Issue: Nov 2010


by Bob Brooks

At the industry run up to launch of electric vehicles, Ford Motor Company has announced it’s support of the National Biofuel Energy Laboratory at Wayne State University, Detroit, where investigation is being conducted on the potential for algae oil to power internal combustion (IC) engines. Ford research scientist, Sherry Mueller is quoted in the announcement that, “algae have some very desirable characteristics and Ford wants to show its support for commercial scale application” She cautions, however that, “there are still challenges to find economical and sustainable commercial scale algae production”. The background for this is widespread belief that IC engines will power the majority of vehicles for a long time to come.

Asked about Ford’s view of the status of some of the many dozens of algae fuel programs at various academic and commercial organizations, a Ford spokesman said the company does not wish to indicate its view of any of the specific programs at this time as it might be viewed as Ford endorsements

One of the most visible major algae efforts is the $600 million investment ExxonMobil is making in algae development with the San Diego, California firm, Synthetic Genomics headed by Craig Venter, famous for creating synthetic life form. Venter has expressed confidence that the very high production rate of genetically modified algae will be needed to produce the huge quantities of fuel used in the U.S To achieve this, Venter is reported to be exploring methods for scaling up utilization of solar energy and CO2 in ways not previously considered for algae cultivation.

Another major effort to develop economic mass production of biofuel, in this case derived from the salt water crop salicornia, is being advanced at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, United Arab Emirates, with guidance and support from MIT, Boeing, Etihad Airlines and UOP. (MAJOR BIOFUEL DEVELOPMENT IN ARABIA, Jan. 2010, As of release of this report, it has been reported that Shell Oil Company is providing $25 million to MIT for algae oil investigations over the next 5 years.

Literally dozens of U.S. programs are under way to produce algae for fuel without genetic modification. Systems that cultivate algae in open ponds, bioreactors (such as plastic bags exposed to the sun) and in closed containers (with sugars added replacing sunlight) are in various stages of development and early production. Pilot operations at Algenol in Florida with bioreactors have indicated potential for production cost, not including facilities investment, as low as $1.00/gal for its ethanol system. Confirmation of cost at scale is expected in 2011 (

A system for producing diesel fuel from algae on non arable land at a cost o $1.06/gal is claimed by new start venture “Photon8”, with offices and lab at the University of Texas-Brownsville. Photon8 states its objective from the outset has been a “financials first strategy” which breaks down the $1.06 cost into capital 19%, transportation 23%,
Extraction 22% labor 15%, utilities 3% and raw material 18% . Photon8 diesel fuel from algae is said to be an autotrophic closed system supplied with seawater, a small amount of fresh water, CO2 and waste stream nutrients, but no sugars. (

Algae based fuel at costs near $1.00/gal are in sharp contrast with recent reports that sea trials of some U.S. Navy vessels are fueled with algae diesel fuel that cost over $400 for experimental quantities. Some press reports on the Navy tests, however, have characterized algae fuel in general as being at this economic level.

Effectively at issue is the question of whether the expected very high production rate with genetically modified algae strains (or perhaps other bio material) will be essential for high volume cultivation, without use of fresh water and crop land. .

Viewed from the perspective of car makers, algae based fuel used in the new generation of higher efficiency IC engines (Otto and Diesel) gives pause to electrification of light duty vehicles which could require massive re-tooling of the auto and oil industries(now over 200 million vehicles and 120,000 fueling stations in the U.S.). Electrification is also viewed with concern in context with the high percentage of fuel derived from burning coal as well as rare earth supply needs for electric components.

While some vehicles that draw energy from the electric grid will become part of the automotive transportation mix, they are also effectively new competition that stimulate development of clean, new “drop in” fuel and advanced technology affordable IC engines and related vehicle systems. Lower cost, simpler yet higher efficiency diesels (vs. prior diesels) along with new very high compression gasoline engines represent moving targets for competitive electrification..

Henry Ford kicked off mass production of cars at the start of the last century. Bill Ford and his dynamic team will now be welcomed among those who seek to advance renewable CO2 neutral motor fuel. Whether algae or other bio raw materials dominate the motor fuel market, the race is on to perfect U.S. replacement for petroleum; its CO2 consequences and cost of imported energy.

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