The forest green algae bubbling in a stainless steel fermenting tank in a suburban warehouse may look like primordial pond scum, but it is a promising new source of domestically produced fuels being tested on the nation’s jets and warships.
In a laboratory just a few steps away from the warehouse, white-coated scientists for a company called Solazyme are changing the genetic makeup of algae to construct a new generation of fuels.
These "bioengineered" algae are placed into tanks, where they get fat on sugar beets, switch grass or a host of other plants. The sun’s energy, which is stored in the plants, is transformed by the hungry algae into oil, which can be refined into jet fuel, bio-diesel, cooking oil or even cosmetics.
While it may sound far-fetched, the U.S. Navy in September ordered more than 150,000 gallons of ship and jet fuel from Solazyme and the company received a $21.8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy last year to build a new refinery in Riverside, Penn., to help push production to commercial levels.
"Most of the planet is producing some kind of plant matter, even in the oceans," said Jonathan Wolfson, the CEO and co-founder of Solazyme. "(Our) unique microbial conversion technology process allows algae to produce oil in standard industrial fermentation facilities quickly, efficiently and at commercial scale."
The U.S. military hopes to run 50 percent of its fleet on a mixture of renewable fuels and nuclear power by 2020. As part of this drive, the Department of Defense has been investing in companies like Solazyme to help jump-start the young industry.
The military as a whole uses more than 90 percent of the energy consumed by the federal government, officials said. The federal government uses about 2 percent of the energy consumed by the U.S.