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Grow, Baby, Grow! GMOs And the Future of Industry


Solazyme is a company, started in a garage, that hopes to produce fuel oil from algae. The company is having trouble scaling up production to commercial levels, so to make ends meet, it’s producing a slightly different oil and selling it as a cosmetic product. And while skincare is all well and good, the potential impact on the world’s energy future is much more interesting. The NYT has a detailed write-up of the company that raises all sorts of interesting questions and is worth a read.

The first question is whether greens will take a shine to this solution. Oil releases CO2 into the atmosphere when burned, after all. But when the oil is produced from algae, it can be nearly carbon neutral. Algae use CO2 in the production process, with growers even able to use carbon emissions from smokestacks to speed up production. It’s also renewable: algae can be grown and used to produce oil relatively quickly, shortening the multi-million-year process by which the oil we’re currently burning was produced. Though Solazyme’s technology hasn’t yet scaled to where it is viable, it could potentially undercut much of the rationale for the development of electric vehicles and the costly infrastructure necessary to make them work. One could imagine some greens being suspicious, if not outright hostile, to the enterprise for tactical reasons.

Furthermore, the way that Solarzyme is growing its algae—in dark, covered vats filled with sugar, rather than in large open pools outside under the sun—has important implications for the future of solar energy. That algae growers prefer feeding their product sugar suggests that the direct uses for solar are harder to tap than many think. If the sun’s rays aren’t even a good source for growing algae, it’s hard to imagine it generating all that much electricity at reasonable prices using current technology.

Finally, it’s surprising to see that GMOs are being billed by this NYT article as the new Great Green Hope. Surely these are frankenalgae—horrible man-made monstrosities that are sure to destroy us all if they get out in the wild. Those who question the inherent evil of GMOs have been pilloried by the MSM for being the equivalent of climate deniers for some time now. Is this a sea change we’re detecting?

If so, it’s very welcome indeed. We can imagine a future in which GMO agriculture is producing a whole range of things we now think of as industrial products and chemicals. Over the 21st century we seem headed for dramatic, and even mind-blowing, progress in gene technology. It’s not too much to think that this revolution will be as big in the future as IT is today. This will be a much more efficient way to create a complex array of substances without the kind of environmental impact that refineries have today. Solar power’s future may be much less about replacing oil as a way of producing electricity than about circumventing traditional industrial processes: the fusion of the factory and the farm may be the chief technological business of the new century.

This whole process opens the door to a huge reduction in the costs, economic and environmental, of producing the materials we need for civilized life. It will further reduce the need for human employment in the extractive, refining and processing industries. It will also represent a growing challenge to countries with extraction based economies, much as the development of synthetic rubber was a challenge for rubber tree plantations in places like Malaysia and Brazil. Like all truly powerful new technologies, this one is going to cause massive social change and upheaval in all kinds of hard-to-predict ways.

All of this is a healthy reminder that investing in research is a lot smarter from a policy standpoint than spending money on subsidies. It’s through basic research that we discover the kinds of surprises that end up truly changing the world. Given the large new energy discoveries in the US and elsewhere, it could be some time before the direct production of fuel is the chief benefit of this new process. But frankencells and frankenplants on frankenfarms, not hair shirt green moralizing, could be what will save the planet and allow a sophisticated, growing human economy to coexist with the natural world in a sustainable way.

[Algae image courtesy of Shutterstock]

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  • Vadim Pashkov

    More interesting case is another company – Joule Unlimited that using algae to produce diesel from solar energy and CO2

    • Thirdsyphon

      Agreed. Joule stands to make a preposterous amount of money if they can make their Helioculture platform deliver on its promise. Also, I prefer photosynthetic solutions to heterotrophic algae systems like Solazyme’s because of the distortion they’ll cause to agricultural markets if they ever scale up, and also because heterotrophic algae (no less than the ethanol tech that WRM rightly disdains) is dependent on petrochemical inputs in the form of fertilizer.

  • wigwag

    I have taken a tour of this company’s system. I am not competent to comment on how it compares with its competitors, but the tour was very interesting.

  • Dan King

    Hmmm. This sounds fishy to me. Solar energy, at least, uses the sun directly as an energy source. This method, apparently, uses sugar, that must be grown elsewhere. Hence this is just a biofuels scam, one step removed. I don’t see any obvious advantage to the scheme. We’re still using foodstuffs to create fuel energy.

    The GMO is not a big deal. But in this case the algae are simply converting food (sugar) into fuel. There is no free lunch here, and it does not represent revolutionary progress.

    • crocodilechuck

      Does Mead even understand that this is just a biofuels scam, rather than a photosynthesis play?

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