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Pond Scum in Your Gas Tank

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Pond Scum in your Gas tank

Pond Scum in your Gas tank

The finite nature of fossil fuels requires that an alternative be made market ready; pond scum or algae biofuels could be that market ready alternative. In the article, “Biodiesel from algae: challenges and prospects”, Scott (2010) discussed biofuels ability to be used with the current infrastructure; Scott states:
With the need to reduce carbon emissions, and the dwindling reserves of crude oil, liquid fuels derived from plant material – biofuels – are an attractive source of energy. Moreover, in comparison with other forms of renewable energy such as wind, tidal, and solar, liquid biofuels allow solar energy to be stored, and also to be used directly in existing engines and transport infrastructure. (Scott, 2010, p. 277)
Most individuals are familiar with biofuels, such as ethanol, produced from corn, sugar cane and beets. Less known, but with numerous benefits over land-based sources are algae-based fuels. Some of the more notable benefits of algae-based fuels are; alga can increase in mass fourfold in just a single day; help remove Carbon Dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere; just two acres of algae can produce almost 13,000 gallons of biodiesel a year. (Herro, 2008) Best of all, unlike other land-based biofuel sources algae do not compete for lands used to produce food for humans and animals.
The notion of using algae as a source for energy goes back more than 50 years. The inventor of the diesel engine, Rudolf Diesel, first demonstrated his engine at the Paris World’s Exhibition in 1900; the fuel he used was the first biodiesel, peanut oil. This was the fuel used in his engine until the 1920s; when crude oil was discovered. Diesel predicted; “The use of vegetable oils for engine fuels may seem insignificant today. But such oils may become, in course of time, as important as petroleum and the coal tar products of the present.” (Eco-Runners, History, para. 5, 7) If not for cheaper petroleum; diesel engines could still be running exclusively on biodiesel today.
Methane gas is formed when vegetable matter rots in marshes; researchers were aware of this and in the early 1950s proposed the manufacture of methane from algae. This idea received a big push during the oil crisis of the 1970s.
Starting in 1978 the United States Government funded a program to produce biodiesel from algae; known as the Aquatic Species Program (ASP). The primary goal of this program was to manufacture “biodiesel from high lipid-content algae grown in ponds, utilizing waste CO2 from coal fired power plants.” (Sheehan, Dunahay, Benemann, & Roessler, 1998, p. 3) Many advances in algae fuel technology were made during the life of this program however; the program ended because of the drop in crude oil prices and budget cuts. The program ended but some researchers were determined to prove that algae-based fuels were a viable alternative to fossil fuels. The ASP was not a total loss, over the course of the program remarkable achievements were made. This program focused on one aspect of algae; “their ability to produce natural oils. Researchers not only concerned themselves with finding algae that produced a lot of oil, but also with algae that grow under severe conditions—extremes of temperature, pH and salinity.” (Sheehan et al, 1998, p. 3) The success of the ASP would bring about even more research; into improving algae cultivation methods currently in use.
Understanding fully what researchers are doing, when it comes to algae fuels; it is important to know what algae are. Algae plants range from large seaweed to the microscopic. The superstars of the algae fuel industry are the microalgae. These algae come in several types, blue-green called ‘cyanobacteria’, brown, red and green. The majority of microalgae only need three things to grow; sunlight, Carbon Dioxide (CO2) and various nutrients. The algae transform these parts into what is called ‘biomass’. This diverse plant has a major impact on life; algae produce three quarters of the air for the entire planet. (ABO, What-are-algae, para. 4)
The ability to make algae fuel price competitive with fossil fuels means that highly efficient and cost-effective methods must be used. The research done by the ASP was instrumental in the success of the systems now being utilized. The first and most widely used systems are open ponds.
Open ponds are usually shallow and can be several acres or as little as one acre in size. The algae are continually exposed to natural sunlight; by means of some type of mechanism which moves the water. These ponds are often an oval shape similar to a racetrack; giving them their name ‘race way ponds’. This cultivation system is the cheapest method currently in use. So popular is this system that most commercial producers use it. (ABO, Production Systems, open ponds, para 2) The best examples of open pond systems are those being used in Hawaii. These are some of the ponds used by the ASP for research; this is also where the ASP stores the algae cultures used in research today.
