Boeing brews up algae, a promising fuel of the future
WASHINGTON – A 75-gallon tank of goo that during a week or so changed from lime green to almost black was one of the stars of last summer’s Farnborough International Air Show in England.
As airlines ordered hundreds of planes worth billions of dollars at the world’s largest air show, the tank, or bioreactor, provided a near-perfect breeding ground for what could become the fuel of the future – algae.
The Boeing Co. and other aerospace companies and airlines are betting that algae, a simple organism that comes in hundreds of strains that can be genetically modified, will prove a green fuel to power jet planes. It also could be blended into diesel and gasoline and, perhaps one day, it could actually replace petroleum-based diesel and gasoline.
And as the infant industry organizes, algae proponents need to make their case for the same tax breaks, market incentives, loans and research and development backing that other biofuel sectors already have. Though corn and soybean growers have long lobbied in Washington, D.C., the Algal Biomass Organization is a new kid on the block.
On Monday, the organization will meet in the nation’s capital to discuss how to convince Congress and the incoming administration that algae is much more than the film on the inside of your fish tank or the scum blooming in the neighborhood pond.
“We are up against formidable opposition from competing interests,” Jason Pyle, chief executive of Sapphire Energy, said of resistance from ethanol and biodiesel groups during an algae industry summit in Seattle earlier this fall. Sapphire, a San Diego company, has produced a form of gasoline called “green crude” that is made from algae.
Pyle said current policy favors such alternative fuels as corn for ethanol or soybeans for biodiesel and provides only limited assistance to algae-related products. He said one of the top priorities for the new Congress and the new administration in their first 100 days will be to write a comprehensive energy bill. Pyle said it was critical that the algae industry make its presence known.
“The train is moving … it hasn’t left the station yet,” Pyle said in urging the algae industry to make a concerted lobbying effort. “But we are approaching the final opportunity … to grab a seat on the energy train.”
IN BOEING’S ‘STRATEGIC INTEREST’
Boeing has emerged as one of the leaders in the effort to develop algae-based fuel and was instrumental in forming the Algal Biomass Organization, or ABO, which is based in Seattle. The co-chairmen of the group’s nine-member board are Boeing executives.
“It’s in Boeing’s strategic interest to have a portfolio of sustainable fuels,” said Darrin Morgan, who heads the company’s effort to develop biofuels and is one of the ABO’s chairmen. “They agreed to let us lead the charge.”
Commercial airplanes burn 70 billion gallons of aviation fuel a year, and the greenhouse gases produced by jet engines are becoming a concern.
“Planes will always be dependent on liquid fuels; we can’t do plug-in hybrids,” said Morgan.
Boeing won’t disclose how much it is spending on developing green fuels, though it’s far less than the billions of dollars it spends on developing a new airplane. In addition to algae, it has looked at jatropha – a bush that grows in arid environments, needs little water and yields more oil than corn – and halophytes, salt tolerant plants such as seashore mallow.
First-generation biofuels made from corn, soybeans, sunflower seeds and rapeseed were rejected because they use valuable agriculture land, they can result in deforestation in developing countries, and the demand for them has driven up the prices of food and caused scattered food shortages.
Virgin Atlantic, which along with Air New Zealand and Continental are members of ABO, successfully tested a green aviation fuel based on jatropha on a 747 flight from London to Amsterdam.
READY WITHIN FIVE YEARS?
Though jatropha has attracted a lot of attention, Morgan said algae may be the best bet in the long run. If algae-based fuel can be certified for commercial use and large enough quantities produced, Morgan said, it’s realistic that in three to five years it would be used in commercial aviation.
“It would be possible to fly on 100 percent (algae), but most likely it will be a blend,” he said.
Sapphire already has made a gasoline using algae that meets fuel quality standards, is compatible with current gasoline manufacturing infrastructure and achieved a 91 octane rating.
The Department of Energy studied algae as a fuel source as far back as the 1970s but abandoned the research in 1996 to focus on ethanol. Last year’s energy bill required the department to report back to Congress on the feasibility of using algae as a biofuel.
NASA also has been looking at algae as a jet fuel and for other uses in outer space.
“It’s hard not to get excited about algae’s potential,” said Paul Dickerson, chief operating officer of the Energy Department’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.
While most of the interest in developing algae farms has focused on Southern California and Arizona, where it’s sunny, or near coal-fired generating plants, where the carbon dioxide emissions could be used as plant food, it’s possible to grow algae anywhere, including in Washington state. Algae can flourish in saltwater, freshwater or brackish water.
Last year’s energy bill requires the production of 36 billion gallons of renewable fuel by 2022.
Ethanol and biodiesel manufacturers think that provides more than enough room for algae.
“We don’t necessarily see them as competitors,” said Matt Hartwig, a spokesman for the Renewable Fuels Association, an ethanol trade association.
Michael Prolich of the National Biodiesel Board said, “We would welcome their work to grow the biodiesel industry.”
‘LEVEL PLAYING FIELD’
Lawmakers don’t see it necessarily as a zero-sum game.
“We shouldn’t be picking winners and losers,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and a leader on energy issues for the Democrats. “We need to create a level playing field with incentives.”
ABO is composed of companies like Boeing, the airlines and Sapphire, along with researchers, entrepreneurs, harvesters, processors and end users of algae. There has been some disagreement over how quickly to move on the lobbying front.
“Everyone has an opinion, everyone is strong-willed,” said Tom Byrne, the group’s secretary and a renewable fuel consultant from Minnesota. “This is still in its early stages.”
Boeing’s Morgan agrees, but he added that it’s important for the industry to have a voice in Washington, D.C.
Boeing’s decision to put up an algae exhibit at the Farnborough air show generated a lot of interest from the aerospace industry, said Morgan. The issue is no longer whether jets can use fuels based on such plants as algae, but how quickly production facilities can scale up, he said.
“There are no algae farmers,” Morgan said. “There are lots of corn farmers, but no algae farmers. We are finding a receptive audience when it comes to policy-makers and the general public. But we need a collective voice.”
Les Blumenthal: 202-383-0008