Making fuel out of algae

November 19, 2008 9:44:39 PM PST
What an East Texas man is doing in the El Paso desert could soon change the way we drive or fly or manufacture products.Nestled in the Rio Grande Valley high in the West Texas desert under 300 days of bright sunshine a year, a dream to change the world is taking shape.

It's an environmentally sensitive new way to look at an age old life form. Wait a second, sorry, back to Earth. We're talking about algae.

Yep, the stuff that collects at the edge of the fish pond. Glenn Kertz could be called El Paso's Earl of Algae.

"I am a plant geek," Kertz admits. "I've been messing with green things for 40-something years."

Here Kertz grows it in exotic plastic tubes he designed to take up less space than a pond.

If you grow the right kind of algae, it's packed with oil. Oil you can take out of one celled plants and refine.

"Make jet fuel, make truck diesel, make plastics," Kertz said.

But not today. Today he is a wildcatter.

"We feel like we're the guys back in the early 1900s, late 1800s, poking holes in the ground," he admitted.

And like wildcatters, Kertz is certain the oil is inside here. He just needs to find the right cell. Some algae is up to 70% vegetable oil.

And then he needs to find the best way to mass produce the stuff. It will take thousands of tubes to make it worthwhile commercially. But if research goes well and the money doesn't run out, he says he could be there in 2-3 years. It's clean to grow, cleaner to refine and clean to burn.

The question now, can he make the science more than a dream?

"There's still a lot of research to do," Kertz said.

But he's convinced pond scum could be one of the ways out of our energy crisis.

Kertz is not the only scientist working on turning algae into fuel. Close to a dozen firms are working on it around the world.

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