Growing energy

One day a few years back, I decided that things out here in the hills were just too damn dry. So I started digging. Now, I have a nice little pond, filled with mosquitofish (tough little buggers), the insects known as water boatmen (just flew in, I guess), and small snails (how’d they get here?). It’s used every spring and summer by the toads as a spawning ground/ nursery, and recently, nasty-lookin’ dragonfly nymphs have been seen hunting in the muck on the bottom.

There’s also a lot of algae. It doesn’t take long for that to show up, either. The main thing I’ve learned about algae—this stuff knows how to GROW! And fast! Even now in late October, the stuff rocks. I’ll strip it out by hand one day (it’s not that yucky), and within 48 hours, it’s back at the same height and mass. It’s impressive, and leads one to consider just what good this common, overlooked species might yield if someone with some brains would recognize its one amazing talent.

Enter Bryan Willson, professor of mechanical engineering at Colorado State and founder of a biofuel company called Solix. Willson and Solix are now very interested in algae. Certain forms of the plant produce large amounts of lipids, which are vegetable oils that can be easily converted into biodiesel and jet fuel. And the right species of algae can really crank up those lipids, easily out-producing either corn or soybeans in the oil department, at a rate of about 10,000 gallons of fuel a year per acre (wonder if Willie Nelson knows about this?)

There are a couple of other real attractive upsides to the “algae farm” scenario. One is that the stuff, like all plants, thrives on carbon dioxide. So it’s conceivable that local industries that produce CO2 could, instead of throwing the gas into the sky as some kind of waste, feed it to the local algae farm, thus becoming a vital partner in the operation. And algae farms wouldn’t need to gobble up prime real estate. Setting them up on marginal and relatively undesirable land, using brackish water supplies, wouldn’t hinder the efficiency of the facility in the slightest.

Does this mean good ole pond scum could become a major player in the American energy picture of the near future? It sure could. Willson says all Solix has to do is get algae oil competitive with fossil fuels. They have a ways to go, but if and when that happens, he says, “the market is infinite.” It’s also interesting to note that none other than Exxon-Mobil has taken an interest in the field, recently committing a fairly significant $600 million for algae oil research.

It’s now commonly accepted that our future energy answers will probably come in the form of some multi-faceted mosaic. Don’t be at all surprised if it turns out in 10 to 20 years that “lowly” pond scum will have a surprisingly large part to play.