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Algae-based oil as silly as heavier-than-air flight

Jay Bookman, Atlanta Journal Constitution

“Radio has no future. Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible. X-rays will prove to be a hoax.”
– British physicist Lord Kelvin

“New ideas pass through three periods: 1) It can’t be done. 2) It probably can be done, but it’s not worth doing. 3) I knew it was a good idea all along!”
– Arthur C. Clarke 

Sapphire Energy, a startup company trying to commercialize the use of algae as an energy source to replace oil, last week announced $144 million in new investments.

As MIT’s Technology Review reports:

“The new funding will allow Sapphire to finish building its algae farm, near the small town of Columbus, New Mexico, just north of the U.S.–Mexico border. A 100-acre segment of the farm has already been finished, and when the whole project is complete, by 2014, Sapphire will have the capacity to produce about 1.5 million gallons of algae crude oil, which can be shipped to refineries to make chemicals and fuels such as diesel and gasoline….

Sapphire hopes to lower the cost of producing algae fuels by changing every part of the production process. That includes increasing the quality and the amount of oil produced, reducing the cost of building ponds, and developing low-cost ways to harvest the oil. The company aims to have a product that’s competitive with oil priced at $85 per barrel, and it expects to meet this goal once it reaches full-scale production in about six years. Oil costs over $100 a barrel now.”

There’s no guarantee of success, of course. Based on current technology, algae-derived diesel would be several times more expensive than diesel refined from petroleum. In other words, the technology is in Step #2 in Arthur C. Clarke’s progression, with no assurance it will ever reach #3.

And it’s not an experiment that private investors are willing and able to support on their own. While private partners such as Monsanto and Arrowpoint Partners, a Denver-based venture capital firm, have invested heavily in the company, the federal government accounts for $105 million of the $300 million that Sapphire has raised so far.

Is that a wasted investment? Even if Sapphire proves a total failure, the answer would be no. Not when you consider the hundreds of billions of dollars that we ship overseas every year to buy naturally occurring petroleum. Not when you consider the lives and hundreds of billions in tax dollars invested in our military to help guarantee access to that oil. Not when you consider the environmental impact of burning carbon-based fuels for energy.

Given all that, it would be foolish not to seek alternatives, and it would be foolish for government not to try to push the technology to commercial viability. Government subsidized the building of the railroads; it was the “angel investor” that brought the Internet into being. More than a third of the medical research undertaken in this country is government-funded; the polio vaccine, among many others, was created with federal funding. And other countries, including China, have no compunction whatsoever about investing in new-generation energy technologies.

It is inconceivable to me that the United States, a country whose prosperity has been built in large part on technological superiority and whose leaders speak endlessly about reaching energy independence, would cease striving to develop alternative energy sources. Those who argue in favor of doing would forfeit the future to others more willing to take a chance.

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