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New Algae-Based Bio-Fuel In California Gas Tanks

A pilot program in California is giving new meaning to the term ‘green’ by adding ocean algae to the list of alternative bio-fuel ingredients.  The fuel, made by San Francisco-based Solazyme, Inc., is a mix of 80% diesel and 20% algae-based bio-fuel.  It’s known as B20, and is being tried out at four gas stations in the San Francisco area in hopes that it will be expanded to nationwide sales.  

The trial program will run for a month.  Its continuation will depend on customer response. “Today, at this station, we are putting a stake in the ground,” said Matt Horton, chief executive officer of Propel Fuels, as the first tank of B20 was being filled at a Redwood City gas station. “We hope to build hundreds of stations like this in California.”  He added that the supply of bio-fuel in California currently doesn’t meet the million-plus cars on the road in California that are able to use alternative fuels.

Solazyme’s B20 is made from algae oil produced in stainless steel tanks in Peoria, Illinois using a fermentation process.  The finished product produces 10% less hydrocarbon, 30% fewer particulates and 20% less carbon monoxide than other diesel and biodiesel fuels.  In addition to auto fuel, it’s processed into jet and boat fuel at a biodiesel production facility in California.

B20 offers a great alternative to corn-based ethanol, which is the most common bio-fuel in the U.S.  Environmental advocates are wary of ethanol made from corn, because its production has a high environmental cost.   Studies have shown that corn-based ethanol produces just a little more energy than it uses to produce.  Also, last summer’s drought caused corn prices to skyrocket, making it more expensive to produce.  Because algae  is produced naturally in the ocean, B20 would presumably have no such price fluctuation.

At $4.25 a gallon, the new algae-based gas product sells for about the same price as regular diesel fuel.  It complies with the low carbon fuel standard enacted in California which requires fuel producers to lower greenhouse gas emissions in their products 10% by the year 2020.

Bob Ames, vice-president of Solazyme, says that his company’s algae-based bio-fuel is a way to employ “… some of the world’s smallest microorganisms to solve some of the world’s greatest problems.”

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