Monday, February 16, 2009
Biofuels made from algae are the next big thing on the alternative energy horizon. But can they free us from our addiction to petroleum? By Bob Grant ∙ The Scientist Near the southern horn of San Francisco Bay, hectares of shallow ponds the color of blood, pumpkin pie, and murky emerald stretch out across crusty salt flats in an aqueous patchwork. The tang of salt air swirls through the autumn air. A flock of seagulls laze on an earthen dyke separating two rectangular pools filled with the Bay's backwater. Scrubby hills stretch beyond one pond's salty banks. The Cargill food company manages these evaporation ponds, used to produce salt for more than a century. But one day, these ponds could be important for other reasons. The calmness of the scene is belied by vortices of colorful, microscopic algae, churning in the water. The latest crop of biofuel pioneers are looking past corn and french fry grease to microscopic organisms which they hope to coax into producing fuels to power planes, trains, and automobiles. At first, biofuel experts focused their attention on ethanol from the sugars in corn kernels; next, heads turned to second generation biofuels, such as ethanol from the cellulose in non-food plant parts. Now the next, or third, generation is here. "We've really seen an explosion in third generation biofuel companies and ideas," says Matt Carr, director of the industrial and environmental section at the Biotechnology Industry Organization. "Algae is the hottest in terms of buzz."
The basic concept behind algal biofuels is deceptively simple. Microalgae naturally produce and store lipids similar to those found in most vegetable oils. If scientists can genetically jigger the oil-storing tendencies of algae into becoming more efficient than they are in nature, commercially viable levels of transportation fuels may result. The key challenges include selecting the most suitable algae strains, growing these algal cells at optimal rates, engineering the metabolic pathways that control oil production to create cells pregnant with desirable oil products, and extracting the oil in an efficient and economic manner. Click here to read more. First photo shows the Cargill salt ponds in South San Francisco. Second photo shows algae cells pregnant with oil globules. Courtesy of Cargill Inset: Courtesy of Solazyme
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