Thursday, 5 November 2009

Scientists attempt to squeeze out fuel from pond scum

Sunday Territorian
Sunday 1/11/2009 Page: 44

DRIVEN by fluctuations in oil prices, and seduced by the prospect of easing climate change, experts are ramping up efforts to squeeze fuel out of a promising new organism: pond scum. As it turns out, algae - slimy,fast-growing and full of fat - is gaining ground as a potential renewable energy source. Experts say it is intriguing for its ability to gobble up carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, while living happily in places that aren't needed for food crops.

Algae likes mosquito-infested swamps, for example, filthy pools, and even waste water. And while no one has found a way to mass produce cheap fuel from algae yet, the race is on. University labs and start-up companies are getting involved. Over the US summer, the first mega-corporation joined in, when Exxon-Mobil said it would sink $US600 million ($A650.9 million) into algae research in a partnership with a California biotechnology company.

If the research pans out, scientists say they will eventually find a cost-effective way to convert lipids from algae ponds into fuel, then pump it into cars, trucks and jets. "I think it's very realistic. I don't think it's going to take 20 years. It's going to take a few years," said chemical engineer George Philippidis, director of applied research at Florida International University in Miami. One of the factors fuelling enthusiasm is algae's big appetite for carbon dioxide - a byproduct of burning fossil fuels. "We could hookup to the exhaust of polluting industries," Philippidis said. "We could capture it and feed it to algae and prevent that CO2 from contributing to further climate change."

California company Sapphire Energy has already fuelled a cross-country road trip with algae-tinged petrol. The trip, meant to raise awareness, prompted the headline, Coast to Coast on Slime. Another California company is looking at fattening fish on algae and then processing the fish for oil. "Where algae is very nice is, it's prolific. It's everywhere.., and you don't have to do much. Mother Nature has kind of figured it out," said Roy Swiger, a molecular geneticist and director of the Florida division of the non-profit Sinosteel-Midwest Research Institute.