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Now At Your Local Gas Pump: Algae Oil

A new source for biodiesel is making its debut at some San Francisco gas stations. Will algae be able to prove itself as a fuel alternative?

For years we’ve been hearing about the promise of crude oil derived from algae. In theory, it sounds like the solution to our CO2-heavy gasoline habit: Algae requires very little land to grow (significantly less than most other biofuels), it’s cheap, and it’s abundant. But algae requires a lot of water to grow and scaling up fuel projects has been difficult for a variety of logistical reasons. Nonetheless, you can now get a side of algae fuel with your petroleum if you live in the San Francisco Bay Area and drive a car with a diesel engine.

As of this week, a diesel fuel mix of 20% algae and 80% petroleum is available at four gas stations in Redwood City, San Jose, Berkeley, and Oakland. Drivers can fill up at designated Propel Clean Fuel Points (alternative fuel stations often located inside traditional gas stations). The algae comes from Solazyme, a renewable algae oil company that is also making inroads in the cosmetics and food industries.

In addition to just cutting down on petroleum use, Solazyme claims that its fuel, which reportedly costs just under $4.25 per gallon (the average diesel fuel price in the Bay Area) at the Redwood City location, reduces particulate by 30%, CO2 by 20%, and total hydrocarbon emissions by 10%.

Why not just use 100% algae-based diesel fuel? Matt Horton, chief executive officer of Propel Fuels, told the San Francisco Chronicle that it would be too expensive at the moment, and in any case, automakers oppose fuel mixes above 20%.

At this point, few people see algae fuel as a panacea to our energy problems. When I visited Solazyme earlier this year, CEO Jonathan Wolfson stressed that he isn’t running a biofuel company. The company’s algae-based products can be found in Sephora (the Algenist skincare line) and it’s working with companies in the food industry to use algae flour in a number of applications (check out my trip to the Solazyme test kitchen here).

If you want to test-drive Solazyme’s algae fuel mix, you’ll have to hurry. The pilot program only lasts for a month.