US Navy tests algae-based biofuels
A promising new source of domestically produced fuels being tested on America's jets and warships is derived from forest green algae bubbling in a stainless steel fermenting tank in a suburban San Francisco warehouse.
In a laboratory for a company called Solazyme, white-coated scientists are changing the genetic make-up of algae to construct a new generation of fuels.
These "bioengineered" algae are placed into tanks, where they get fat on sugar beets, switch grass or other plants. The sun's energy, stored in the plants, is transformed by algae into oil, which is refined into fuels.
While it may sound far-fetched, the US Navy in September ordered more than 150,000 gallons of ship and jet fuel from Solazyme and the company received a $21.8 million (£13.7 million) grant from the US Department of Energy last year to build a new refinery in Riverside, Pennsylvania, to help push production to commercial levels.
Jonathan Wolfson, the CEO and co-founder of Solazyme, said: "Most of the planet is producing some kind of plant matter, even in the oceans. Our unique microbial conversion technology process allows algae to produce oil in standard industrial fermentation facilities quickly, efficiently and at commercial scale."
The US military hopes to run 50% of its fleet on a mixture of renewable fuels and nuclear power by 2020, and as part of this drive the Department of Defence has been investing in companies like Solazyme to help jump-start the young industry.
The military as a whole uses more than 90% of the energy consumed by the federal government, and the federal government uses about 2% of the energy consumed by the US.
The US Navy has already tested Solazyme's algae fuels on part of its fleet, with promising results, and plans to have its entire non-nuclear fleet tested by the end of 2012.
Focusing on making fuels for the military was an easy choice for Solazyme - the biofuels market for passenger cars has taken a back seat to electric vehicles as the focus of the future consumer market.
However, billions of dollars of military aircraft and ships will not be replaced anytime soon, so finding a cleaner, domestically produced source of fuel compatible with the current generation of equipment is the best way to decrease reliance on foreign sources of oil.