Zazzle Shop

Screen printing

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Algal Jet Fuel Closer to Reality


Commercial airlines won't stop using petroleum anytime soon, but a California startup says it has produced the world's first microbial-derived jet fuel, and independent tests show it behaves just like the stuff refined from oil.

Solazyme says analysis of its algal jet fuel by the Southwest Testing Institute showed it didn't freeze at high altitude -- a common problem with biofuels -- and it had the same density, stability and flashpoint of conventional jet fuel. In all, the algal fuel met 11 of the most challenging standards, known as D1655, for aviation fuels set by the ASTM. That's a significant step toward commercial viability of an alternative fuel that can meet the rigorous demands of the aviation industry.

"The Solazyme algae-based aviation kerosene has passed the biggest hurdles needed to successfully develop a commercial and military jet fuel fully consistent with existing engines and infrastructure," the company says.

That doesn't mean your next flight will be aboard a plane fueled by pond scum.

Several companies are experimenting with bio-jet fuels derived from soybeans and other feed stocks, but Solazyme makes fuel by growing algae in fermentation tanks without sunlight, satisfying the eukaryotic organism's sweet tooth by feeding it a steady diet of sugar. The process has already led to algal fuel for cars, called Soladiesel, that works like conventional diesel fuel. Solazyme hopes to begin mass-producing it at a competitive price within three years. That could be optimistic, but Chevron is sufficiently impressed to join Solazyme in the endeavor.

Solazyme isn't alone in pursuing algal jet fuel. Seattle-based Inventure Chemical is building a test plant and Texas-based PetroSun has dedicated part of its 1,100-saltwater-pond network to developing an algae-derived aviation fuel. Airlines and aircraft manufacturers, anxiously watching petroleum prices wreak havoc on their finances, are eager to give these new alternatives a try. Virgin Atlantic ran a biofuel test flight in February, while KLM, Continental, JetBlue, and Air New Zealand have announced plans to work with Boeing or Airbus on trials of their own. Darpa and the Air Force also are keenly interested in finding alternatives to kerosene.

The news from Solazyme is good, but don't plan to buckle yourself into an algae-powered jet anytime soon. While the innovation is there, the ability to scale up isn't. Company CEO Jonathan Wolfson says the company could produce millions of gallons of algal kerosene if it had the equipment, but the "capital involved in owning that equipment is massive." And then there's the fact algal kerosene still costs more than the stuff refined from petroleum.

Photo by Flickr user Micah A. Ponce.