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Power from pond scum

Al Darzins, a senior manager at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo.

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KAI RYSSDAL: The country's top alternative energy lab had something to say today about the latest in eco-friendly fuels. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado, is going to re-start its research into algae... Power from pond scum, in the vernacular.

It's a program the Department of Energy dropped in the '90s, when oil was a whole lot cheaper. And in fact, the lab's going to team up with Chevron for the project.

From our Sustainability Desk, Michael Montgomery of American RadioWorks reports.


Michael Montgomery: Al Darzins is a senior scientist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. The Energy Department's gleaming lab near Denver has lots of new toys for him -- Darzins is inspecting millions of dollars of new generation bio-tech tools. They help scientists alter algae to produce twice its body weight in oil that can power almost anything. He says the potential is vast.

Al Darzins: And so you can take this oil and make a biodiesel out of it, you can produce "green" diesel and "green" gasoline from the oil as well.

Plenty of plants, like olives, produce oil. But the lab is boosting algae's capacity to make a fuel-friendly oil. The idea isn't new, but the economics are -- government researchers tested algae as one solution to the energy crisis of the 1970s. But when the price of crude oil sank in the early 1990s, that stopped the work.

Now, with oil prices soaring, everyone from Boeing and Virgin Airlines to the federal government are investing, big-time -- and that includes the Pentagon. And for good reason. Doug Kirkpatrick is a program officer with DARPA, the Pentagon's research wing:

Doug Kirkpatrick: The DOD is the single largest energy consumer in a country that is the single largest energy consumer in the world.

The Pentagon devours as much oil as a mid-sized country like Greece imports. That means every time the price of a barrel rises a dollar, it adds as much as $120 million to the Pentagon's annual budget. That's why the Pentagon and the Department of Energy are funding several private companies to produce affordable fuels from algae and other plants.

Kirkpatrick: There's a lot of recognition that the reasons that this was not viable 10 or 15 or 20 years ago, that those reasons are now null and void.

Doug Kirkpatrick says there's another military priority: giving troops a way to make infinitely sustainable fuel near the battlefield. Kirkpatrick says mobile systems would give troops tactical energy independence.

And it's not just the military that's interested. John Sheehan recently left a 17-year career at the government's energy lab to join Livefuels, a Silicon Valley start-up that bills itself as a mini-Manhattan project.

John Sheehan: The pace for development for algae is explosive right now. The frenzy is incredible -- not only do you have almost a new company a day looking at this issue, but a tremendous amount of private-sector capital is moving its way in.

Sheehan says algae's big draw is that algae can literally grow in wastelands. So, it doesn't need to take up scarce resources like farmland or fresh water to flourish.

Sheehan: These algae will grow where other plants will not grow.

So you eliminate the food-versus-fuel argument plaguing the ethanol industry. Matt Caspari heads Aurora Biofuels -- he says it all boils down to economics:

Matt Caspari: You can get the oil out of the algae and run it in engines. It's not a theoretical question, it's a cost question: How cheaply can you do it?

There are more technical obstacles and concerns about using genetically modified algae. Still, in many ways, the future is here. The Pentagon's Doug Kirkpatrick:

Kirkpatrick: We are within striking range at Darpa of producing a fully qualifiable jet fuel -- not a blend -- from biological feed stocks, plant feed stocks, and ultimately, perhaps, from aquacultural feed stocks. It's not fantasy. It's reality.

In San Francisco, I'm Michael Montgomery for Marketplace and American RadioWorks.

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