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Pond Scum Fuels Starting to Take Flight

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Algae grows fast up to 40 times as fast as many other feedstocks considered for biofuel production. That's one thing making it increasingly attractive to a growing cadre of innovators, researchers, businessmen and venture capitalists who seek the holy grail of a clean energy source.

Miller-McCune reported earlier on the recent emergence of tiny algae as a possible answer to the world's woes: global warming (algae is not a food source, wastewater and salt water can be used for its production and its only byproducts are a livestock feed and starches that can be made into ethanol); energy needs (its lipids are the green equivalent of petroleum); and air pollution (it loves to eat the carbon dioxide from coal and gas plants).

One can't help but imagine a tiny creature made of pond scum whisking his hands and saying coyly, "What's next?"

And it's not just bravado.

Interest and money has been flowing to the green idea in recent months. A new entity, Sapphire Energy, has attracted three investors — Arch Venture Partners, Venrock and The Wellcome Trust — who have given the San Diego startup $50 million and an "open checkbook" with a mission to commercialize algal biofuel as quickly as possible.

Sapphire's plan is to take its system (details of which it won't disclose) to a three-step pilot phase, with production of 100 barrels of "green crude" per day, then 1,000, then 10,000. It plans to build its first commercial production plant in three years.

Another company, Aurora BioFuels of Alameda, Calif., recently announced raising $20 million after initially attracting $3.2 million a little more than a year ago.

But perhaps the most interesting developments can be found in the airline and cruise ship industries. Sandia National Laboratories and the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research have been funding research on making jet fuel from algae, and now the airline industry has gotten on board, led by Boeing and Richard Branson, the charismatic CEO and marketer of Virgin Atlantic Airways. Last February, a Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747-400 flew from London's Heathrow Airport to Amsterdam using a blend of 80 percent petroleum and 20 percent biofuel (made from coconut and babassu oil).

Since then, Branson and others have turned their attention to algae and in May formed the Algal Biomass Organization, which includes as members Air New Zealand, Continental Airlines, Boeing and Honeywell's UOP.

Their goal is "to generate more sustainable fuel options by pushing for long-term innovation and investment in algae as an energy form."

Dutch companies are also getting into the act. AlgaeLink N.V. and KLM Royal Dutch Airlines are cooperating on a pilot project to develop an aviation fuel from algae. AlgaeLink uses photo-bioreactors to produce its algal fuel and reports "the world's largest" cruise line is interested in creating an integrated fuel production system on a cruise ship that would feed carbon dioxide emissions from the ship, along with biological waste, to algae tanks to produce fuel that could be used in the ship's diesel engines.

If that weren't enough, the mighty alga also seems to be making inroads with the Small Is Beautiful crowd. They can learn how to make their own fuel from a new how-to: Making Algae Biodiesel at Home.

But the plug for the book gives a warning: "Making biodiesel from algae is not for biodiesel wussies!" It goes on to note the buyer/experimenter will be "treading into the biodiesel wilderness." Its only encouragement: "If you're the type that loves a challenge, then keep reading..."