The Latest Breakthrough in Biofuels: Seaweed?

Berkeley scientists bring seaweed biofuels one step closer to the marketplace

Seaweed farms off the coast of Bali. According to one estimate, using just three percent of the Earth's coastal waters to grow seaweed could produce 60 billion gallons of ethanol.

The newest biofuel making a splash is seaweed.

Researchers at Berkeley-based Bio Architecture Lab (BAL) have discovered a way to genetically manufacture a microbe that can break down the sugars in seaweed, so that it can be used as a fuel source. Biofuels from sources other than corn have generated a lot of hype but so far not the large-scale production necessary for them to be considered an integral part of the U.S. energy future (see Lauren Sommer’s recent biofuels “reality check,” for KQED’s QUEST).

There are many kinds of algae. The ones that have received most attention are microalgaes that grow in freshwater ponds. The US Department of Energy has invested heavily in research on microalgaes. Defense officials are looking to oil extracted from the freshwater scum to fuel military machinery. Last week a California Report story highlighted the efforts of researchers in San Diego to scale up production of oil from algae, in order to bring down the cost and make it viable on the energy market. Continue reading


What a little pond scum won't do

Wielding the power of pond scum. Photos: Rob Schmitz

Harrison Dillon’s had a heck of a year. His company, South San Francisco-based Solazyme, recently won two federal contracts from the Departments of Defense and Energy, and secured almost a million dollars’ worth of state money (while the rest of us were getting IOUs for our tax returns). And just this week, after spending a week in Copenhagen spreading the word about Solazyme, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger held up Dillon’s venture as an example of the California green dream. Not bad for a guy who, six years ago, started his company in his garage (yeah, that still happens).

Dillon works with algae. And not the type that forms on stagnant ponds. He grows it in a contained environment and has figured out how to use it to make crude oil. That oil is then used to make diesel fuel, which almost any automobile can run on. Since algae siphons carbon dioxide out of the air, there is virtually a net-zero greenhouse gas contribution to the environment. Dillon hopes to bring down the cost of fuel made from algae to less than $80 a barrel within the next two years.

This is just one of the innovative California companies that has attended the Copenhagen climate summit the past two weeks. There are many others. The Golden State leads the country in patents in green technology, and it’s likely it leads the country in the sheer number of  representatives at this conference. California emits about the same volume of greenhouse gases as France, and, as is often touted by state leaders, if we were a country, we’d have the seventh largest economy in the world (Schwarzenegger said this in his speech; I’ve heard others say eighth. Suffice it to say our economy’s pretty big).

This week, I spent a snowy morning camped out in the coffee-scented breakfast room of the Scandic Webers Hotel, down the street from Copenhagen’s beautiful central train station. The cozy little inn is decorated with “Danish modern” furniture throughout, upon which the state’s most prominent business and political leaders sat, eating overcooked bacon and watery eggs.

The entire hotel was taken over by the California delegation: John Fielding, President of Southern California Edison, was having breakfast with Nancy Ryan, Policy Director of the California Public Utilities Commission. State Senator Fran Pavley joined them, with State Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner chiming in from another table. California EPA Secretary Linda Adams remained in her room, sick with the flu.

“This is my 12th COP (UN Conference of Parties),” Skinner told me. The Bay area assembly member had, in her “previous life,” been a national leader in the fight against global warming. She’d seen this process over and over but she’d never been to a COP that attracted this many people. This, she told me, was a perfect place for California to show the rest of the world what we’ve been up to: “We have to share. CA has an amazing story. Californians per capita pretty much have a flat level of electricity use since the 1970’s, whereas the rest of the US has grown by 50% per capita.” Skinner was on her way to an electric vehicle forum that day.

UCSB students learning outside the classroom

UCSB students learning outside the classroom

Other guests at “Hotel California” included a group of 24 students from UC Santa Barbara. They were led by Bob Wilkinson, a professor at the Bren School of Environmental Science. The students were thrilled to be a part of it all, and were talking about the sticking points in the negotiations as if they were the delegates, complete with UN lingo and acronyms. They also took a page from the playbook of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who, the day before, offered to host a “subnational” conference in California. The students said they, too, were interested in hosting a local climate change conference on their campus, to share the expertise they garnered during their stay here. They’d already set a date for this April.

Diatoms Have Their Day

Everybody’s got a summit nowadays. Last week, while the governors were doing their climate summitry in L.A., scientists and policy wonks convened at U.C. Davis for an ag-and-climate “summit.” The discussions seemed interesting and productive, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that no world leaders appeared. This week the gods of green goop are gathered in San Diego for an Algae Biomass Summit. Climate Watch contributor and climate scientist Abbie Tingstad explains why algae deserves a summit.

tingstaddiatom2_blogThe Power of Pond Scum

By Abbie Tingstad

The slimy yellowish brown muck known as “pond scum” may soon help fuel your car, make your airplane trips more environmentally friendly, and power your home. Scientists and start-ups around the world are now looking to tap into this unsightly source to produce ethanol, biodiesel and jet fuel, and even more efficient solar cells. This sustainable energy source consumes carbon dioxide and can be developed without competing with food crops for land.

Yellow-brown pond scum is composed of diatoms; single-celled algae with elaborate silica-based cell walls (green films on water are made up of other types of algae and small water plants). These primary producers are ubiquitous: they inhabit a wide range of environments, requiring only sufficient light for photosynthesis and enough moisture to prevent desiccation. Worldwide, there may be 100,000 species living in oceans, lakes, estuaries, rivers, swamps, moist soils, and other damp environments.

Climate and environmental researchers have taken advantage of diatoms’ cosmopolitan living habits to reconstruct past climates and infer recent environmental changes related to pollution and climate warming. Since different locations tend to have unique diatom community compositions, these tiny algae have also helped forensic investigators solve crimes.

Now, diatoms and other types of algae and small aquatic plants like duckweed and watermeal might be used to generate ethanol, biodiesel, and jet fuel. A number of start-ups, such as Aurora Biofuels and SunEco Energy in California, have begun developing technologies to “farm” algae on non-agricultural land, using salt-or lower-quality fresh-water and also just happens to consume carbon dioxide. This research has seen renewed interest at large laboratories such as the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). Big private-sector players, such as ExxonMobil, Chevron, Dow Chemical, and Honeywell International, have begun investing in research as well.

Diatoms may also be able to make solar cells more powerful, according to recent research out of Oregon State University and Portland State University. Unlike more conventional silicon-based cells, dye-sensitized solar cells, which absorb photons on a dye molecule thin-film joined to a layer of titanium oxide on glass or plastic, are made from environmentally neutral materials and work well in lower light conditions. Using diatoms to coat the dye-sensitized solar cells could triple their efficiency, making them more competitive with silicon cells.

These diatom-based technologies are still in their infancy so it’s difficult to determine whether they’ll make a meaningful contribution to a new wave of renewables. However, California may well benefit if they do become more widespread because these can potentially be operated on dry land and, in the case of fuels, using salt water.

With these technologies still in their infancy, it’s not clear how soon, if ever, they’ll become widespread. However, with its surfeit of sunshine and lots of available desert land and access to saltwater, California stands to benefit from an algae boom, should investors wade in.

Abbie Tingstad is finishing her Ph.D. in the Department of Geography at UCLA, where she specializes in the analysis of tree-rings and diatoms (environmentally-sensitive unicellular algae) to infer information about climate and environmental change.

Behold the power of pond scum in the recent television segment produced by KQED’s Quest.