As I've stated in several articles already (seen here, here, and here), algae biofuels are quickly coming to the forefront of peoples' attention. However, many are probably wondering why are the companies focusing on aviation fuel first? Because of the industry's laser like focus on creating aviation fuel while seemingly ignoring regular gasoline, I felt an explanation was needed. Therefore, I set out to find some answers and was able to interview both Barrie Leay, the chair of the Aquaflow Bionomic Corporation, and Dr. Tony Day, the VP of Research and Development at Solazyme.
The first and most obvious question I asked these two representatives is why were their respective companies starting with aviation fuel and not gasoline? You would think that they would want to start with the gasoline market which I thought was the largest and most lucrative liquid fuel market. However, it turns out that this isn't the case.
In an email interview, Mr. Leay answered this question by stating that though "the markets for both (gasoline and aviation fuel) are gigantic... aviation fuel sells for twice the price of gasoline." With both of these companies considered "startups", it only makes sense for them to start with the most lucrative market which, in this case, is aviation fuel. Starting anywhere else might mean they don't receive the capital to continue operations at all.
Solazyme's VP Tony Day also explained why their company is focusing on this fuel first:
"We believe that in the medium to long term, the regular consumer should be moving into electric vehicles for going to and from work...the real impact is going to be on those kinds of vehicles that can't switch in the short term like trucks, tractors, and airplanes. These are all things that aren't going to be running on electric any time soon."
Airplanes, therefore, are going to need a liquid fuel, one that is both environmentally friendly and cost competitive, and that fuel could very well be algae-derived.
For those of you who might still be looking forward to the day that algae can power your car, don't fret. Day pointed out that even though Solazyme is currently focusing on producing a biodiesel that can be used in the larger transports, like airplanes, the algae they use could just as easily create gasoline for cars.
Another question I had is what are some inherent benefits that make algae a better source of aviation fuel than other biofuels like jatropha? Both of the companies' representatives came up with basically the same answer: algae is easier to grow.
"Algae is ubiquitous, it occurs everywhere, in sea water as well as fresh," Mr. Leay wrote.
Dr. Day explained that with Solazyme's growth technology, it is easy to increase the scale of production without any negatives effects on the environment that are often seen with other biofuel crops.
Another question I asked Dr. Day had to do with the freezing point of algae-derived aviation fuel. One negative I have often heard about biofuels being used in airplanes is that some of these fuels have a higher chance of freezing in the pipes. This, as you can imagine, is very problematic.
Luckily, algae wouldn't have this problem. Dr. Day explained that the algae oil can have its freezing point manipulated during the hydrotreating process, a process often used to refine oil. This, therefore, eliminates the fear of the algae-derived aviation fuels freezing in the fuel tanks and pipes of the plane during flight.
Probably one of my biggest questions was what is it going to take for a plane to run on 100% algae biofuel? The answer to this question was quite heartening.
"Intrinsically, there is absolutely no reason why you couldn't run a plane on 100% algae derived jet fuel," Dr. Day stated.
However, Mr. Leay from Aquaflow pointed out that "volume production" may still be one big issue that is keeping algae fuels off the commercial market. Dr. Day tends to agrees though he feels confident that Solazyme could successfully scale up their production right now if they chose to do so.
Even if either company had the ability to produce large scale amounts of algae oil right now, the fuel would still have to be subjected to multiple rigorous tests before a plane could run on 100% algae derived aviation fuel. Dr. Day explained that since these companies are looking to have their fuels used in planes, a lot of testing will need to be done beforehand.
Compared to testing a new fuel in a car, a plane doesn't have the ability to just pull over to the side of the road if the fuel somehow causes engine problems. Therefore, even though algae fuels like Solazyme have passed ASTM D1655 standards, additional test are required before full scale industry adoption. This testing process, according to Day, could take a couple years.
However, the good news is that both companies are being courted by aviation companies for their fuel. Therefore, while the fuel might not be ready tomorrow, it is definitely something that there is a high demand for on the market, ensuring its further development.
In conclusion, to use the words of Mr. Leay, all the algae biofuel companies need is just "a little more time." I hope he is right because I certainly can't wait for these fuels to enter the commercial market.