Nov. 13, 2012 at 8:39 PM ET
Using algae to produce biofuel is something being pursued by a number of major companies, but no one has made algal fuel or additives available for consumers — until now.
Alternative gas station chain Propel is working with algal fuel creator Solazyme on a month-long experiment, selling algal-additive "Soladiesel" alongside Propel's normal diesel. The special stuff is 20 percent algae oil, while the "original flavor" will have the usual additives.
Normally the algal version would cost more, but seeing how customers react and watching for supply chain problems is a critical part of bringing it to market. To that end, Propel, with stations mainly in California and Washington, will offer the two types of diesel side by side for a month.
Algae has been proposed for years as an alternative to corn as a way to produce biofuels. Special algae are grown in bulk; when fed certain sugars, they produce combustible oils that can be used as fuel additives. The resulting fuel, biodiesel in this case, produces significantly less pollutants and, Solazyme claims, may in some ways actually perform better.
There are serious questions regarding the ability to scale algae production to millions-of-barrels capacity, but companies like Shell and Exxon are investing billions in biofuels to find solutions to problems like these. One potential benefit: The oil-producing algae can be grown in salt and brackish water where other crops fail, and are more efficient than corn in their production per acre.
Solazyme itself has more than $100 million in funding and is building a biofuel plant in Brazil. The company's plan is to commercialize the fuel next year, but limited-market pilots like this one with Propel will make that possible.
Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. His personal website is coldewey.cc.