NEW YORK - A plant scientist from West Texas believes one of the oldest, simplest life forms can help ease some of today's toughest energy and environment problems.
Algae converts carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas blamed for global warming, into a vegetable oil that Glen Kertz, a plant cell expert who used to work for oil companies, hopes can be economically turned into the renewable motor fuel biodiesel.
Algae doesn't need prime farmland, vast quantities of fertilizer, or large harvest vehicles to be grown and harvested, unlike corn which is the main U.S. feedstock for ethanol, the top alternative motor fuel.
The single-celled organisms, which are among the world's fastest growing plants, can prosper in small bags of water under the light of greenhouses.
"The more light I have, the more energy that I can capture and put back into the transportation system," Kertz, CEO of private company Valcent Products, said in an interview. He says he can quickly grow algae, sometimes known as pond scum, anywhere but a rainy place like Seattle.
Funds Venture In
Venture capitalists are racing to invest in alternative energy sources as finding crude cheaply in places friendly to the United States becomes harder, oil prices hit record levels edging toward $100 a barrel, and worries about global warming escalate.
Industry watcher Cleantech Group said on Thursday venture capitalists sank $1 billion into alternative energy in North America in the third quarter of this year.
And Canadian venture capital fund Sweetwater Capital is helping fund Vertigro Energy, a joint venture between Kertz's Valcent and Global Green Solutions Inc that is building the pilot bioreactor and research laboratory in El Paso at a cost of $3 million. Kertz hopes Vertigro will be producing a small amount of vegetable oil that can be converted into biodiesel by the middle of next year.
Vertigro and other algae biodiesel companies like LiveFuels Inc. in California, and Greenfuel Technologies in Massachusetts, say algae greenhouses can produce far more vegetable oil per acre than soybeans, currently the top U.S. biodiesel feedstock.
Algae can produce 100,000 gallons (378,540 liters) of oil an acre (0.4 hectares) annually, compared with about 50 gallons per acre for soybeans, Vertigro says.
Certainly there are road bumps ahead in the journey that's barely begun for algae fuel, particularly a lack of infrastructure. The Colonial Pipeline, the main U.S. oil products pipeline from the Houston oil hub to New York, said it has no plans to pump biodiesel of any sort through its lines because it leaves residue in the system that could contaminate other fuels.
And the current energy system of ships, refineries, pipelines and pumps that has been built over a century, will not just evaporate, even if algae fuel becomes economical.
Defending algae, Kertz said removing glycerin from biodiesel can eliminate pipeline problems. But major oil companies have yet to shown interest in biodiesel, he said.
Still, the U.S. federal government has taken note of algae's potential. The main U.S. laboratory for alternative energy research, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which had an algae program until the 1990s, is preparing to reopen federal research on energy from pond scum within the next year, said spokesman Gary Schmitz.
And Kertz says algae companies, along with much bigger companies, will come together to lobby the government about the fuel's potential next year.