Diesel Fuel Derived From Algae Now Testing In 2 VW TDI Models

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2012 Volkswagen Passat TDI test car running on Solazyme algae-derived diesel fuel

2012 Volkswagen Passat TDI test car running on Solazyme algae-derived diesel fuel

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For a century, we've gotten almost all our gasoline and diesel fuel from petrochemicals.

Now Silicon Valley startup Solazyme [NSDQ:SZYM] is testing diesel fuel derived from refining renewable oils--produced by specialized algae--in two Volkswagen turbodiesel models.

Since July 2012, the VW Passat TDI mid-size sedan and Jetta TDI compact sedan have covered about 20,000 miles together running exclusively on algae-derived diesel fuel.

The results of the year-long test, a joint effort of Volkswagen and Solazyme, will be issued later this year.

VW engineers and Solazyme will pay particular attention to the cars' injectors, high-pressure pumps, sensors, and hoses, to ensure they are aging and wearing no differently than those in conventionally fueled TDI cars.

Meets all diesel standards

Over the last several years, a huge amount of R&D funds have gone into the field of sustainable and renewable fuels derived from plants and other carbohydrates--including the increasingly controversial production of corn-based ethanol.

Conceptually, Solazyme's process is simple. It uses industrial-scale fermentation processes to grow algae that turn carbohydrate feed stocks into oils, made of custom carbon chains that vary with the end use.

Dan Philips, Solazyme's director of fuels, points out that the company's Soladiesel fuel derived from these oils meets all ASTM standards for modern ultra-low-sulfur diesel fuel, in particular the D975 specification.

Hence, the algae-derived diesel should run properly in any current diesel car. That sets it apart from some other fuels lumped in the broad and ill-defined category of biodiesel, including after-market conversions of older diesels that run on recycled cooking grease.

Algae and biofuel

Algae and biofuel

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The testing of the two Volkswagen TDI diesels is part of an effort to show automakers that renewable diesel that meets all relevant diesel-fuel specifications is safe to run in new vehicles.

The Soladiesel fuel is now sold in about 1,200 locations globally.

Diesel drivers like it

Solazyme recently conducted a 30-day market test of a B20 Soladiesel fuel--which blends 20 percent of its algae-derived diesel with 80 percent conventional diesel--

Thatt test, at four Propel Clean Fuel Points fueling stations in the San Francisco Bay Area, showed that 70 percent of buyers said they would buy an algae-derived diesel fuel more often.

Four in 10 drivers buying the fuel said they would even pay a premium for renewable diesel fuel. The four Propel stations offering the fuel had sales during one-third higher than non-participating stations during that month-long trial.

Independent testing of the B20 blend by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) showed reductions of 10 percent in total hydrocarbon emissions, 20 percent for carbon monoxides, and fully 30 percent fewer tailpipe particulates.

Separately, Life Cycle Associates indicates that 100-percent Soladiesel reduces greenhouse gases by 85 to 93 percent compared to diesel derived from conventional petroleum.

2014 Chevrolet Cruze Clean Turbo Diesel, 2013 Chicago Auto Show [photo: Steve Fecht for Chevrolet]

2014 Chevrolet Cruze Clean Turbo Diesel, 2013 Chicago Auto Show [photo: Steve Fecht for Chevrolet]

Enlarge Photo

From sugars to fuels

The Soladiesel B20 fuel can be used in most new diesel vehicles, including the 2014 Chevrolet Cruze Diesel that will arrived at Chevy dealers later this year.

Solazyme defines its mission as transforming "a range of low-cost plant-based sugars into high-value oils," using custom algae that end their life with about 85 percent of their body weight as oils.

The company is focusing on three markets: fuels and chemicals, nutrition, and skin and personal care.

Its Soladiesel fuel has also been tested by the Maersk shipping company and the U.S. Navy in ships, and its Solajet for aircraft by both the U.S. Air Force and United Airlines.

