The practical-minded, renewable energy source more recently tagged as biodiesel has been around for a very long time, yet we seem to be perpetually caught unawares of its utility in this petrol-fueled age in which we find ourselves. Indeed, Dr. Rudolph Diesel invented the eponymous engine to run on peanut oil. I've long been a fan of biofuels — as a concept. Due to many forces, our implementation of the simple brilliance is yet another matter entirely.
Because corn and soybean subsidies are such a huge part of our industrial farming economy, those crops have most recently been the main sources for the production of ethanol and biodiesel. However, as I've written on in the past, other non-food crops produce far greater yields, though the mass production of some are now causing environmental devastation around the world.
Ever since I attended Green Festival in San Francisco three years ago, my eye has been on algae as a fantastic source for biodiesel what with its 10,000 gallons of oil per acre yield which is 15 times the output of corn and switchgrass. These little biological workhorses can grow in pretty much any water — salted, fresh, or contaminated, whether in the ocean, in a pond, or on non-arable land. Furthermore, the industrial ecology angle of the theory goes that algae should grow even faster when munching on sewage or extra carbon dioxide — two things we'd love to be lessening.
Algae has garnered small bits of interest in this arena since the 1950s, and the U.S. Department of Energy actually undertook fairly hardcore research on it from 1978 to 1996. However, this wonderscum is now once again front and center in the race for a solution as ExxonMobil has announced it is ponying up $600 million for research through a partnership with Synthetic Genomics. That's a big step for a company whose head once referred to ethanol as “moonshine.”
The trick is mass production and nationwide transportation. Exxon's vice president for research and development, Dr. Emil Jacobs, framed their approach: “We literally looked at every option we could think of, with several key parameters in mind. Scale was the first. For transportation fuels, if you can’t see whether you can scale a technology up, then you have to question whether you need to be involved at all. I am not going to sugarcoat this — this is not going to be easy.” The good doctor claims that large-scale production of algae-based fuels are “at least 5 to 10 years away.”
Why so long?
We've known of algae's potential for decades and there are many, many diesel vehicles on the road that need no conversion at all to run on biodiesel (my Jeep Liberty included). Plus, lots of companies are working on algae-generated biofuels. So, again, I ask, why so long? Or maybe the better question is, why did it take so long for them to even show up. Chevron and Shell are already knee deep in their research on this front, and still we're “5 to 10 years away?”
Despite the government's algae-centric research that began over 30 years ago, we are, yet again, being forced to rely on industry and the free market to solve our problems. And we all know how keen Big Oil is on non-petroleum-based ideas. I guess, in this case, it takes scum to know scum.