more from the National Geographic in depth look at ethanol fuel in the October 2007 edition:
GreenFuel Technologies, of Cambridge, Massachusetts, is at the head of the pack. Founded by MIT chemist Isaac Berzin, the company has developed a process that uses algae in plastic bags to siphon carbon dioxide from the smoke-stack emissions of power plants. Algae not only reduce a plant's global warming gases, but also devour other pollutants. Some algae make starch, which can be processed into ethanol; others produce tiny droplets of oil that can be brewed into biodiesel or even jet fuel. Best of all, algae in the right conditions can double in mass within hours. While each acre of corn produces around 300 gallons (1,135 liters) of ethanol a year and an acre of soybeans around 60 gallons (227 liters) of biodiesel, each acre of algae theoretically can churn out more than 5,000 gallons (19,000 liters) of biofuel each year.
"Corn or soybeans, you harvest once a year," says Berzin. "Algae you harvest every day. And we've proved we can grow algae from Boston to Arizona." Berzin's company has partnered with Arizona Public Service, the state's largest utility, to test algae production at APS's natural-gas-burning Redhawk power plant just west of Phoenix. Algae farms around that one plant, located on 2,000 acres (809 hectares) of bone-dry Sonoran Desert, could double the current U.S. production of biodiesel, says Berzin.
The energy farm, as GreenFuel calls it, isn't much to look at, just a cluster of shipping containers and office trailers next to a plastic greenhouse structure longer than a football field and perhaps 50 feet (15 meters) wide. Outside the greenhouse, rows of large plastic tubes filled with bubbling bright green liquid hang like giant slugs from hooks. After making a few calls to his boss, GreenFuel's security-conscious head of field operations, Marcus Gay, allows me to inspect this "seed farm," which grows algae for the greenhouse. Everything else is off-limits. The company guards its secrets closely.
With good reason: Only perhaps a dozen people on the planet know how to grow algae in high-density systems, says Gay. Algae specialists, long near the bottom of the biology food chain, are becoming the rock stars. Two of Arizona's largest universities recently started algae programs. Their biggest challenge, as with cellulosic ethanol, is reducing the cost of algae fuel. "At the end of the day for this to work, this has to be cheaper than petroleum diesel," says Gay. "If we're one penny over the cost of diesel per gallon, we're sunk." (In July, rising costs and technical problems forced GreenFuel to shut down the Redhawk bioreactor temporarily.)
Hard numbers—supply, efficiency, and, most important, price at the pump—will determine the future of ethanol and biodiesel. But for now green fuels have an undeniable romance. In the garage of his office complex in downtown Phoenix, Ray Hobbs, a senior engineer for APS who is leading the company's fuel initiative, walks past a small fleet of electric cars, hybrids, even a hydrogen-powered bus. He climbs into a big diesel Ford van and turns the key. The exhaust, unlike a typical diesel's, is invisible, with just the faintest whiff of diesel smell from the algae biodiesel made at the Redhawk pilot plant. The superslick plant oil has also quieted a little of that annoying diesel rattle.
"The way I think about these things is I'm sitting in a river in a canoe," says Hobbs. "Now do I want to paddle upstream, or do I want to go with the flow? Algae is downstream, with the flow. We have processes in nature that are honed for us, that have evolved. So we can take those processes and make them faster and more efficient and harness that power. We can't wait generations to screw around with this. We have to do it now."
Hobbs says he has fielded dozens of calls from power companies interested in building an algae plant of their own to scrub emissions and help meet their renewable fuels mandate. The lure of plant fuels even seems to have reached the petroleum-rich sands of the Middle East, where the United Arab Emirates has launched a 250-million-dollar renewable energy initiative that includes biofuels—perhaps a sign that even the sheikhs now realize that the oil age won't last forever.
As precedents for such collective effort, people sometimes point to the Manhattan Project to build a nuclear weapon or the Apollo Program to put a man on the moon. But those analogies don't really work. They demanded the intense concentration of money and intelligence on a single small niche in our technosphere. Now we need almost the opposite: a commitment to take what we already know how to do and somehow spread it into every corner of our economies, and indeed our most basic activities. It's as if NASA's goal had been to put all of us on the moon.
Not all the answers are technological, of course—maybe not even most of them. Many of the paths to stabilization run straight through our daily lives, and in every case they will demand difficult changes. Air travel is one of the fastest growing sources of carbon emissions around the world, for instance, but even many of us who are noble about changing lightbulbs and happy to drive hybrid cars chafe at the thought of not jetting around the country or the world. By now we're used to ordering take-out food from every corner of the world every night of our lives— according to one study, the average bite of food has traveled nearly 1,500 miles before it reaches an American's lips, which means it's been marinated in (crude) oil. We drive alone, because it's more convenient than adjusting our schedules for public transit. We build ever bigger homes even as our family sizes shrink, and we watch ever bigger TVs, and—well, enough said. We need to figure out how to change those habits.
Probably the only way that will happen is if fossil fuel costs us considerably more. All the schemes to cut carbon emissions—the so-called cap-and-trade systems, for instance, that would let businesses bid for permission to emit—are ways to make coal and gas and oil progres- sively more expensive, and thus to change the direction in which economic gravity pulls when it applies to energy. If what we paid for a gallon of gas reflected even a portion of its huge environmental cost, we'd be driving small cars to the train station, just like the Europeans. And we'd be riding bikes when the sun shone.
The most straightforward way to raise the price would be a tax on carbon. But that's not easy. Since everyone needs to use fuel, it would be regressive—you'd have to figure out how to keep from hurting poor people unduly. And we'd need to be grown-up enough to have a real conversation about taxes—say, about switching away from taxes on things we like (employment) to taxes on things we hate (global warming). That may be too much to ask for—but if it is, then what chance is there we'll be able to take on the even more difficult task of persuading the Chinese, the Indians, and all who are lined up behind them to forgo a coal-powered future in favor of something more manageable? We know it's possible—earlier this year a UN panel estimated that the total cost for the energy transition, once all the pluses and minuses were netted out, would be just over 0.1 percent of the world's economy each year for the next quarter century. A small price to pay.
In the end, global warming presents the greatest test we humans have yet faced. Are we ready to change, in dramatic and prolonged ways, in order to offer a workable future to subsequent generations and diverse forms of life? If we are, new technologies and new habits offer some promise. But only if we move quickly and decisively—and with a maturity we've rarely shown as a society or a species. It's our coming-of-age moment, and there are no certainties or guarantees. Only a window of possibility, closing fast but still ajar enough to let in some hope.