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Mar 042009
 

By Catherine Girardeau
Green Right Now

SOUTH SAN FRANCISCO — You’ve probably heard of wheels powered by biodiesel, favored by indie rock bands, gardeners, and other greenies who want to save the world, one tank of used cooking oil at a time. These veggie-fuel fanatics can pull their trucks up to the local burger joint and haul away excess deep-fryer fat, which they take home and convert to usable fuel. But did you know scientists in university research labs and start up companies are using precision, high-tech gene splicing technology to figure out how to mass-produce biofuel from pond scum?

One such algae pioneer is Harrison Dillon, president and chief technical officer of South San Francisco renewable energy startup company Solazyme, Inc. Dillon, a PhD geneticist with training in patent law on the side, is leading his team of highly skilled technicians to discover, and create, conditions under which algae will produce oil for food, cosmetics and fuel.

The first stop on my Solazyme tour was the parking lot for a ride in the company’s biodiesel-powered Jeep.

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“We have as a main business strategy to make transportation fuels that are compatible with the existing fuel infrastructure at every step of the way,” said Dillon. With backing from Chevron, as well as other financiers and development partners, Solazyme has been revving up its biodiesel, renewable diesel and jet fuel-making operation for five years now.

“This is a totally standard, unmodified diesel vehicle here,” Dillon said as we climbed into the truck. “The tank has nothing but “Soladiesel” in it.”

“There’s essentially no market risk to selling these fuels. In other words, if we can make them at the right price, we will be able to sell as much as we can make,” he continued, revving the engine for emphasis.

Dillon predicts his company is two to three years away from being able to produce and sell its renewable transportation fuels at a price that’s competitive with fossil fuels.

As the Jeep’s diesel engine purrs, Dillon compares Solazyme’s algae oil products to cellulosic ethanol, which, as he said, has gotten a lot of buzz in renewable fuel circles.

“Different from ethanol, you can put our oil through a pipeline. Different from ethanol, you can put it through a gas station – you don’t need a special pump. Different from ethanol, you don’t need a flex fuel car with a special engine; you can put it into a 30-year-old diesel Mercedes if you want to,” Dillon said.

After our drive around the parking lot, we head inside and don safety googles to tour Solazyme’s laboratories. Sleek, state-of-the-art machines hum and whirr. Beakers, test tubes and Petrie dishes hold algae in every shade of green, from bright chartreuse to muck brown. They’re standing in incubator-like compartments, or being gently jiggled on moving plates under heat lamps. White-coated technicians wielding eyedroppers or turkey basters extract different-colored liquids from the algae samples.

“This is where we do everything we do here as a biotech company,” Dillon explained.  “We screen algae, we grow algae, we genetically engineer algae, we extract oil, we process oil: the whole nine yards.”