In the Future, Airplanes Will Run on Pond Scum

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It's bubbly and green and kills fish and now it makes airplanes fly!
​The logic of this is impeccable: The price of oil -- and airplane fuel -- has gone through the proverbial roof (although at the rate it's going, in a couple of years, flying will become so expensive, nothing will get off the ground anymore). So why not replace it with something cheap and plentiful that has no practical value anyplace else? Like, say, pond scum?

Amazingly, scientists at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center have actually figured out a way to make this happen.

For the past few years, scientists have been working on converting algae into biofuel. The oils have met stringent jet fuel regulations. And they work: Boeing has successfully tested the algae oil on several different aircraft, including the twin-engine 737-800.

"Every flight exceeded our exceptions," Michael Hurd, director of environmental strategy for Boeing Commercial Airplanes, said in a press release. Boeing won't even have to make any adjustments to the existing engines.

Boeing officials are confident that the biofuel will be approved for commercial use by the end of this year, and that in three to five years production will ramp up enough that it won't even be a novelty anymore. Currently the algal fuel sells for $4 to $5 a gallon, about the same as regular oil, but when production kicks into high gear, scientists predict the price will drop to $2.

There's even a possibility algae will provide fuel for cars, too. "We now know that these fuels meet all the standards for gasoline, jet fuel and diesel," said Richard Sayre, a biofuel researcher at the Danforth Plant Science Center. Sayre also serves as chief technology officer of Phycal, an algae-fuel focused biotech company.

But pond scum won't eliminate the airlines' dependence on oil altogether. Initially, algae oil will comprise only about half the mixture used for jet fuel. The other half will be conventional petroleum.

And there's another buzzkill: A study at MIT recently showed that fossil fuels might actually be greener than the new biofuels.

"What we found was that technologies that look very promising could also result in high emissions, if done improperly," said James Hileman, principal research engineer in the MIT Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. "All those processes require energy and that ends up in the release of carbon dioxide."

Well, we're sure somebody at Danforth can figure it out. We're hoping anyway. We'd love to be able to afford to fly again sometime in the near future.

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Nice artical.It's possible that we may be using one of these alternative fuels in the near future. Alga (or its plural, algae) may be the miracle element in the search for a more environmentally-friendly, mass-produced product that can be converted into fuel. Algae grow naturally all over the world.

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Wheel Alignment Equipment

I suggest, bring in AI pilots, and it'll be a blast! Truly, there are kinds of alternative energy, we should look forward to it. 

Ethel Gray
Ethel Gray

It's a good news indeed, algae can now a brighter future as a source of renewable energy.


 seriously? i heard chicken shit !  well, better to have them run on pond scum than chicken shit .


Various universities have stated that most algae technologies hurdleshave been met and that all that all that is needed going forward neededwas engineering and scale-up.  The US taxpayer has spent over $2.5billion dollars over thte last 35 years on algae research atuniversities and nothing has been commercialized to date. http://www.batterylaptoppower....http://www.batterylaptoppower....  

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Thanks Aimee, thanks alot. I read your headline with the expectation that we'd finally found some useful purpose that would benefit aviation and humanity from the likes of Ellinger, Oxford, Fraser, Wright, and the rest of their ilk.On the serious side, there is a renewed effort to produce algae to oil. there's even a research group at the Univ of AK that say they've been able to grow & process algae into Butanol:'d be a direct replacement for gasoline. As long as oil stays above $80 per barrel the process is economically feasible.


Various universities have stated that most algae technologies hurdles have been met and that all that all that is needed going forward needed was engineering and scale-up.  The US taxpayer has spent over $2.5 billion dollars over thte last 35 years on algae research at universities and nothing has been commercialized to date. Congress men have asked for results and were told there were no results.  As long as the algae researchers could continue to say three things: "it's too expensive, cannot be done and we need more research" the DOE continued to give them money.  

The REAL question is: Does the DOE really want to get off of foreign oil or do they want to continue funding algae research for another 35 years to keep algae researchers employed for another 50 years?

Boeing stated in a Canadian newspaaper that they were going to China because the US government was moving too slow on biofuels.

So, does that mean instead of buying our oil from the Saudi's, we will soon be buying our oil from the Chinese?  Isn't that a breach of National Security?

Durwood Dugger
Durwood Dugger

Algae R&D now has been going on about 80+ years. About 50 years for fuel development purposes dating back into WWII. We are currently in the future where algae would have provided fuels if it were probable. Several major mass balance analyzes by Kansas State University and MIT have shown that because of large scale algae's dependence on peak petroleum and peak phosphate based fertilizers (same as human food production) - it is a negative energy producer. Current aviation fuels from algae are many multiples, if not orders of magnitude higher in economic costs than petroleum based jet fuels. Given the mass balance negativity and our dependence on those same fertilizers for human food production, biofuels seem to be a futile, if not incompetent exercise in basic economics and a threat to our species existence.

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