Recent weeks have seen a number of developments around algae biofuels. Luckily, there have been more high notes with the highest having to be Continental's recent successful test flight using a biofuel mix containing algae. Not only was this flight successful, but another possibly unexpected benefit was discovered.
It was reported that the engine that was running the mixture of jatropha and algae biofuels in Continental's test flight actually saw an increase in energy output. As the Bloomberg article states, the plane was "getting more thrust from the biofuel-powered engine using a lower amount of fuel than from the regular engine." If these increases in energy output are found to be a standard in the algae biofuel industry, airlines will surely be more willing to make the switch as long as the fuel is also cost competitive.
Nevertheless, as with all good news, one must take this report with a grain of salt. First off, the ‘biofuel-powered engine' above wasn't powered completely by biofuels. In reality, it was a 50-50 blend of biofuels and regular jet fuel. Therefore, the increase in energy output might not be linked to the biofuels, but instead to some kind of reaction between the biofuel and regular jet fuel.
I'm no chemist but it seems logical to expect the results to be different if the fuel was instead 100% biofuel. Another thing to keep in mind is that the biofuel used was a mixture of algae and jatropha, an inedible plant which also partially fueled a recent Air New Zealand test flight. One can only hope that algae alone will yield the same results. While this is a great achievement, and definitely a much needed benchmark for algae biofuels, there is still a long road ahead of us.
Some more good news about this recent test flight is that it has spurred on tons of media awareness about algae biofuels. If you have been following algae biofuels like I have for the past year or two, you will have noticed that not a lot of press has been given to algae based biofuels. Except for a few blogs or environmental websites, the big names in news haven't thoroughly covered the topic other than announcing a major company starting a new venture into the algae biofuel field.
However, it seems that with this successful test, the media has finally perked up to the potential of algae biofuels. Just this past week the prominent British newspaper, Telegraph, ran an article praising algae as "the slimy scum that could end the fuel crisis". That's pretty high praise from a news source that up until this point only mentioned algae in other biofuel articles or in articles where companies like Shell announced that they will start to dabble in this realm.
Yet, aside from all the positive press, there has been some bad news as well. Within the past week, algae biofuel company GreenFuel had to lay off roughly half of its staff due to the recent economic downturn. Now, before you go off and think that this is a signal that algae might not be the way to go, reread the above paragraphs and remember that all these biofuel companies are basically just startup companies.
Right now, there are many, many different companies in the algae field all trying to perfect one thing: a way to economically get oil from algae. In reality, many of these startup companies will likely fold or be bought out. This is just the facts of life in the business world, but it in no way means that the whole industry is failing. To prove my point, even in this economic downturn, Origin Oil, an algae company with just 10 employees, had its stock rise by 40% just over the past month.
Overall, even with the layoffs at Greenfuel, the future for algae biofuels is looking quite rosy. The recent test flight has, in essence, put algae biofuels on the map in a big way. Hopefully with the new media attention, algae startups will see increased capital investments to further their much needed research. Therefore, even though we should celebrate at reaching this important milestone, we should also all remember that there may still be many more miles before algae becomes a major fuel source.