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Algae-based Fuel Takes Off With Qantas

RP Siegel | Monday February 21st, 2011 | 0 Comments

Those of us who consider the convenience of air travel an indispensable part of our work lives, but feel guilty about the level of greenhouse gas emissions involved, keep hoping for some kind of technological silver bullet that will allow us to have our cake and eat it, guilt-free.

In China they are experimenting with solar-powered lighter-than-air ships (not your grandpa’s Hindenburg) which allow access to remote areas without the need for expensive airport runways.

Here, where we already have extensive airport facilities with many billions invested, people are not about to make that kind of change so quickly.

There is is a bright spot on the horizon, however. San Francisco-based Solazyme recently announced an agreement with the Australian airline Qantas, in which the airline agreed to purchase an unspecified amount of Solajet, Solazyme’s algae-derived aviation fuel. This follows on the heels of an order from the US Navy for 1500 gallons for testing purposes. (Last year, we ran a piece on Sapphire Energy, which is also producing algae based fuels and expects to generate one million gallons this year.)

Solazyme, which is backed by Morgan Stanley and Chevron to the tune of $52 million, uses algae to break down agricultural waste into a form of “green crude” that can be converted into biodiesel and jet fuel. The resulting fuel has a lifecycle greenhouse gas footprint that is 93% smaller than conventional diesel (85% at the point of use).

Unlike many other algae biofuel developers, Solazyme has developed genetically modified algae that uses a fermentation process to convert sugars directly into oils that can then be turned into a fuel rather than using bioreactors to produce fuel through photosynthesis.

“Through this alliance, we intend to use Solazyme’s technology platform to help provide the Australian market with renewable aviation biofuel,” said Solazyme CEO Jonathan Wolfson.

Why Australia? Well, for one thing Australia has only 0.3% of the world’s oil reserves. Yet it needs a lot of jet fuel to get around the continent and to bring in visitors from around the globe—about 6 billion liters in all.

According to Qantas CEO, Alan Joyce, “The costs and environmental impacts associated with traditional jet fuel mean it is imperative that we push hard now for the commercialization of alternative fuel sources. We want to be at the forefront of this growing sector, which is why we have chosen to engage the most innovative companies in the field, like Solazyme.”

Earlier this year, Qantas announced plans to build a commercial-scale biofuel plant near Sydney with US bioenergy firm Solena.

Solena signed a similar deal with British Airways last year and are building a plant in London capable of converting about 500,000 tonnes of waste a year into 16 million gallons of bio-jet fuel.

Meanwhile, Ryanair, Aer Lingus and easyJet are also in discussions with Solena to build a plant in Dublin, while Lufthansa will begin a six-month trial of biofuels on commercial flights in April.

Current regulations in the both the US and the UK have established a maximum ratio of 50% bio-fuel but airline industry representatives believe that planes will ultimately be able to fly on bio-fuel alone.

RP Siegel is the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor TrailsLike airplanes, we all leave behind a vapor trail. And though we can easily see others’, we rarely see our own.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.


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