A Solazyme plant is now running in Peoria, Ilinois; two others in Clinton, Iowa, and Sao Paolo, Brazil, will come online early and late this year, respectively.

Solazyme's Philips spoke on Tuesday at "Silicon Valley Reinvents the Automobile," a presentation of the Western Automotive Journalists association and SAE International.


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Comments (27)
  1. I think algae fuels show great promise for applications like commercial transportation, where the use of batteries is not sufficiently advanced. It could be used now in trucks, ships and jets, breaking the strangle-hold of fossil fuels in those areas. Hitting 80% oil content is a real milestone. Adding this technology to the other renewables like solar, wind and geothermal gives me a lot of hope for the future.

  2. I would pay premium for renewable diesel fuel, and I would prefer it over conventional diesel.

  3. And you would pay premium astounds me. Diesel was .07 or seven cents a gallon and my bill filling up in Mi. was just under $500.00 and thats a buck cheaper than Ont. side at Aprox.$7. a gallon. When obama came in it was 1.79 and now I saw at a pilot 4.36. We are crazy to be led by an illegal idiot while we have likes of fuel in the ground.Ken

  4. In Venezuala! Sorry

  5. Terrible speller in a hurry! Lakes of Fuel!

  6. At least we can understand what he is saying!

  7. @Martin, @Ken: Actually, it's entirely unclear what Ken is trying to convey.

    I *think* he's saying that (1) he would not pay a premium for renewable diesel fuel, because there is still petroleum left in the ground to extract; and (2) he believes that President Obama himself raised the price of diesel fuel from $1.79 per gallon in Jan 2009 (an inaccurate number, but whatever) to a $6 per gallon price today (also inaccurate).

    Is that a rough summary of what you tried to say, Ken?

  8. If blocking the transport of petroleum with executive orders (Keystone pipeline) is factored into the price of oil, then "yes" Obama is affecting the price of oil.

  9. What we pay here for fuel is ridiculously cheap: if you were in Europe, you would be paying $9.50 USD per gallon, so count your lucky stars and be happy you are paying $4.36!

  10. Hawaiians pay the highest gas prices in the country but they have nowhere to go. If I had nowhere to drive, I wouldn't mind paying the prices that Hawaiians pay. Same goes for Europe. Leave the comparison of our prices to prices in Europe alone. It is a tired argument and doesn't account for very different circumstances for travel.

  11. Are you implying that Europeans do not drive a lot? If you are, I can assure you that they do, and then some.

    My point with price comparison is that people here do not know how good they have it. It could always be worse, much worse.

  12. @Annatar: Actually, I believe the average vehicle in the U.S. travels more miles each day than the average vehicle in Europe or in Asia.

    Of course there are drivers who cover long distances in all three regions. But many more Europeans than North Americans have effective mass-transit alternatives. U.S. residents will often drive several hours because there are no other practical alternatives.

  13. There are more comments in this thread
  14. If ever they start to make gasoline also with these green algae then i will buy. Conventionnal petrol need competition and prices will collapse, LOL. There is also hydrogen that should be put on the market to start collapsing gasoline price. A gallon of gasoline should cost 90 cents if there is some competition on the market. Green algae can be grow easilly cheaply and also hydrogen is cheap with the right methods.

  15. I love the way the article recognized that the reason products like this are coming out in much more mass now is because of the money being put into R&D. Once people showed that they will spend their money on it the companies will respond. Changing the way we use and acquire energy is where the best and brightest minds we have should spend their time.

  16. I ran an old Mercedes on 100% biodiesel for 3 years and loved it. Lots of companies are making biodiesel, and the coop I bought it from converts used cooking oil from chains like Taco Bell (so no farmland is traded for fuel use, and the waste oil doesn't hit the landfill). Solazyme has been working on their very expensive process for many years- I'm curious if they've got it to be cheap enough yet.

