The Life and Death of Biofuel

Biofuel is no longer a foreign word, despite the fact that my word processor thinks it’s spelled wrong. A significant amount of research is being conducted regarding biofuel—from using leftover cooking oil to growing algae for the sole purpose of using it as fuel for cars and jets. Aside from research, there are people who do actually run their vehicles on spent restaurant fryer oil. Urban Philadelphia farm Greensgrow runs its truck on cooking oil—they are even holding a seminar about the Why and How of Biodiesel next month.

Research regarding algae as fuel has been of interest since the late 1970s when President Jimmy Carter launched the Aquatic Species Program. Today there is some controversy over how to produce algae for use in fuel. A recent New York Times article focuses on genetically engineering algae to thrive and maximize its energy production—and the pros and cons of doing so. If reengineered algae get out into the wild, will it crowd out its natural cousin? Or will it be weaker, as Stephen Mayfield, a University of California, San Diego professor, suggests?

J. Craig Ventner, a genetic scientist, has recommended including “suicide genes” in the engineered algae. This way, if the mutant algae escape the lab, it won’t wreak havoc elsewhere—in places it was never intended to be. Only time will tell what the researchers choose. Earlier this month the U.S. Department of Energy announced it has chosen to fund three research groups looking into algae for use as fuel.

For an 11 minute primer on biofuels, check out our Distillations episode from last year about the topic. Catherine Girardeau, a regular contributor to Distillations, visited Arizona State University in Tempe and Solazyme in San Francisco, to learn more about how algae fuel works.

Be sure to check back in on Friday, when Catherine will tell us about what is being done with the hairmats used to soak up oil and Distillations celebrates its 100th episode!

Posted In: Technology

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