The Oil in Your Backyard

The Oil in Your Backyard
Photo: SchultzLabs, Creative Commons, Flickr

Oil runs the world, fueling industrial processes that make everything from computers to plastic containers. Without it, vehicles, airplanes, trucks that bring food to grocer’s shelves, and ships that bring steel from China wouldn’t run. The modern world would grind to a halt.

Yet it’s difficult to know exactly how much oil remains in the ground. Peak Oil may or may not be a myth since oil reservoirs are intricate and difficult to measure geological structures. It’s like trying to imagine how much mold is in your house based on a shower stall. Mold hides, and so does oil. Even where data exists, it is held by private corporations or cartels unwilling to divulge the extent of their knowledge.


Peak Oil, a theory attributed to M. King Hubbert, originally suggested that U.S. reserves would “peak” in about 1970, that is, reach their maximum capacity. In fact, there will always be oil in the ground. The question is how hard will it be to extract, and how much will it cost. Peak Oil, precisely defined, can be said to be the time when getting oil costs more than it sells for.


One thing can be said; Peak Oil (whether myth or reality) drives renewable energy technologies. Fear of a world without power has also contributed to oil alternatives, like biofuel and, more recently, oil from algae.


Millions of year ago, oil was algae, or very similar substances which died, decomposed and were compressed over geologic ages, forming a dark, combustible slime. Using modern science to convert algae to oil is just collapsing the time frame under which oil is normally created.


A recent article by Scientific American reports on two companies engaged in turning algae into the world’s future fuel. The first, Solix Biofuels (a private company offshoot of the U.S Department of Energy based on the Colorado State University campus at Fort Collins) is working with the New Belgium Brewing Company, also in Fort Collins, to use the excess carbon dioxide from the beer brewing process to nurture algae growing in tanks.

In El Paso, Texas, Global Green Solutions (GGRN.OB $0.15) grows algae in glass columns in its flagship program, Vertigro. These bioreactors look like tall, thin sheets of quilted plastic suspended from overhead rack systems. Paths within the quilted layer allow water and algae to circulate constantly. Photosynthesis provides the energy. Ideally, the bioreactors will be built on otherwise useless land, preferably near industrial facilities, and carbon dioxide emissions will ‘fuel’ the algae’s growth. Both companies grow their algae in sunlit conditions, since sunlight is considered essential to photosynthesis.

In California, where being different is the norm, Solazyme grows algae in the dark.

Located in San Francisco, the startup treats its algae more like mushrooms, growing them inside buildings (in huge, leased fermentors originally used to process liquids, slurries, or granular substances). Fed by baths of sugar water, these specially tailored strains of algae – from swamps in Africa or snowfields in the Andes, are cultivated to produce fuel for diesel engines, plastics or other petroleum-based products. Solazyme says its diesel fuel is the first to meet D-975 specifications established by ASTM (the American Society for Testing and Materials).

For those who think algae oil is a flash in the pan, Bill Gates’ investment company just got out of biofuels and into algae. The startup company, Sapphire Energy, is funded through Arch Venture Partners. If billionaire Gates thinks it is a good idea, skeptical investors might want to restructure their portfolios.

None of the companies, including Sapphire, has yet produced economically viable quantities of oil, but with the investment community backing that goal can’t be far away. Solazyme is the only entrant so far whose diversification may supply everything from fuel for vehicles to butter for commercial and residential kitchens.

So how do algae make oil?

Algae is probably one of the most abundant source of green matter on the planet, and certainly the fastest growing, so once the technology is in place supplies are insured. Eventually, algae might even make the plastic in which it is grown – a definite win-win for the environment.

Algae also have the highest oil content of any plant (50 percent compared to palm’s meager 20 percent). Of course, they have to be stressed to with difficult growing conditions to do so, but this is simply an engineering problem. Algae are environmentally friendly, and an excellent food source. Simply grow them, squeeze out the oil, and feed the residue to cattle, pigs and chickens. Even people can eat them, though the flavor takes some getting used to. Algae feed on carbon dioxide leftovers, from power plants for example, making this another win-win (or win-win-win, if you prefer); oil and food, while also reducing global warming emissions.

I always did think it would be the littlest things that saved us – or destroyed us. Algae are proving me right by producing much-needed oil so simply you and I might be able to set up a factory in our back yard. (I just hope a pandemic doesn’t come along to support the other side of my equation).


Disclosure: I don’t own stock in any company mentioned.

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