Pond scum to the rescue

Algae could offer a promising source for biodiesel fuels. But not if the feds can help it.

Published December 16, 2005 7:57PM (EST)

On Nov. 18, the House of Representatives passed the Deficit Reduction Act, 217-215. Included in that bill were $3.7 billion in cuts to the national farm bill. Included in those cuts was the elimination of the Renewable Energy & Energy Efficiency Program. Funded to the piddling tune of $20 million a year, the Renewable Energy & Energy Efficiency Program is the major source of federal funding for biomass research.

Biomass research involves the converting of biological matter into fuel. Ethanol from corn, and biodiesel from soybean or French fry grease are two fairly well-known examples. I started looking into federal funding of this kind of research this morning, because I'd gotten curious about a comment a reader made about algae in a response to my earlier post about biodiesel and tropical forests. (Incidentally, Grist Magazine has an excellent article up today about how Brazil is kicking ass on the biodiesel production front.)

I've had a soft spot for algae ever since one of my first stories for Salon, an investigation into the mysterious "super-food" blue green algae harvested from Klamath Lake in southern Oregon. My reader was telling me that algae could be converted to biodiesel at far greater efficiencies than soybean or palm oil. Algae? Pond scum to the rescue? Could it be?

Turns out there are some promising hints that algae could be a fantastic source of biodiesel. In a paper last updated in 2004, Michael Briggs, a researcher at the University of New Hampshire, lays out an ambitious goal for replacing all petrochemical fuels consumed for transportation in the U.S. from algae-derived biodiesel. Fast growing and containing high concentrations of oil, certain species of algae, writes Briggs, would require far less land than crops like corn or soybeans. Even better, from a holistic point of view, algae could be farmed using sewage effluents as nutrients! In cryptic comments posted at a biodiesel forum hosted by Briggs, the UNH scientist notes that his university is developing a proprietary conversion technique that should start being deployed in the next couple of years.

Green Fuels Technology, a Boston start-up somewhat unkindly referred to by one trade press publication as a "scum-fuel producer," is also moving forward on the algae-biodiesel front. Their approach is exciting because it is based on converting power plant emissions into food for algae, which is then harvested for biodiesel. Using greenhouse gas production as an energy source is my kind of renewable energy fun.

It's all very cool -- I very much hope that in the not-too-distant future my car is running on algae fumes. But if algae really holds such promise, shouldn't we be doing a little more than waiting for a handful of researchers and lightly funded start-ups to change the world? That's where the Renewable Energy & Energy Efficiency Program comes in. What in the name of god's green algae is the House of Representatives thinking? What could possibly be more important to the security and economic health of the United States than coming up with alternative sources of energy?

I called the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, a Washington nonprofit that tracks renewable energy issues, to find out what was going on with the Deficit Reduction Act. According to a spokesperson there, the situation isn't as dire as the House vote indicates. The Senate and the House have yet to conference for a final version of the bill, and the Renewable Energy & Efficiency Program is expected to survive once the two sides of Congress get together.

That might be worth a sigh of relief, but it's not enough. A detailed report released by the National Resources Defense Council in December 2004 calls for the federal government to spend $1.1 billion over the next 10 years on biofuel research and production. That would be a nice start. But imagining it will actually happen is pure fantasy. The best we can do, right now, is keep what little funding there already is from being cut.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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