September 23, 2009

Algae fuel spawns investors; could it be a natural disaster?

Algae fuel spawns investors; could it be a natural disaster?
It's jobs, it's economics, it's sustainability, and now its booming. Based on optimistic speculation, high risk companies are turning regions of the US into research hubs in hopes of discovering a legitimate process for utilizing algae as an alternative to fossil fuel. But is the risk too high?

Algae, as an energy source, has been tampered with since the 90's. For years, researchers have understood its potential and have wanted to explore the extent of the autotrophic organisms, but have lacked the capital to make any sort of headway.

Now, with the boom of hybrid cars, awareness of alternative energy sources, and dwindling supply of fossil fuels like oil, algae research is making its way onto corporate and even government budgets.

According to the Los Angeles Times, venture capitalists invested $176 million last year into the development of biofuel from algae. The Defense Department has also pitched out about $50 million to San Diego research companies to assist in algae research. Even the big oil companies like Exxon have scrambled to grab onto the next big resource by partnering with Synthetic Genomics Inc.—a nearly $600 million dollar deal.

Monetary momentum is driving the lab successes and making many believe algae can and will be nature's biofuel of the future.

The benefits of algae are obvious: while pulling in carbon dioxide—the gas causing the global warming obsession, algae is converted into oil through nature's own photosynthesis process and used to power our energy hungry society.

Not only would it revolutionize fossil fuel production, but it would generate jobs in the expanding green job market—a market that could take on many of the nation's unemployed.

Pessimists of the movement, however, believe companies are investing too much time and money into something that hasn't offered any sort of tangible, competitive product, and maybe they are right.

Gas by the gallon averaged $2.58 a gallon last week, a minimal cost compared to the equivalent amount of algae fuel, which could cost as much as $60-$80 and at the very least $20 a gallon.

High priced gas, whether drilled or harvested, push consumers away in a bottom-line society and at algae's current rates, few will buy into the concept.

Not to mention, no labs have even been close to producing the amount of algae fuel necessary to be commercially sustainable, says Tiffany Hsu.

Just because the idea of a product looks good does not mean it is going to succeed. Electric cars in the 90's were evidence of that. Consumers had no need to switch over and with the pressure from oil and auto big shots, it flopped.

The questions and speculation will haunt investors until either oil runs out or algae gets competitively priced with oil. If either doesn't happen fast enough, algae may flop.

No comments: