To the list of things that started in the Bay Area (blue jeans, Sourdough French Bread, fortune cookies) you can now add automobile fuel made by algae.
On Tuesday, four service stations in Oakland, San Jose, Berkeley and Redwood City became the first in the world to pump the fuel, which is blended with conventional diesel in a 20% concentration.
We were excited when we heard the news. It’s great to be first, after all. But we also wondered why anyone would want fuel made from algae.
The fuel has a couple of advantages, said Robert Ames, a vice president at Solazyme, the South San Francisco company that makes it.
When burned, the fuel gives off 30 percent less particulate matter, 20 percent less carbon monoxide and 10 percent less hydrocarbons than ultra-low sulfur conventional diesel, he said.
That sounds pretty good, but there are other types of biodiesel. Enterprising chemists have concocted biodiesel from soybeans, canola and recycled cooking oil, among other sources, and some of these are already for sale in the Bay Area. So we asked Ames how these compare with the algae fuel.
“From a sustainability standpoint, there are a lot of similarities,” he said. “How the algae-derived biodiesel differs from biodiesels is that our technology platform can produce oils that are specifically tailored for specific applications.”
The company is already working with the U.S. Navy on jet fuel. Genentech and Volkswagen are trying out fuel blends from Solazyme as well, he said.
To get a broader perspective we spoke to Jeremy Martin, a biofuels expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, D.C.
Back in 2006, then President George W. Bush announced a new initiative to produce fuels from plants in hopes of making the United States less dependent on imported oil.
“The transition has been slower than people hoped,” Martin said.
A lot of attention focused on ethanol, and 40 percent of corn is now used for that purpose, he said. But growing corn itself consumes a lot of energy. Technology to convert cellulose – a compound found in most plants – into ethanol remains promising but has not yet become feasible.
Diesel made by algae offers possibilities, said Martin. But the type used by Solazyme poses a potential problem: it eats sugar. Currently the sugar comes from sugarcane, and that means that automobiles powered by the fuel are indirectly competing with hungry human beings.
“I hope that Solazyme is able to make their process work with nonfood sources of sugar,” said Martin. “That’s ultimately what’s going to really bring us the environmental benefits that people are expecting from biofuels.”
To really understand the environmental pros and cons of algae fuel would require a life-cycle analysis in which scientists look at the energy that goes into creating it, the effects on land, water and air, and emissions of all kinds, among other considerations, said Martin.
No one has conducted such an analysis of the Solazyme fuel, said Ames.
Still, the company is eager to find out how well their fuel is working in Bay Area cars, so if you own one that can run on regular diesel, you'll be welcome at the Propel stations.
Propel and Solazyme see this as a trial – they are only committing to 30 days, after which they will re-evaluate whether to keep selling it to motorists. In the meantime, you can be one of the first.