But ethanol as a biofuel has a bad reputation. One hectare (2.47 acres) of corn produces less than 4,000 liters of ethanol a year, and 8,000 liters of water are required to produce a liter of ethanol. Besides, crops grown for ethanol take away valuable farmland for food production. The last growing season marked the first time US farmers harvested more corn for ethanol production than for use as animal feed. One of the adverse consequences of the biofuel boom is that it is driving up food prices.
For this reason, many environmentalists now believe that growing energy plants is the wrong approach. Algae, on the other hand, do not require any farmland. Sun, saltwater, a little fertilizer and carbon dioxide are all the undemanding little organisms need to thrive. And because they consume about as much CO2 during photosynthesis as is later released when the oil they produce is burned, algae-based fuels are also climate neutral.
Algae are also astonishingly productive. A hectare of sunny desert covered with algae vats can yield almost eight times as much biofuel per unit of biomass in a year than corn grown for energy purposes.
Sapphire is one of the pioneers of the industry. CEO Pyle has a vision of transforming desert areas into fertile, energy-producing land. "We have to grow algae like rice, in shallow patties of water on thousands of hectares," he says. This, he says, is the only way to produce algae-based oil in large quantities and at competitive prices.
Sapphire expects one barrel of its green petroleum to cost between $70 and $100 in the future, which is significantly cheaper than petroleum. However, as with grain production, this requires the use of high-performance varieties. According to Pyle, his company has optimized the yield, resistance to disease and "harvest capability" of the green algae it uses. Sapphire's engineers are already testing their green miracle algae at a small plant in New Mexico. Together with Monsanto, which produces agricultural chemicals, and industrial gas company Linde, the algae makers plan to explore commercial opportunities at a 120-hectare site soon.
'We Simply Have to Build It'
But the Sapphire algae can only be a beginning, because they merely enrich the oil internally. To obtain the oil, the algae must be harvested and the oil extracted in a costly and complex process.
To overcome this obstacle, other scientists are developing algae that don't even have to be harvested. Instead, they essentially ooze the fuel of the future. Evolution has not yielded anything that produces biofuel from CO2 on a large scale, explains biologist Venter, "which is why we simply have to build it."
The first of these miracle organisms can already be admired in the Joule laboratory. The bioengineers' tools include culture mediums, incubators and, most importantly, databases containing the DNA sequences of thousands of microorganisms. Robertson and his team search the databases for promising gene fragments, which they then isolate and inject into the genetic material of blue algae.
'You Could Put Our Product in Your Car'
Dozens of varieties of the microorganisms, also known as cyanobacteria, bob up and down in bulbous beakers at Joule. A green brew fills small photobioreactors, which are used to test the blue algae under various environmental conditions. "Here we simulate for example the day-and-night rhythm of Texas," says Robinson, explaining one of the experiments. The company has a pilot plant in Texas.