Key to the project is picking the right type of algae. There are thousands of types of algae that could potentially produce the right kind of vegetable oil, and there are times when Amy Boczon, a CSU graduate student in biology, feels like she has tried them all. Back at Solix's lab at the Old Fort Collins power plant, she swings open a refrigerator door to reveal test tubes crammed in like six-packs. Sears, Henston, Willson and I look them over. Each tube in the array is a slightly different shade of green, containing a distinct species of algae that Solix is evaluating for its fat-production potential.
Boczon's job is to manipulate the algae's environment to maximize the amount of oil it produces. "You need to make [it] think, "Gosh, am I going to go through a time when I'm not going to have a certain nutrient?' " she explains. Yet switching the algae into oil-production mode by removing nutrients like nitrogen can also slow its growth and endanger its health. The trick is to harvest the cells at their peak-after they've accumulated maximum oil stores but before they succumb to overstress.
I cut to the chase. "So, how much fuel have you produced so far?"
askance at one another, as if I've violated some unspoken rule of conduct. Mark Machacek, another Solix employee, leaves the room for a moment and comes back with an Erlenmeyer flask. When he holds it up to the light, I can just make out a trace of brownish liquid, like the last drops of whiskey at the bottom of a tumbler. "That's it," he says. "That's all we've got."
It's Not Easy Being Green
The oil-smudged beaker is a vivid reminder of the challenges start-ups like Solix face. "Algae fuel is truly in the R&D stage, and to present it any other way at this point would be a mistake," says Jeff Probst, the CEO of BlueSun Biodiesel in Westminster, Colorado. BlueSun has expressed interest in using algae as a feedstock, but only if Solix can produce it in large enough quantities.
In theory, making fuel from algae should be straightforward. The government scientists who ran the Aquatic Species Program proved that it is possible to grow a whole bunch of green stuff and add chemicals to extract the oil and make at least a small amount of fuel. "This isn't cold fusion-it's not like nobody's done this before," Willson points out. But replicating and improving on 20-year-old results isn't all that easy. Out of the dozens of brash young algae-biodiesel start-ups, only one, Aquaflow in New Zealand, has managed to produce enough fuel to power a car engine.
This delay reflects the unique difficulties of engineering a biological system. Each algae-growing reactor is a miniature biosphere unto itself, built on the same delicate web of dependencies as a natural ecosystem. Change one element, and you can nudge others into disarray. "Algae is a holy grail because it can grow so quickly," says Cary Bullock, the CEO of GreenFuel. "But for it to reach its potential, you have to make sure all the algae gets just the right amount of light. If there's too much or too little, you won't get a good enough yield." Spurring the algae on to Herculean growth rates, he adds, creates its own set of problems. The swiftly multiplying cells decimate the carbon dioxide supply they use to make food, and in large numbers, they block out the very light they need to survive.single page
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