Issues with the open pond system are; evaporation, invasion by other unwanted species, the hardiness of the algae strain being used, water quality control and temperature. Recent biological research into algae strains is making significant progress in this area. The next method Photobioreactors (PBR) have one primary advantage over the open pond method; “They can prevent, or at least reduce, invasion by weed algae, and other organisms that affect the cultures.” This the major difference between PRBs or ‘closed systems’ and open ponds; PRBs are closed to the outside environment. (ABO, Production systems, closed systems, para. 3). These systems can be a simple greenhouse covering an open pond or more sophisticated systems, which employ a type of clear container suspended in panels, either flat or upright. Water and other required nutrients to include CO2 are pumped into the system to grow the algae.
Issues with the closed, PBR system are; the high upfront cost of building and maintaining these types of systems, the need for a reliable source of CO2 and overheating. These systems are best suited for very dry or very cold climates. The high upfront cost is an issue that many private companies are trying to overcome; to make this highly productive system more cost effective.
Rudolf Diesel’s engine may have been the first to run on biofuel, but it is not the last. Innovations made by private companies and Governments are showing impressive promise. According to a press release from Aquaflow Bionomic Corporation; they provided the algae-based biodiesel which was used “when the Minister of Energy, Hon. David Parker, drove an unmodified standard Land Rover along the Wellington Motorway.” (Scoop, 2008, para. 3)
Per Goldenberg (2010), “at the U.S. Naval base in Norfolk, Virginia; an experimental boat, intended for use in rivers and marshes and eventually destined for oil installations in the Middle East, operated on a 50/50 mix of algae-based fuel and diesel.” (Goldenberg, 2010, para. 2)
Information provided by the ABO, regarding a successful algae-based fuels test states; “In September 2009, an algae-based substitute for gasoline was successfully tested in a 2008 Toyota Prius during a two-week, cross-country tour that spanned more than 3,750 miles.” (ABO, fuels test, para. 4) Most recently and perhaps most significant is the success of algae fuel which was reported in November 2012.
According to a story published in the ‘San Francisco Gate’; consumers in northern California, became the first civilian citizens to pump pond scum into their Gas tanks.
Reporter Peter Fimrite (2012) wrote; “The fuel is an 80/20 blend of conventional diesel and algae diesel. The fuel is named ‘Biodiesel B20’ and was sold in four northern California cities.” According to Fimrite (2012); “Bob Ames, vice president in charge of fuels and commercialization for Solazyme said; ‘We’re talking about fuels that are offered at standard diesel pricing. It is an example, of how to use some of the world’s smallest microorganisms to solve some of the world’s greatest problems.’” (Fimrite, 2012, para. 4)
Ferrite’s report stated further; “Mark Horton, chief executive officer of Propel Fuels, said: ‘None of these fuels are a silver bullet that is going to fix the problem and get us off oil. It’s going to be a variety of fuels. Our task is to drive awareness. When consumers know it is available, that it is priced right and it reduces carbon emissions, they will use it.’ ” (Fimrite, 2012, para.5)
Horton was able to sum up the future of algae and other biofuels best. The health of the planet and the U.S., as well as the world’s economy requires that a change to cleaner, renewable fuels be made. The finite nature of fossil fuels requires that an alternative be made market ready sooner rather than later. Algae-based fuels are believed to be the market ready alternative that is needed. Possessing a domestic, secure, source of renewable energy; means that the United Sates will not be at the mercy of oil rich countries. World consumers should demand that pond scum be available to pump into their Gas tanks.


Algae Biomass Organization. (2013). History as fuel. Retrieved from as a fuel
Algae Biomass Organization. (2013, April 11). Production systems/closed systems para.2. Retrieved from allaboutalgae:
Algae Biomass Organization. (2013). What-are-algae. Retrieved April 11, 2013, from allaboutalgae:
Fimrite, P. (2012, November 13). Algae-based fuel on sale in Bay Area. Retrieved from
Goldenberg, S. (2010, October 28). Retrieved from proudest:
Herro, A. (2008). Better than corn? Algae set to beat out other biofuel feedstocks. World Watch, 21(4-4), 4.
Scoop. (2008, March 31). Press Release: Aquaflow Bionomic Corporation. Retrieved from
Scott, S. (2010). Biodiesel from algae: Challenges and prospects. Current opinion in biotechnology, 21(3), 277.
Sheehan, J., Dunahay, T., Benemann, J., & Roessler, P. (1998). A Look Back at the U.S. Department of Energy's Aquatic Species Program-Biodiesel from Algae. the National Renewable Energy Laboratory thinkquest. (2008, August). Eco-Runners, Algae-biofuels. Retrieved from

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