Genetically modified blue and green algae could be the answer to the world's fuel problems. Bioengineers have already developed algae that produce ethanol, oil and even diesel -- and the only things the organisms need are sunlight, CO2 and seawater.
Biochemist Dan Robertson's living gas stations have the dark-green shimmer of oak leaves and are as tiny as E. coli bacteria. Their genetic material has been fine-tuned by human hands. When light passes through their outer layer, they excrete droplets of fuel.
"We had to fool the organism into doing what I wanted it to do," says Robertson, the head of research at the US biotech firm Joule Unlimited. He proudly waves a test tube filled with a green liquid. The businesslike biochemist works in a plain, functional building on Life Sciences Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
His laboratory is sparsely furnished and the ceiling is crumbling. Nevertheless, something miraculous is happening in the lab, where Robertson and his colleagues are working on nothing less than solving the world's energy problem. They have already created blue algae that produce diesel fuel.
Scientists rave about a new, green revolution. Using genetic engineering and sophisticated breeding and selection methods, biochemists, mainly working in the United States, are transforming blue and green algae into tiny factories for oil, ethanol and diesel. Betting Millions on Algae
A green algae liquid sloshes back and forth in culture vats and circulates through shiny bioreactors and bulging plastic tubes. The first tests of algae-based fuels are already being conducted in automobiles, ships and aircraft. Investors like the Rockefeller family and Microsoft founder Bill Gates are betting millions on the power of the green soup. "Commercial production of crude oil from algae is the most obvious and most economical possible way to substitute petroleum," says Jason Pyle of the California-based firm Sapphire Energy, which is already using algae to produce crude oil.
The established oil industry is also getting into the business. "Oils from algae hold significant potential as economically viable, low-emission transportation fuels and could become a critical new energy source," says Emil Jacobs, vice president of research and development at Exxon Mobil. The oil company is investing $600 million (€420 million) in genetic entrepreneur Craig Venter's firm Synthetic Genomics.
The technology holds considerable promise. Indeed, whoever manages to be the first to sell ecologically sustainable and climate-neutral biofuel at competitive prices will not only rake in billions, but will also write history.
Do-it-yourself diesel barons launched the biofuel industry decades ago when they used old French-fry grease to fuel modest agricultural machines. Today, hundreds of thousands of cars run on ethanol derived from grain. In the United States, for example, more than 40 percent of gasoline contains ethanol additive. The fuel is produced in huge fermenters the size of blimps, by fermenting a mash of corn or rye with yeast.