September 23, 2009

Car Running on Algae Fuel to Cross Country on Just 25 Gallons of Fuel

We usually don’t report on the renewable energy or environmental impact beat, but sometimes you see something that is just too cool not to share. Algaeus, the world’s first algae-powered plug-in hybrid car, was unveiled in San Francisco last week. The pet project of algae fuel producer, Sapphire Energy, Algaeus is so efficient that SE is claiming it could make an entire coast to coast cross country trip on as little as 25 gallons of fuel. Just to prove it, the prototype will be traveling with a host of other ‘green’ vehicles to tour the US and promote alternative fuel. Check out a brief video from AutolineDetroit after the break.

This car is traveling across the country...on algae based fuel. Cool.

This car is traveling across the country...on algae based fuel. Cool.

According to the press release, the coast to coast trip will be a ten day journey (September 8 -18) that culminates in the nationwide premier of the new movie Fuel by Josh Tickell of Veggie Van fame. See the trailer below. While the media coverage of the movie is sure to be hyperbolic, I’m much more interested in the premises behind Sapphire Energy. This San Diego based company hopes to use its algae-based fuel to work in the three major petrol markets: gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel. They plan on ramping up production to a rate of than 2 million gallons of diesel per year in the next two years. That’s a small blip on the petroleum market, but a blip that is arriving much sooner than many expected.

Sapphire Energy uses algae to photosynthetically produce a fuel using only water and carbon dioxide. That fuel is near to being chemically identical to the fuel you put in your car. It’s a ‘green’ energy because the carbon captured during fuel production is more or less equal to the carbon released during burning. Current refinement and production levels limit the algae-fuel to being used as an additive. The eventual idea is to grow much more algae in endless rows of transparent containers, sort of like a fuel-farm. While algae farms could be grown almost anywhere with sunlight and water, Sapphire Energy wants to focus on non-arable land. One of the big advantages algae-fuel has over biodiesel, they contend, is that it can be produced without interfering with food crops and the food market.

The Algaeus, a modified Prius, looks really cool, but the 25 gallon claim is likely hiding some hand-waving. How often do you think they’re going to rely on plugging in the plug-in hybrid car? And what about the algae to normal diesel fuel mixture? Supposedly it’s only 5% or so. Whenever a technology is linked to a movie, I get a little skeptical, but even if the Algaeus is fueled by hype, I think Sapphire Energy is based on some really promising concepts.

Fossil fuels have many disadvantages, but the one that springs to mind right now is immutability. It takes millions of years for FFs to develop, so you can’t design new ones. Oh, the production and processing wizards can turn crude oil into everything from petrol to plastic, but the raw material stays the same. Working with a living medium like algae doesn’t just capitalize on promises of ‘green energy’ it also links up with the accelerating research in biotechnology. Genetic engineering, present and future, will allow us to refine and improve algae-based fuels for years to come. Green is good. Green and evolving is better.


Tom Gable said...

As noted above, this is fluff: a great cross-country promotion for the movie FUEL, not the dawn of a new green age for automobiles. The Algaeus algae-fuel car used just 25 gallons of gasoline, with 5 percent from algae, or 1.25 gallons. The great mileage came from plugging in and recharging the electric vehicle batteries, not using algae fuel. This electric Hypemobile got great media mileage but would rank very low in science and building credibility for the long term. We compiled comments from many sources on our blog to show what critical thinkers saw in the hype:

Jason Ford said...

Great post and thanks for sharing it It is really awesome..but I think the future of fuel is water and we can run car on water.