Thursday, September 11

Microbes Grow Jet Fuel In The Dark

Solarzyme passes test with flying colors: their algae jet fuel grown in the dark won't freeze solid in flight

The South San Francisco company Solazyme announced this week that it has produced the world's first microbial-derived jet fuel to pass the eleven most challenging specifications needed to meet the Aviation Turbine Fuel standards.

Solazyme's algal-derived aviation fuel was analyzed by the Southwest Research Institute, one of the nations leading fuel analytical laboratories. The tested areas included the key measurements for density, thermal oxidative stability, flashpoint, freezing point, distillation and viscosity, the biggest hurdles needed to develop a commercial and military jet fuel.

Given Solarzyme's excellent cold temperature performance and the clean characteristics of the oil, former military fuels specialists note that new algae-based fuels could help the DOD comply with recently enacted mandates to reduce our dependence on foreign oil and utilize environmentally friendly fuels.

In the U.S. alone, 1.6 billion gallons of jet fuel are used every month resulting in significant greenhouse gas emissions. The EU will require all airlines landing there to meet new low carbon fuel standards by 2012 . The need for environmentally friendly and sustainable alternatives is growing rapidly. But it is not merely foreign legislative pressure to change. As peak oil nears, jet fuel already accounts for 36 percent of airline industry costs, up from 13 percent just six years ago and could account for 40 percent of their costs next year. While algae is currently almost as expensive as oil to produce, it has a significantly different estimated cost going forward, since it comprises cells that double exponentially over time. Oil reserves will be depleted over that time.

Solazyme is currently producing thousands of gallons of oil a month at scale and is the only advanced biofuels company that has produced fuels that have passed specification testing and are compatible with the existing transportation fuel infrastructure.

Solarzyme uses directed evolution to engineer an organism to perform a desired function, the same technique farmers have employed since the dawn of civilization to breed new strains of higher production grain and so on, but this is done at the gene sequence level.

Solarzyme's process needs no sunlight, unlike other algae farming startups such as the New Zealand startup which will be flying a Boeing test to San Francisco this month. This lack of a need for sunlight makes for an eficient and fast process, and the feedstock is very sustainable: agricultural waste, cellulosic material such as switchgrass and industrial byproducts. Algae doesn't require vast amounts of land. You can even grow algae on the roof of a sewage plant.

Unlike any other materials used in mass production processes that we enterprising human have harnessed to grow businesses, algae naturally just keeps on exponentially doubling.

Photo via Vindu Goel's

For Matternetwork