It looks like Solazyme will be making algal biodiesel for the US military, after a test-drive demonstrated the fuel’s superior cold-weather properties when compared to commercially-available biodiesel.
Former Director of Central Intelligence and Under-Secretary of the Navy R. James Woolsey tested the fuel himself by driving to the Worldwide Energy Conference & Trade Show in an unmodified 2008 Ford F450 fueled by 100% algal biodiesel.
Solazyme is a synthetic biology company using novel methods to produce algae biodiesel. I reported on the company back in January, when they made head turns with their algal-powered Mercedes at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. While the Mercedes was only powered by B20 (20% biodiesel), Solazyme was already highlighting the cold-weather benefits of their fuel. It looks like Wolfson was also impressed:
“The DoD’s requested testing of the Soladiesel fuel showed superior performance especially in terms of its cold temperature properties,” said Wolfson. “Greater performance in cold temperatures means our biodiesel and other algae-based fuels could help the military in remote northern locations like Alaska and North Dakota, as well as in hot climates, while reducing dependence on petroleum. We look forward to continuing to work with the DoD on Soladiesel and other algal based fuels, and are pleased to be presenting at the DESC conference.”
Solazyme has already been working with Chevron, after their “biodiesel feedstock development and testing agreement” was established in January. What isn’t apparent is when Solazyme’s algal biodiesel will be commercially available, and how it compares to other production methods (like the algae biodiesel facility that went online April 1st in Texas) in terms of energy balance, greenhouse gas emissions, etc.
Solazyme’s novel method grows algae in the absence of light. Since algae need light to make sugar to then make oil—which is how the organisms store energy—Solazyme just feeds them sugar, skipping the entire photosynthetic process.
While this achieves a 1000-fold increase in productivity, it has two obvious problems: no carbon is sequestered in the growing process, and it requires a source of sugar. That source is currently sugarcane, but Solazyme says cellulosic feedstocks could also be used at some future date.
I’m in contact with Solazyme now, and if more information becomes available I’ll be adding it in another post. See Solazyme’s press release here.