(CBS) Set amid cornfields and cow pastures in eastern Holland is a shallow pool that is rapidly turning green with algae, harvested for animal feed, skin treatments, biodegradable plastics - and with increasing interest, biofuel.
In a warehouse 120 miles southwest, a bioreactor of clear plastic tubes is producing algae in pressure-cooker fashion that its manufacturer hopes will one day power jet aircraft.
Experts say it will be years, maybe a decade, before this simplest of all plants can be efficiently processed for fuel. But when that day comes, it could go a long way toward easing the world's energy needs and responding to global warming.
Algae is the slimy stuff that clouds your home aquarium and gets tangled in your feet in a lake or ocean. It can grow almost everywhere there is water and sunlight, and under the right conditions it can double its volume within hours. Scientists and industrialists agree that the potential is huge.
"This is the ultimate fast-growing organism," says Peter van den Dorpel, chief operating officer of AlgaeLink, which makes bioreactors for speeding reproduction. "Algae is lazy. It eats carbon dioxide and produces oxygen." It has no roots, no leaves, no shoots. "It grows so fast because it has nothing else to do. It just swims in the water."
Farming algae doesn't require much space or good cropland, so it avoids the fuel-for-food dilemma that has plagued first and second generation biofuels like corn, rapeseed and palm oil.
It can grow in fresh water, polluted water, sea water or farm runoff. It can purify a city's sewage while feeding on the nitrogen and phosphates in human waste.
And it is rich in oil. The most common types farmed today have an oil content of 30 percent, and it can go up to 70 percent or more.
It also consumes nearly twice its weight in carbon dioxide, the most common greenhouse gas that is discharged by vehicles, power plants and many heavy industries and which scientists say is causing climate change.
Seeking to cut its carbon emissions, the European Union last year mandated that 20 percent of Europe's energy must come from renewable sources by 2020, up from 8.5 percent now. Originally, that plan called for a 10 percent biofuel component for road transportation, but pressure on food supplies prompted a key EU parliamentary committee to vote to scale back that target by as much as half.
Scientists estimate that airlines are to blame for at least 2 percent of man-made carbon emissions, which could be sharply reduced by algae-based aviation fuel.
One promising idea in climate change technology focuses on capturing carbon from industry and storing it harmlessly in the ground. But algae farms can put that carbon to good use.
"Capturing CO2 is the easiest element" in algae production, says Carel Callenbach, the director of Ingrepro Micro Ingredients, which operates the largest algae farms in Europe, producing 80 tons a year.
Companies have been making biodiesel from algae for years, Callenbach said, but there's no money in fuel. It is expensive to make, and so far it cannot be produced in commercial quantities like ethanol or some other biofuels.
But now, spurred by profit-busting increases in petroleum prices, Boeing and some airlines are exploring whether algae can be refined economically to a kerosene-grade fuel to run their fleets. KLM Royal Dutch Airlines has contracted with AlgaeLink and other companies to scout out prospects.
"The advantage is that it can be used in the present structure. You don't have to totally rebuild airplanes," said Nanke Kramer, a KLM spokeswoman. She said KLM has no results yet from its initial experiments, and it is too early to say whether aviation fuel will be feasible or when the first flight tests would take place.
Rene Wijffels, a professor of bioprocess engineering at Wageningen University and Research Center in the Dutch town of Wageningen, said he did a feasibility study last year for an energy company on algae for fuel, and was surprised by the results.
"We did not believe it would ever be possible for energy production," he told The Associated Press. "We found the costs were high but not as high as we thought." At $3.20 per pound, he said, "it was too expensive for a biofuel - but not that far away."
Biofuel production is shackled by two factors: the limited availability of nutrients, and an unfavorable energy balance. "If you use the present technology, you will put in more energy than you get out," Wijffels said.
Those problems can be solved, but it will take time and investment, he said.
The race to make gas from goo is on around the world. Industries, institutes and universities from Argentina and Brazil to New Zealand are pouring millions of dollars into new technologies. In the United States, Arizona State University is trying to develop an aviation fuel, Brunswick Community College in North Carolina is exploring ways to extract oil from algae with ultrasonic waves, and dozens more facilities are sorting out which of the hundreds of thousands of algae types bloom fastest with the richest attainable oil.
The Netherlands, a country twice the size of Massachusetts, has long been ahead in farming technology and has one of the world's highest crop yields. With as many barnyard animals as its 16 million people, it is the world's second largest exporter of agricultural products after the United States.
At Ingrepro's algae farm in Borculo near the border with Germany, the scum from the 21,500 square foot pool is filtered and processed into flaky green strips that crumble to the touch. The carbon exhaust from the steam engine used to dry the algae is pumped back into the pool.
Algae oil goes into paints, resins and bioplastics. Fuel has the lowest value of any product, said Callenbach. The key to profiting from algae farming is in the cake left over after extracting the oil. Ingrepro turns it into dozens of products, from horse feed to weed killer for golf courses. As a food additive for humans, it is a source of healthy omega-3 fatty acids.
AlgaeLink, by contrast, sells bioreactors rather than algae products. It nurtures the algae in a closed and controlled environment of clear tubes, speeding the reproductive process by two to four times as the water turns darker almost before your eyes.
But the process requires much more energy than open pools.
Van den Dorpel says making jet fuel will be viable within a few years if petroleum prices stay above $100 a barrel. Callenbach says algae fuel may be profitable in about five years.
Wijffels is skeptical. "Five years? I'm a little more pessimistic than that. But maybe that's the role of a scientist."
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