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Tina Casey headshot

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

Transportation 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 Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit 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.

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