Algae to the People! Solazyme and Propel Launch Algae Biofuel Retail Project

solazyme and propel fuels offer algae biofuel at retail pumpsTransportation giants like Maersk, United and even the U.S. Navy have all been testing the waters of algae-based biofuel, and it makes you wonder when somebody will start making algae biofuel for the average guy, too. Well, wonder no more. The biofuel company Solazyme has teamed up with Propel Fuels in a one-month pilot program to sell algae-based diesel biofuel at retail pumps in the Bay Area.

According to Solazyme, this is believed to be the first time in U.S. history that retail customers can fill up their tanks with an algae-based fuel. If the test is successful, it could pave the way for a permanent retail network, and it could provide businesses of all sizes with a cost-effective way to transition their fleets into greener vehicles.

Algae biofuel for the average car

Solazyme’s biodiesel, which it calls SoladieselBD, is compatible with existing diesel engines. It meets international fuel quality standards and in some areas exceeds them, particularly for performance in cold temperatures.

Tests performed by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory demonstrate that a 20 percent blend of SoladieselBD with conventional diesel results in a significant reduction of tailpipe emissions, including carbon monoxide and particulates.

The key to Solazyme’s success is taking the millennia-long process of natural petroleum production, in which micro-algae convert plant sugars to oil, and compressing it into a period of just a few days. In other words, it’s the same oil, only faster.

A network of algae biofuel stations

Propel Fuels has carved out a name for itself by establishing a network of gas stations built to green specifications. It has also developed complementary software called CleanDrive that enables drivers to track their progress in reducing carbon emissions.

CleanDrive can be used by individual drivers, but the benefits really kick in for companies that gas up at Propel. CleanDrive can be though of as a bonus program in the form of information. For businesses, that can easily translate into promotional copy and other green branding programs.

Real choice for fuel consumers

By now everybody knows that conventional petroleum fuel is fungible, and if anything there is only a slight difference in degree from one brand of fuel to another.

The Propel model offers an entirely new picture because the sources of biofuel vary so widely. That opens up some interesting opportunities for retail sales.

Rather than carrying just one type of product, the gas station of the future could operate more like a boutique, offering a variety of products that appeal to different customers.

Algae biofuel has its own futuristic appeal. At the opposite end of the scale, another kind of attraction is offered by perennial biofuel crops like shrub willow and poplar, which enable croplands to double as managed forests and wildlife habitats.

Another kind of fuel would appeal to recycling-oriented customers, including biofuel derived from agricultural waste or food processing plants. That could also include post-consumer waste such as restaurant grease.

Biofuels also lend themselves to the buy-local model. With the emergence of shippable, modular  biorefineries, that  leads to the possibility that agricultural cooperatives and large-scale food processors could market their own brand of biofuels to local customers.

[Image: Courtesy of Solazyme]

Follow me on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.


Tina writes frequently for Triple Pundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

4 responses

  1. Tina Casey had me banned from posting on CleanTechnica. That site is actively censoring contrary opinions, and unfortunately, also facts contrary to their opinions. I am thankful that TriplePundit seems to maintain more intellectual integrity and an open forum, and that I may comment on her story here. This story on algae fuel sounds like a breakthrough. However, folks who follow algae closely know the score. The Solazyme fuel being discussed here is hydrotreated. It is not FAME biodiesel, but has been processed with an additional step that adds hydrogen, removes oxygen, and produces 22 tons of CO2 per ton of hydrogen added. The tailpipe emissions are mildly better, but the emissions at the plant are markedly worse. Hydrotreatment is necessary to make “drop-in” true hydrocarbon fuel from the inferior cocktail of fatty acid methyl esters that is algae or animal fat biodiesel. The hydrotreatment hydrogen comes from natural gas (i.e., fossil fuel), as does most of the energy in algae and other biofuels when you trace it back to the source. Solazyme actually skip photosynthesis and feed their algae sugar in the dark, making them unique in the “advanced” biofuel world for unashamedly competing head-to-head with food. Absolutely all the energy in Solazyme algae fuel is parasitic from other energy sources–it is not an energy source, but a wasteful transformation of conventional energy into a super-expensive and net negative energy balance fuel. That is why the price is so high and can never be below the price of the other energy options used to make it. That lowest price the Navy paid for hydrotreated Solazyme fuel was $61.33 a gallon in August of 2011 for fuel delivered in 2012. There is no reason to believe the costs of production for Solazyme have improved. Putting their fuel in gas pumps is a nice publicity stunt, but is hugely unprofitable for the company and, like all other aspects of their fuel, is unsustainable.

    1. So, are you saying that this fuel produces more CO2 than traditional diesel? Also, please use paragraphs :-)

      1. Yes. CO2 emissions and other environmental damage are greater when reckoned by unit of energy delivered to civilization. Here are some references:

        1. National Research Council – Committee on the Sustainable Development of Algal Biofuels. Sustainable Development of Algal Biofuels in the United States. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press, October 2012.
        2. Jaeger, William K., and Thorsten M. Egelkraut. “Biofuel Economics in a Setting of Multiple Objectives and Unintended Consequences.” Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews 15, no. 9 (December 2011): 4320–4333. doi:10.1016/j.rser.2011.07.118.

        3. National Academies (U.S.). Committee on Health, Environmental, National Research Council (U.S.). Board on Environmental Studies and Toxicology, National Research Council (U.S.). Board on Energy and Environmental Systems, and Technology National Research Council (U.S.). Board on Science. Hidden costs of energy unpriced consequences of energy production and use. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 2010.

        4. Smith, Keith A., and Timothy D. Searchinger. “Crop-based Biofuels and Associated Environmental Concerns.” GCB Bioenergy (June 2012). doi:10.1111/j.1757-1707.2012.01182.x.

        5. Crutzen, et al. “N2O Release from Agro-biofuel Production Negates Global Warming Reduction by Replacing Fossil Fuels.” Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics Discussions 7, no. 4 (2007): 11191–11205.
        6. Davidson et al. Excess Nitrogen in the U.S. Environment: Trends, Risks, and Solutions. Ecological Society of America, Winter 2012.
        7. Lewis, Jonathan. Leaping Before They Looked: Lessons from Europe’s Experience with the 2003 Biofuels Directive. Boston: Clean Air Task Force, October 2007.
        8. Righelato, et al. “Carbon Mitigation by Biofuels or by Saving and Restoring Forests?” Science 317, no. 5840 (2007): 902.
        9. Scharlemann, et al. “How Green Are Biofuels?” Science 319, no. 5859 (January 4, 2008): 43–44.
        10. Simpson, Sarah. “Nitrogen Fertilizer: Agricultural Breakthrough–And Environmental Bane.” Scientific American, March 20, 2009.
        11. Jaeger, et al. “Biofuel Economics in a Setting of Multiple Objectives and Unintended Consequences.” Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews 15, no. 9 (December 2011): 4320–4333.

    2. Hi Cliff,

      You are welcome to comment on TriplePundit so long as your comments relate to the ideas presented in the articles. Personal attacks on writers will be deleted.



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