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California’s green dream

By Agnès Sinai
Le Monde diplomatique

America is waking up to the reality of peak oil and climate change. In California there are very different responses to the crisis: some pin their hopes on new technology, while others advocate a radical change of lifestyle

At the entrance to Silicon Valley, just south of San Francisco, the start-up company Solazyme Inc is chasing a new dream: forget semi-conductors, the Holy Grail of the 21st century is algae-derived diesel that is as powerful as fossil fuel. Solazyme’s co-founder and president, Harrison Dillon, says his company “is the only microbe biotechnology company to have created a fuel with the same properties as oil”.

The exact process remains secret – Dillon will disclose only that it involves the genetic engineering of marine microbes: we’re entering the realm of the third generation of man-made biofuels (1). At the end of 2008 Solazyme announced it had produced an algae-based aviation fuel that remains stable at high altitude. The company has received $75m in capital risk investments. Its aim is to create renewable energy by reducing the 100-million year process by which algae naturally produce oil to only a few days.

In a kind of modern day alchemy, Dillon says it’s possible to accelerate the fermentation of algae by feeding them with agricultural residue and other cellulose materials in industrial digesters (2). Algae normally use sunlight to produce oil. However, Solazyme says it has genetically engineered a strain that does not use photosynthesis. The oil produced can be used for combustion, in cooking or in industrial chemicals.

The dream of endless supplies of “green gold” remains some way off. But these green start-ups have no time to waste: their investors want results. Everyone agrees that the days of cheap oil are over. In 2005 the Hirsch Report by SAIC (Science Applications International Corporation), commissioned by the US department of energy, recommended preparing for the transition to other sources of energy before oil production peaks and declines (Peaking of world oil production: impacts, mitigation, & risk management (PDF)). The 21st century will not enjoy the same abundance of energy as the 20th did. Faced with this reality, it is left to the miracle of technology to replace nature’s bounty. Silicon Valley sees itself as a future Saudi Arabia, transforming cellulose into ethanol and algae into oil.

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