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Brookhaven lab seeks more oil from algae

Scott Eidler, Newsday

Coming soon to a gas station near you: oil made from algae.

Perhaps, say scientists at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton. Six researchers there, led by Changcheng Xu, have confirmed a better way to get more oil from algae, microscopic plants that grow in oceans, on ponds and even in household fish tanks.

Until now, many companies that work with algae have steered clear of oil production. The economics aren't there: Costs are too high, and yields too low. But the findings, say industry leaders, signal a way to make the venture profitable.

"It's all about productivity," said Tim Zenk, a vice president at Sapphire Energy Inc., a company in San Diego on the verge of growing algae-generated crude oil for commercial sale. "The more you produce, the more yield you have, and the lower the costs."

What Xu and his team found -- the more carbon that's fed to algae, the more oil that's produced -- undermines some established theories. For starters, they discovered, algae will produce oil even if they are still growing. And blocking carbon from certain enzymes boosts oil production, they found.

"Nobody knew this limitation," Xu said. "It's changing the strategy people are using to enable algae to produce oil."

What this means is greater oil yields from algae, and a more efficient way to make oil. So companies that were once reluctant to harvest algae for oil might take a second look.

Even though scientists at Sapphire Energy already knew this, Zenk said, support from the scientific community is crucial.

"One of the reasons many scientists concluded why algae might not be a viable energy technology was because you had to starve algae from nitrogen," he said.

"It [Xu's research] essentially validates the science that we've been working on," Zenk said.

Many scientists are looking at algae as a viable alternative to fossil fuels. "The good news is that algae seem to perform in every way as regular fuel," said engineer Tom Risley, who researched algal fuel for the U.S. Maritime Administration. "So if somebody can work out the kinks of getting the price low enough to get the fuel to work, that would be a good thing."

On a new 300-acre demonstration pond in New Mexico, Sapphire Energy produces about one barrel of algal oil each day. By 2018, it expects to produce between 5,000 and 10,000 barrels a day, impressive by industry standards.

"That's actually tomorrow," said Zenk.

So far, the company has produced several hundred barrels of oil, including blends that can fuel boats, cars, trucks and airliners, such as one 2009 Continental flight partly fueled by algae.

Today, the marketplace is scattered with companies that work with algae to produce all sorts of products, ranging from omega-3 fatty acids used in vitamins, to face creams.

The founders of Blue Marble Biomaterials, a company in Montana that works with algae to produce fragrances and food flavors, considered making oil from algae at one point.

So the news from Brookhaven is encouraging. "Anywhere we can make those oils close to us and affordable, that's what we're interested in doing," said chief executive James Stephens.The advantage that Sapphire Energy has, compared to its competitors, is an abundant supply of funding. "To do the science that is required to make these economics requires significant capital," said Zenk. That capital comes from wealthy investors, including Bill Gates, Monsanto, the Rockefeller family and millions in federal investment and grants.

Xu, who was born in China and studied at the University of Michigan, is cautious not overstate the study's findings. "At least," he said, "it gives them insights as to what is possible."

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