Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Pond Scum Can Fuel Your Car

When I think about diesel fuel, I picture some beaten up 1970s vehicle or a big rig belching out black smoke. Diesel is now more expensive than unleaded in many areas, and you can't find it as readily. But my impression is about to change, thanks to biodiesel.

I love hearing about biodiesel. This marvelous fuel replacement is the future of car fuels, since it is non-toxic, biodegradable, emits almost no emissions, and costs about the same as petroleum gas, but I love it for another reason – French fries. If you drive behind a car running on recycled cooking oil, it smells like French fries or popcorn (here I'm lumping together biodiesel and straight vegetable oils (SVOs), like reclaimed cooking oil – SVOs require modifying your diesel engine). Cool, eh? "Fill 'er up." "Would you like fries with that, sir?" It's cool, too, because it’s a big ol' thumb in the eye of the petroleum industry that's gouging us every day.

Biodiesel (not from recycled cooking oil) is made from processed corn or soybeans. Willie Nelson now has his own company that sells biodiesel, called BioWillie, which, according to a documentary I saw (and memory serves me right) is made mainly from soybean and focuses on local growers. The problem is that soybean and corn are also used for other products, such as food, which sets up an unfortunate competition that can drive up prices. No one wants that, of course.

Well now someone has found a way to make fuel from pond scum:

http://www.physorg.com/news89400502.html

Well, not pond scum, exactly, but algae. The University of Utah is pursuing research into it now and plans to release a cost-competitive formulation for cars by 2009. Algae is easy and robust to grow and can be grown in just about any non-frigid climate. Most importantly: it's cheap. Corn can be processed to create about 18 gallons of biodiesel per acre. Soybean can make about 48 gallons per acre. Various nuts, avocado, and oil palm can make many hundreds of gallons, but would be prohibitively expensive. Algae, however, can make (drum roll please) 10,000 gallons per acre!

But U. of U. isn't the only one moving on this. Here's an excerpt from Wikipedia's page on Algaculture:

In November 8, 2006, Green Star Products has announced that it has signed an agreement with De Beers Fuel Limited of South Africa to build 90 biodiesel reactors with algae as raw material. Each of the biodiesel reactors will be capable of producing 10 million gallons of biodiesel each year for a total production capacity of 900,000,000 gallons per year when operating at full capacity, which is 4 times greater than the entire U.S. output in 2006.

Wow. Yes, De Beers, made famous for diamond mining. If the oil companies are going to turn a blind eye to the future of fuels, then why wouldn't some other massive conglomerate jump on the potential?

So, look to the future and buy that diesel-engine car. And when you drive by wetlands and see an algae-clogged marsh, or when you scrape algae off the sides of your home aquarium, think to yourself "That's the future of fuels, by golly!"

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