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Can Algae Power the Future?

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Small pools of algae kept in motion are beginning to create brand new crude oil.

When you think about renewable energy, the usual suspects come to mind. Solar farms in the American Southwest. Wind energy in the central plains. Even tidal energy along the coasts and biofuels everywhere in between.

Yet one area that doesn’t get much focus is algae, the simple organism that turns energy from the sun into the same type of crude oil that fills American refineries.

Let’s take a quick step back. Every type of energy is generated by the sun, as you may have learned in high school. Solar radiation causes wind to blow, tides to roll, and once provided the building blocks for the hydrocarbons that make up oil, coal, and natural gas. Some of that energy has taken millions of years to form. Algae, on the other hand, almost instantly converts photons into energy. “It’s the most efficient way we know of to create liquid fuels,” says Tim Zenk, vice president of corporate affairs at Sapphire Energy, a company bringing algae energy to scalable production. Whereas other types of plants spend energy building trunks and leaves and flowers, algae can produce almost pure energy from photosynthesis.

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Here’s why algae matters. Over the next two decades, the U.S. Department of Energy has projected an oil shortfall of up to 30 million barrels each day. Even a small fraction of that can seriously disrupt the U.S. economy, which runs most transportation and development on fossil fuels. More solar and wind development can meet new demand, but can’t produce a liquid to fill your gas tank or airplane engine. On top of that is the security dilemma posed by importing energy from often unfriendly or even hostile countries. The Pentagon specifically, along with the Pew Environment Group, has worked toward making the military more energy independent.

Some Sapphire leaders gave me a tour of the growing companyto see its labs and swirling beakers filled with green gunk. It may be a little messy, but it’s an idea even the federal government has gotten behind with a $104 million grant and loan package from Washington. A bipartisan group of lawmakers has visited Sapphire to see how the process works.

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One reason for the broad support: algae is ubiquitous. It’s everywhere. And it’s easy to replicate—most strains are asexual and spend their days dividing into newer and newer generations. In one lab, several beakers were attached to machines that clicked what seemed like every few seconds. “Every click is a new generation,” one researcher told me.

What’s more, it can be bred without too much difficulty into more and more efficient strains. Imagine one peach that’s sweet and another that grows quickly. Crossbreed them and ideally you get a peach with both characteristics. Sapphire is doing the same with thousands of algae strains, cross breeding every hour of the day to find more and more efficient strains that can pump out oil faster and more cheaply.

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Still, algae isn’t quite a silver bullet. Renewably-produced oil can be a big part of our future, but even the top scientists at Sapphire don’t expect it to completely overshadow current fossil fuel production. Currently, algae produces a few hundred barrels a day, far short of the 19 million barrels America consumes daily. “We think that algae can be the solution for the entire Department of Defense’s fleet [of ships, jets and vehicles] when we’re at larger scale,” says Zenk.

For now, it’s mostly scientists under 40 who fill Sapphire’s labs. They care about things like climate change more than their parents, I was told, and are keen to work on an emerging technology. Plus, who says energy research has to be all lab work? Sapphire was the only company I’ve ever visited to have its own company surfboard.