Algae has the potential to fuel the nation's vehicles while simultaneously trapping carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to global warming. Thus far, the technology is in its infancy, however, progress is being made.
One such example is the Solix Biofuels company, whose efforts to turn algae into the next generation of biofuels was profiled in The New York Times on Sunday.
Partnering with the Southern Ute Indian Reservation in Southwest Colorado, Solix Biofuels is leading the charge to replace petroleum-based fuels. Although, the company is not yet producing usable fuel through the algae, it is only a matter of time, according to company officials.
"We are growing algae and producing oil," Solix Biofuels Inc.'s Chief Executive Officer Douglas Henston told The Durango Herald. "However, we are not yet producing a usable product, because the algae have to be at a certain density."
Members of the Southern Ute Indian Reservation were attracted to the project not only because of its economic potential, but also because of the fact that unlike other biofuels such as ethanol, corn starch and sugar cane, algae does not force people to choose between using the plant as either food or fuel.
In addition, the Utes, unlike other energy companies, are concerned with the long-term economic view rather than quarterly profit reports.
"If you're going with strict venture capital, they're looking for a blistering return on capital in three to five years," Colorado State professor, Bryan Willson, who teaches mechanical engineering and is a co-founder of the three-year-old company told The New York Times. "The Utes have a very long economic view. They're making decisions now for future generations as opposed to the next quarter, and that is just fundamentally different."
Although huge amounts of capital are necessary to get projects such as Wilson's off the ground, once they get going, they are incredibly inexpensive, requiring only sunlight, water and carbon dioxide - all of which are normally readily available around power plants.
But, small-time companies such as Wilson's have the potential to be pushed out of the industry by established giants. Currently, there are over 200 companies actively working to turn algae into biodiesel fuel. One of those, Exxon Mobile, has invested nearly 50 times as much as Solix.
"Solix has an interesting idea; whether it will work, I don't know," Al Darzins, a group manager at the lab's National Bioenergy Center told The New York Times. "It's all going to come down to the economics."