Scientists have been looking to algae as a source of alternative fuel since the '70s, and small businesses have recently jumped on the bandwagon, investing in this potential answer to the energy crisis and the threat of global warming.
"The discovery of algae as biofuel has been around since the 1970s. But back then petroleum was ten dollars a barrel and we didn't know about climate change. There was no political pressure and no consumer pressure to change," says John Williams, spokesperson for Algal Biomass Organization. "But there's a perfect storm brewing now with growing concern about America's energy independence, worry about carbon emissions, and a new administration that's funding alternative energy exponentially more."
The basic science behind the use of algae as fuel involves the conversion of lipids from cell membranes of farmed algae to fuel. Because algae removes more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere during photosynthesis than it releases, the technology is being touted as a possible answer to growing concern over carbon emissions. And because one ton of algae is estimated to produce 100 gallons of oil, it's being touted as an answer to the energy crisis, too.
Though big oil companies like Chevron and BP are also involved in alternative energy, "the industry is largely dominated by entrepreneurs and researchers who have taken this technology out of university labs and are now trying to commercialize it," says Williams.
One such business is Bionavitas, a Washington-based company founded by entrepreneur Michael Weaver. The company, which has been operating since 2006, is dedicated to developing technology to use light rods to grow algae. But Weaver says the industry is getting crowded.
"Just like every other boom industry, there are a lot of people who want to get in on it," Weaver explains. "it's only going to get hotter than it is now."