond scum.

Top photo of scum by Reuters/stringer

About the Author

  • John Metcalfe
    John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.