Algae Takes Flight

Lee Nachtigal

Is algaculture—the growing of algae to produce biofuel—set to make a breakthrough in 2010?

Last year saw the first algae-powered flight, when a Continental Boeing 737-800 flew over the Gulf of Mexico with one engine running partly on algae oil. The certification process in the U.S. for a 50% algae derived aviation fuel is due to start this year, as the four leading companies in the field—Honeywell subsidiary UOP, algae-based fuel developer Sapphire Energy, chemical producer Elevance Renewable Sciences, and biorefineries developer ClearFuels Technology—receive $100 million in stimulus money.

The most cost effective estimates put the cost of a barrel of algae oil at $100, over twice the price of oil. What has attracted the U.S. government and investors is algae’s potential productivity—providing 30 times more energy per unit than other second generation biofuel crops, while also costing less energy to produce than oil derived from palm or corn.