Algae Fuel Aspirations

  • A net drags floating algae toward the boat (Photo by Ann Dornfeld)

Algae is attracting a lot of
attention and investment as an alternative
energy source. It grows quickly, contains
a lot of oil, and doesn’t take up valuable
farmland. Ann Dornfeld profiles one company
that’s trying to turn algae into fuel:


Algae is attracting a lot of
attention and investment as an alternative
energy source. It grows quickly, contains
a lot of oil, and doesn’t take up valuable
farmland. Ann Dornfeld profiles one company
that’s trying to turn algae into fuel:

I’m standing on a pontoon boat floating just a few feet off the shore of a saltwater bay.
Two men are standing in the waist-deep water around the boat. They’re guiding a layer of
floating algae into a funnel that’s sucking the algae into a burlap bag.

(sucking sound)

It’s an algae harvest – and James Stevens is directing the process. He says they
have to be careful not to suck up young salmon or other animals along with the

“This junction can be turned on, and it allows me to feed water into a box where
then I can sort and make sure there’s no by-catch actually coming through the

Stevens is Vice President and Chief Scientist of Blue Marble Energy. It’s
a Seattle start-up trying to turn algae into fuel. Most algae-to-energy researchers
are growing algae in giant tanks. Blue Marble has a different plan: gather algae
that’s already growing in noxious blooms along coastlines.

(sound of waves)

Here in Dumas Bay, not far from Seattle, huge blooms of algae often rot in the
water. That process uses up oxygen and kills marine life. And when the dead algae
washes up on the beach, it creates a smell the neighbors hate.

Blue Marble President Kelly Ogilvie says these algae blooms are common
around Puget Sound – but that’s nothing compared to more polluted waterways
elsewhere in the world.

“And the most recent, I think, salient example was Qingdao, China. And the
bloom that occurred there was, I think, like 800 square miles and they pulled a
million tons out of the water and that is prologue to what is going to be happening
on coastlines across the planet.”

Warmer water can help algae grow, and some scientists think global warming is
contributing to an increase in gigantic blooms. Nutrients from sewage dumping
and fertilizer runoff from farm fields and lawns also help algae flourish.

“If you think about what is actually happening in our oceans, the algae bloom
crisis has just begun. And if we can find a way to turn that new crisis into a
solution to something else, by goodness we’re going to try and make a go at it.”

Most companies doing algae-to-energy research focus on creating biofuels for cars
or jets. Instead of liquid fuel, Blue Marble wants to convert algae into natural gas
and biochemicals.

Along with private investment, Blue Marble has a contract with the Washington
Department of Ecology to collect algae at two bays in Puget Sound.

The department’s Alice Kelly is watching today’s harvest from the beach. She says
her agency hopes this gets rid of the rotten egg smell neighbors have been
complaining about without hurting the ecosystem, the sealife near the shore.

“It’s very important to protect that habitat. So we’re walking a very fine line here
between trying to deal with the excess odor problem and protect the near shore.”

Blue Marble’s approach provides that protection, she says, because its operation is
based just offshore. They aren’t dragging equipment across the beach. And today,
it looks like the only by-catch has been other species of algae.

But some conservationists have big concerns about harvesting wild algae for fuel.

One of them is Kevin Britton-Simmons, a researcher at
the University of Washington. He says a lot of unnatural algae blooms could be
prevented by keeping fertilizer and other pollutants out of the water.

“I feel this is essentially exploiting the problem instead
of fixing it. I’m concerned if we allow a business to develop that’s dependant on
this problem, what’s gonna happen when we fix the problem? Will there then be
pressure for this business to harvest natural populations of algae?”

Natural blooms are a valuable part of the food web, and he says removing them
could rob marine life of a major food source. He says it’s also hard to distinguish
between natural algae blooms and those caused by pollution.

(sound of waves)

Back on Dumas Bay, Kelly Ogilvie says his company has netted nearly 10,000 pounds of algae from the two harvests it’s completed. The next step is to
use bacteria to break down the algae into natural gas and various chemicals.

If all goes as planned, Ogilvie says Blue Marble’s first batch of natural gas will be
ready any day now.

For The Environment Report, I’m Ann Dornfeld.

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