December 8, 2011

Could algae step in when (affordable) oil runs out?

Back in the heyday of the muscle car, even the fuels had a macho air (“Put a tiger in your tank.”) It’s hard to imagine a similar campaign these days, considering how much corn now ends up in the average car. (“Five a Day: It’s good for cars, too”?)

While corn-based ethanol is big business, it’s showing fewer signs of being good, sustainable business. Other biofuel stocks promise less environmental impact, smaller carbon footprints and less reliance on agricultural lands … but they’re not there yet.

Take algae, for example. There’s a lot of potential oil that could be wrested out of pond scum, seaweed and cyanobacteria. Seven years ago, algal fuel proponents touted amazingly promising stats, noting for instance that the US could in theory grow all the transportation fuel it needed on just 15,000 square miles of desert land. In succeeding years, the predictions have become a bit more circumspect: a US Department of Energy study earlier this year found the country could replace 17 percent of its oil imports with algae-based biofuels.

Still, it’s not for lack of trying that we aren’t yet filling up our cars on 15-percent kelp blends. Companies like California’s OriginOil envision being at the forefront of ambitious biofuel goals, such as the US Navy’s plan to be using 50-percent alternative liquid fuels in the next eight years. In fact, the company has just signed an agreement with the US Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory to work on developing industry standards to make algae-based fuel a “competitive alternative to petroleum.”

Crafting biofuel industry standards and setting 17-percent petroleum replacement goals might not sound as sexy as growing all the oil you need on a small slice of the Sonora. But these are the slow, steady and incremental steps it’ll take — along with improving fuel economy standards, promoting public transportation and, hopefully, finally putting a decent price on carbon — to build a more sustainable society.

On a final note, isn’t it interesting that the horsepower wars of the muscle-car era peaked around the same time as US oil production? Is the recent observation of “peak car use” in some of the world’s cities the first sign of a similarly dramatic shift?

Original article available here.

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