"Here it is!" Jim Sears says with a tour guide's come-see enthusiasm. I stop, my feet stuck in six inches of fresh powder outside the Old Fort Collins power plant, but the contraption before us doesn't exactly inspire awe. Two parallel tracks, each about 60 feet long, protrude from the snow like the twin runners of a giant upended sled. A washing-machine-size box studded with dials and blank displays sits at one end. Nothing moves, nothing glows, nothing hums. The future of alternative energy sits silent before me. This is what's going to make gasoline obsolete?
Sears chuckles at my confusion. "Nothing's really set up at the moment," he explains. "The bags aren't hooked up. We don't want to damage the equipment by letting it sit in the snow." My eyes drift to the only spot of color in the entire crystalline scene: a wide acrylic tank off to the side that looks like an aquarium left to ferment in the windowsill. The water inside is seaweed green and so opaque it's almost milky. I run my finger over the top, brushing off snow as I go. "What's in here?" I ask. Sears eyes the tank fondly. "This is the first step," he says. "This is where the algae starts to grow."
Algae seems a strange contender for the mantle of World's Next Great Fuel, but the green goop has several qualities in its favor. Algae, made up of simple aquatic organisms that capture light energy through photosynthesis, produces vegetable oil. Vegetable oil, in turn, can be transformed into biodiesel, which can be used to power just about any diesel engine. (There are currently 13 million of them on American roads, a number that's expected to jump over the next decade.)
Algae has some important advantages over other oil-producing crops, like canola and soybeans. It can be grown in almost any enclosed space, it multiplies like gangbusters, and it requires very few inputs to flourish-mainly just sunlight, water and carbon dioxide. "Because algae has a high surface-area-to-volume ratio, it can absorb nutrients very quickly," Sears says. "Its small size is what makes it mighty."
The proof is in the numbers. About 140 billion gallons of biodiesel would be needed every year to replace all petroleum-based transportation fuel in the U.S. It would take nearly three billion acres of fertile land to produce that amount with soybeans, and more than one billion acres to produce it with canola. Unfortunately, there are only 434 million acres of cropland in the entire country, and we probably want to reserve some of that to grow food. But because of its ability to propagate almost virally in a small space, algae could do the job in just 95 million acres of land. What's more, it doesn't need fertile soil to thrive. It grows in ponds, bags or tanks that can be just as easily set up in the desert-or next to a carbon-dioxide-spewing power plant-as in the country's breadbasket.
Sears claims that these efficiencies will allow Solix Biofuels, the company he founded, to create algae-based biodiesel that costs about the same as gasoline. But like any start-up trying to carve a niche in the post-oil age, Solix must struggle for answers before it can sell a thing: Which species of algae will produce the most oil? What's the best way to grow it? And not least, how do you extract the oil from the algae once it's grown? The research and debate at Solix is so fierce that it has already claimed one casualty-my guide, Jim Sears.single page