Algae biofuels for war
by Sami Grover, Carrboro, NC, USA on 02.16.10
Image credit: US Department of Defense
I'm not sure whether the Pentagon's clean energy projects count toward the idea that environmentalism is socialist, or whether they get a free pass because, well, they are the Pentagon and they know a thing or two about the importance of energy independence—but I guess we'll see in the comments that follow. Matthew reported early last year on the Pentagon's investment in algae-based jet fuels. At the time, claims by insiders that the air force could get itself very close to a zero carbon footprint within a decade seemed somewhat optimistic, to say the least. But the Defense Department is reporting that its development of algae-based fuels is well ahead of schedule. In fact, it is claimed that it could be cost competitive with fossil fuels within months.
Suzanne Goldberg over at The Guardian tells us that Pentagon researchers are claiming they are only months away from producing jet fuel from algae that is cost competitive with its fossil fuel counterpart.
Given that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa)—the department responsible for this project—previously played a key roll in developing both the internet and satellite navigation systems, this could for once be much more than just hot air. In fact, says Goldberg, this is an innovation that could have huge implications for global transportation:
"Darpa's research projects have already extracted oil from algal ponds at a cost of $2 per gallon. It is now on track to begin large-scale refining of that oil into jet fuel, at a cost of less than $3 a gallon, according to Barbara McQuiston, special assistant for energy at Darpa. That could turn a promising technology into a market-ready one. Researchers have cracked the problem of turning pond scum and seaweed into fuel, but finding a cost-effective method of mass production could be a game-changer."
Of course there were recent reports that algae biofuels may not be as green as they seem—but that particular study seemed to be based on some pretty astoundingly worst-case scenarios. With the potential to locate algae biofuel production to soak up power-station emissions, or waste-water runoff, algae holds some significant promise as a biofuel feedstock—especially when compared to corn ethanol or palm oil biodiesel.
Meanwhile, there's no word on how Exxon's investment in algae is paying off.