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Delicious Pastry on the Way to Clean Fuel

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, August 1, 2013

When Jonathan S. Wolfson and Harrison F. Dillon founded Solazyme in 2003 they wanted to develop a biofuel that could replace petroleum without disrupting food crops and furthering deforestation. Their focus was algae. Surprisingly, their discoveries are now producing oils that are a healthy substitute for butter and eggs and useful in cosmetics and soaps.

Green algae can look silky, hairy or like wet fabric on the rocks, plants or water surface, but do not produce harmful toxins. 
(Photo: Pieter Bridge)

In a story about Solazyme, Scientific American writer David Biello attests that a brioche made with algalin, the company’s name for the innovative oil, is delicious evidence that eating algae is a good idea. Brioche is the buttery light-textured French bun that is part bread and part cake. The Solazyme website declares that its algae based food ingredients can replace butter, eggs and vegetable oil for tasty products that have lower calories, cholesterol, no trans-fats, and ultimately lower cost. Sales of algal flour are expected soon. Wolfson and Solazyme are among the Forbes magazine Top Disruptors of 2013.

Food and cosmetics are a sharp change of direction for a company that set out to make biofuel. Solazyme has diversified even beyond food, making algae based anti-aging skin creams, cosmetics, soaps, and fiber for digestive health. As friends at Emory University in Atlanta, Wolfson and Dillon, now in their 40s, dreamed of saving the environment. They haven’t given up on their goal of renewable energy from nonfood plants, and they hope their algae oils and powders will eventually pave the way to sustainable fuel.

The possibility of algae as fuel was first explored at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory under the direction of President Jimmy Carter in 1978 when gas prices skyrocketed and motorists were enduring long lines at the pump. Replacement fuels have proved a challenge for scientists and entrepreneurs. Ethanol based fuels have resulted in higher food prices as corn replaced food crops, and environmentalists have called palm oil an agricultural blight. Palm oil production has led to deforestation in Indonesia, Asia, Africa and parts of Central and South America. A New York Times story by Diane Cardwell tells how Solazyme and other companies have experiment with algae technology. Watch CNN video of scientist Glen Kertz explaining his Vertigro system for turning algae into fuel. The How Stuff Works website explains the process. Cardwell writes that the federal Energy Department predicts research using organisms such as yeast and bacteria to replace conventional gasoline won’t be commercially viable until 2017, and that algae based fuels may not be viable until 2022. While consumption of fuel from renewable sources has been increasing, it accounts for only nine percent of the total, according to government reports.

The problem is scaling. The Solazyme website says the company delivered 80,000 liters of algae based diesel and jet fuel to the U.S. Navy in 2010 and has a Defense Department contract for more. But producers of commercially viable replacement fuels for cars, trucks and aircraft need to make so called "drop in fuel”- fuel that wouldn’t require any new equipment or changes to engines- and they need to make a lot of it. Solazyme is one of the companies still persevering with that goal.

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