These issues, Sears says, can be addressed with computer systems that limit growth rates by precisely controlling the amount of nutrients that are added to the tank. But making such refinements adds to capital costs, which threatens the bare-bones economic philosophy that algae fuel companies must embrace to make a product competitive with petroleum-based diesel.
After the harvest, another conundrum presents itself: how to get the oil out. Algae isn't fibrous enough to stand up to cold pressing, the standard way of extracting fat from plant matter. Processing the green slurry piped out of the bags by adding chemicals like methanol or hexane is the most obvious alternative-an efficient and relatively cheap means of removing oil. But some observers worry about the possible unintended consequences of the operation. "There are different schemes that are likely to affect land and water use and, if anything gets loose, there's a whole variety of possible impacts," says Dan Kammen, the director of the University of California at Berkeley's Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory.
Sears also can't account for the other variables that will help determine Solix's fate. Will lawmakers see fit to subsidize algae fuel at the expense of other established alternatives, like ethanol? Will U.S. automakers ever manufacture cars that can run on biodiesel? "The tests that have been done so far show there's some promise," Probst says, "but it's not at the stage yet where you want to get people's expectations built up." It's a long way from a few drops at the bottom of a flask to powering America.
Sears has learned firsthand how these challenges can affect more than the bottom line. Last November, Willson, Henston and a representative of investor Bohemian Investments, not wanting to be bound to the specifics of Sears's original reactor design, voted Sears out as CEO. Henston assumed CEO status and control over the company's future research plans, and Sears lost his sure grasp on building the baggie-and-roller reactor he had originally conceived.
"Jim is a visionary," Willson says, "but I don't have any emotional attachment to his plans." The clear implication is that Sears might have blocked any changes to his original design, even if they were shown to improve the growing process. (Indeed, although Sears plans to maintain a working relationship with Solix, he is in the process of forming a separate company to pursue his original, unadulterated dream.) Later this year, Solix will test a new prototype design that will not include rollers-which pose the risk of wearing out the plastic bags-to agitate the algae; instead, bubbles percolating through the green slurry will ensure that the mixture is sufficiently stirred. Additionally, new multitiered, triangle-shaped compartments inside the bags will reflect the sun's rays, illuminate the algae from multiple directions, and, ideally, bump up fuel yields.
It's been a long year for Sears, but he knows that Solix's future-like the future of algae biodiesel as a whole-depends on so much more than any one person can foresee. "Who knows," he says with characteristic equanimity, his ever-present smile playing around his lips. "Me being thrown out as CEO may turn out to be a great thing for the company."
If Elizabeth Svoboda could join any band, she would join They Might Be Giants.
She would play the cowbell.