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Powered by Algae

Via Fast Company:

A look at former BP executive Cynthia Warner, who left the company two years ago to become the president of Sapphire Energy, a San Diego-based company focused on delivering solid-state energy from algae. The story is written in light of the ongoing Gulf oil spill caused at the hands of BP (what else?). But it’s also focused squarely on Warner as an energy exec who saw the light that the days of cheap and easy fossil fuel energy were quickly coming to an end–and that the only real solution was to aggressively turn toward renewables.

Putting the green in green energy

The attention-grabbing part of the article, and why I’m highlighting it here, is Warner’s explanation to that age-old question: Why algae?

The particular pie Warner wanted to bake was industrial-scale production of liquid hydrocarbons. While solar, wind, and geothermal work for electricity, she argues, the transportation sector needs energy-dense, portable fuel. Electric cars are still limited-range and expensive, and no one has yet debuted an electric jet. “Besides transportation, we use hydrocarbons for chemicals precursors and a lot of our building materials today. We would denude the planet if we had to go back to just building with wood.”

Some of her former colleagues had gone into biofuels, but she saw problems with the so-called first-generation biofuels brewed from corn, soy, sugarcane, or plant waste. All compete with food crops for arable land and potable water. “Most of the alternative choices I could see were short-term fixes with a lot of resource trade-offs,” she says. Plus, she was convinced that it was essential to find a solution that could “drop in” to the existing energy infrastructure, from pipelines to refineries to tanker trucks, representing a sunk cost of trillions of dollars. Alternatives like hydrogen, liquefied gas, and ethanol require new investment in processing, storage, and distribution. “Think of the savings to society and the environment of not utilizing all these new resources and tearing everything up. It just makes so much more sense.”

That seems key to me–that the energy of the future will need to take into account the existing infrastructure, avoid competition with food and can multiple readily. In testing that Sapphire Energy does, the company can go through 25 generations of algae in a single year. I don’t have a horse in the green energy race, but this seems to be one worth watching.


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