Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) helped to develop the internet and satellite navigation systems, has taken industry insiders by surprise. A cheap, low-carbon fuel would not only help the US military, the nation’s single largest consumer of energy, to wean itself off its oil addiction, but would also hold the promise of low-carbon driving and flying for all.
Darpa’s research projects have already extracted oil from algal ponds at a cost of $2 per gallon. It is now on track to begin large-scale refining of that oil into jet fuel, at a cost of less than $3 a gallon, according to Barbara McQuiston, special assistant for energy at Darpa. That could turn a promising technology into a market-ready one. Researchers have cracked the problem of turning pond scum and seaweed into fuel, but finding a cost-effective method of mass production could be a game-changer. “Everyone is well aware that a lot of things were started in the military,” McQuiston said.
Never underestimate the ability of the not-so-sexy solutions–algae grown and turned into fuel, flywheels or pumped storage to help time shift supply to better meet electricity demand, taking simple efficiency steps, etc.–to deliver some impressive contributions to our energy and environmental challenges once we feel sufficient urgency to take them. In fact, I expect algae fuel to play a much bigger part in our future transportation alternatives than the car companies’ (and semi-informed technophile’s) favorite hobby horse, hydrogen.
As for the claim of $3/gallon jet fuel from algae in “just months”, consider me highly skeptical, to put it mildly. I’m sure that the claim is a reference to being able to hit that price point, not real world production in any significant quantity. Even so, it’s one hell of a claim, and it’s either a gross overstatement of what DARPA’s been up to, or it’s a revelation that they’ve pulled a techno-rabbit out of their hat.