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Burning Green to Be Green
Some motorists in the San Francisco Bay Area began filling their tanks with algae-derived fuel last month -- the first time such a fuel was made available at retail pumps. The fuel itself is 80 percent petroleum and 20 percent algae-derived biodiesel made by Solazyme. The pilot program is operating at Bay Area gas stations where alternative-fuel provider Propel leases space.
Solazyme is hoping to tap a large, but underserved consumer market for clean fuels. In California alone, there are now more than a million people driving alternative-fuel-ready vehicles.
"We've successfully demonstrated our land-based fuels in fleet vehicles and corporate busses, and are excited about this pilot program with Propel because it enables us to make these fuels available to the public," said Bob Ames, vice president of fuels at Solazyme.
In tests done by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, 20-percent algae-derived biodiesel blends reduce total hydrocarbons emissions by 10 percent, carbon monoxide emissions by 20 percent and particulate matter tailpipe emissions by 30 percent compared to typical diesel.
However, the issue is not whether the technology is eco-friendly, but rather wallet-friendly. In a 2010 report, researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and California Polytechnic State University estimated producing oil from algae grown in ponds would cost between $240 and $332 a barrel -- far higher than the current $85-price range for petroleum.
Solazyme, however, uses a propriety microalgae that does not need light and grows in steel vessels, thus cutting energy and land costs. The algae also has an 80 percent oil content, whereas wild algae has about a 10 percent oil content.
The new fuel -- which Solazyme already has sold to commercial airlines and the U.S. military -- could help California meet some of its pollution-cutting goals. In 2007, the state enacted a low-carbon fuel standard, making fuel producers lower the amount of greenhouse gas emissions in their products 10 percent by 2020.
Earlier this year, the California Air Resources Board unanimously approved new auto emissions rules that mandate a 75 percent reduction in smog-forming pollutants by 2025, and a 50 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.