I want my algae-mobile

The spirit of the Homebrew Computer Club lives on, transmuted into do-it-yourself biofuel enthusiasm.

Published January 11, 2007 12:33AM (EST)

By the time Jon Meuser recounted his experiences salvaging an old hot water heater to use in his portable biodiesel distillery from a sorority whose building was being torn down, he had the audience in his pocket.

Fifty to 60 people packed themselves into a smallish room rented from Artists Television Access in the Mission District of San Francisco Tuesday night to hear a talk on the latest technical developments related to making biodiesel from algae. It wasn't the easiest crowd to seduce. During Meuser's preliminary remarks, a wide-ranging survey of issues associated with renewable and non-renewable sources of energy, audience members showed no hesitation in critiquing some of Meuser's data and analysis -- one man sitting in the front row denounced a chart Meuser was lingering over as "bullshit."

Biodiesel home-brewers in the San Francisco Bay Area offer a beguiling mix of nuts-and-bolts pragmatism -- you have to be part car mechanic and part chemical engineer to make your own biofuel -- and highly opinionated counterculture ideology. So when speaking to them assembled en masse it is prudent to be judicious in choosing what you say about the prospects for genetically modified energy crops, or how approvingly you cite a study that might have been paid for by, say, the soybean industry. There were moments early on during Meuser's talk where I thought he was on the verge of losing the crowd; that their skepticism and expertise would overwhelm his clearly sincere support for grass-roots, sustainable biofuel production.

But once Meuser, a graduate student at the Colorado School of Mines, began talking about his own research, which "focuses on the natural biodiversity of photosynthetic fuel production by algae, including hydrogen and lipids," he stood on firmer ground, displaying an impressive breadth of knowledge relating to chemistry, biology and fuel-distillery mechanics, and a contagious enthusiasm for all things algae-related. This was an audience that strongly appreciated an obsessive dedication to determining which particular strain of algae might be induced to generate more hydrogen than another; an audience that looked at PowerPoint slides of near incomprehensible complexity with delight instead of fear. When Meuser finished off his talk with a discussion (complete with many pictures) of his own home-brew biodiesel efforts, there was no doubt about his bona fides: He is a 21st century do-it-yourself biofuel geek. And Tuesday night, he was among his people.

For an outsider to the scene, decades-old echoes of an earlier group of Bay Area do-it-yourself enthusiasts resounded in these cramped quarters off of Valencia Street. The Homebrew Computer Club is the stuff of legend, and rightfully so, given its pivotal role in the evolution of the personal computer in the 1970s. But the Homebrew Computer Club is significant not just for what its passionate enthusiasts built, but for its incarnation of an enduring local archetype. Somewhere in the Bay Area, hobbyists are always getting together, motivated by grand goals and obsessive passions, eager to create something new. Part hippie and part mad scientist, their ambitions are vast -- they want to change the world -- but their motivations are also simple -- they like to play with cool tools. They like to build stuff. (They are also not afraid of things that might blow up, which, I have begun to gather, is a distinct possibility when brewing biofuels on the cheap.)

And really, who better to carry on the tradition of the Homebrew Computer Club than actual home-brewers? Biofuels are becoming a big story from Senegal to South Dakota, but you'll be hard put to find a more thriving subculture of backyard brewers than in the Bay Area. Before Meuser gave his talk, representatives of the San Francisco Biofuels Cooperative and the Biodiesel Council of California gave short updates on their own activities. The biofuel grass-roots scene, by all accounts, has never been more energized. There's something happening here.

But while the rest of the world argues about the energy efficiency of corn-based ethanol and waits impatiently for cellulosic ethanol technologies to become commercially feasible, the group gathered together on Tuesday night were looking even further ahead. Do-it-yourself algae-biodiesel! Forget about corn and soy and sugar cane and jatropha as feedstocks for energy production. The potential productivity of algae dwarfs them all. There's certainly not enough cropland in the United States to satisfy our transportation fuel needs from corn or soy. But if the power of algae can be tapped, we might be able to rewrite existing energy equations.

That's a mighty big if. Meuser noted that there are at least three well-established start-ups that are at work commercializing algae bioreactors, Greenfuel Technologies, SolixBiofuels, and New Zealand's Aquaflow Bionomics. So far, Greenfuels has the highest profile, based largely on their its strategy of positioning its system both as a source of energy and a way to combat climate change (the algae feed off of carbon dioxide generated by power plants). But it is not yet clear, said Meuser, that any of these companies has solved the thorny problems of figuring out how to extract lipids -- hydrocarbon-containing organic compounds -- from algae and synthesize oil from them on a cost-effective large scale. Betraying an endearing starry-eyed idealism, Meuser wished that these companies would be more forthcoming about the details of their research, noting that the struggle for sustainable biofuels shouldn't be a race between one company and another: "The race is all of humankind against destruction." He called for open-source development of algae-biodiesel technology. To this audience, it all made sense.

But he was also frank. Fulfilling algae's potential as an energy feedstock on a scale big enough to make a difference will require massive investment and research. Not only are the the technical difficulties involved immense, but our understanding of the varying potential of the myriad strains of algae available in the wild is still quite limited. Nor should the potential devastation that could be wrought by an out-of-control genetically modified algae be underestimated (though, like most scientists, he seemed predisposed to downplay that danger, an attitude that many in his audience clearly didn't share).

But even as he outlined the challenges ahead, and acknowledged that the short-term prospects for fueling up your diesel Volkswagen or Benz with algae-gas may not be terrific, the thrust of his overall message was to encourage listeners to do their own experimentation, whether in the lab or in their basement. This was a message that the assembled home-brewers were clearly receptive to.

A few months ago, I attended a lecture by U.C. Berkeley's Tad Patzek in which he presented his forceful views on why biofuels were not an appropriate source of renewable energy. But there was little time for questions, and little sense that more than a handful of the audience were there for any other reason than just to become a little more informed.

Not so in the Mission on Tuesday night. That audience was itching to get home and start cooking up some algae-biodiesel in their kitchens, right now, in whatever crazed Rube Goldberg contraption their innovative minds could conceive. Some might call them crazy, but sitting here, typing these words on a computer that owes at least part of its accessibility to the mad tinkering of hobbyists in the Bay Area 30 year ago, I'm not so sure. I want my algae-mobile.

UPDATE: A reader noted that I misidentified Aquaflow Bionomics as based in Australia instead of New Zealand. I've corrected the error.

By Andrew Leonard

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

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