  17. You mentioned that recycled cooking grease is one definition of biodiesel, but it's not, and many people have that misconception. Biodiesel is diesel fuel which has been created using vegetable oil rather than petroleum - you can put it right in your diesel car without modification and it'll run fine. BUT there are things to watch out for; biodiesel is a very strong solvent which will destroy any natural rubber hoses or seals in old model cars (those must be replaced with Viton synthetic rubber). Waste oil can only be run in cars which have heaters retrofitted on the injectors, because the waste oil won't properly aerosolize if it's too cold, leaving deposits (eventually leading to a seized engine).

  18. @Eric: Good info, and thanks for posting. I should have phrased the thought a little differently.

    What I was trying to say is that the technical definition of biodiesel among fuels engineers (what you're talking about) isn't necessarily what alt-fuels and green-car advocates talk about when they use the term "biodiesel."

    They often wrap in a much broader array of fuels, including the recycled cooking grease, 5-gallon cans of peanut oil from Costco, and so forth. Those are the ones that don't work in modern diesels with very high-pressure injection systems, due to impurities and different viscosity.

    Finally, note that many of today's diesels are warrantied only for B2 or B5, but NOT B20.

  19. John - check out http://solazyme.com/fuels for an explanation of Solazyme's products. They have BD, RD, HRF-76, and Solajet. These different fuels meet different specifications.

    SoladieselBD is their biodiesel (ASTM D6751) product. That is what Propel sold. It meets the spec and while some minor properties may vary, it's "just" B20.

    SoladieselRD is renewable diesel (ASTM D975) and is almost certainly what VW tested. VW is NOT a fan of biodiesel, and I'm 99.9% certain that they didn't do any testing of B100.

    It's important to correct articles with bad info - biofuels digest picked up this info today and said "better times ahead for biodiesel" based on the supposed VW testing of biodiesel. I would love to copy edit this for you for repost

  20. What's the point? By the time they have got to a price that's affordable EV technology will have made it obsolete. Affordable and practical EVs are already available to satisfy 50% of the market. Another 5 years and it'll be 90%. Like hydrogen, the time, effort, brains and money being spent on this white elephant is going to be almost totally wasted. Despite its apparently green credentials, the simple, inescapable fact is that 70 to 80% of the fuel made will be given off as nothing but heat when burned in the appallingly wasteful internal combustion engine. Give it up for crying out loud!

  21. I understand the sentiment and in fact sold my diesel for an electric; but there are many diesels on the road today which obviously won't be thrown in the trash anytime soon. Biodiesel is already widely available at a reasonable price - Extreme Biodiesel sells it for about .20 cheaper than regular diesel- and you get the range some people require. As John points out though, automakers are concerned over mixes above 5-10% because that's where some fuel filter and fuel pump seal materials start to swell, or you can see crystals form below 30F (clogging the fuel system).

  22. Hey John. Thanks for the article.
    You wrote that the Soladiesel fuel is now sold in about 1,200 locations globally. Where did this data come from? I only know about the Soladiesel test at 4 Propel filling stations in the Bay Area at the end of last year.

    Did you mean to say they have plans to expand to 1,200? Together with Propel?

    Any more info you can share on this would be appreciated. Thanks.

  23. @Joe: That was a statement by Solazyme's Dan Philips at the event (just went back + confirmed in my notes). Didn't get further details, however.

  24. Just read a review of the scientific literature and now soot is considered more potent a warming agent than CO2. Desertification is the real danger, for a variety of reasons. In Africa they burn brush to allow new growth - burning one hector of land the same emissions as 6000 cars each year, and they burn one BILLION hectors of land each year in Africa. See Allan Savory TED video for a brilliant (and cheap) solution.

  25. Interesting that they are testing this in VW diesels and that their comparison is to B20, which is not authorized by VW in their TDI models (I have a 2012 TDI Passat), in fact, they say it voids your warranty if it can be determined it was used. Are these modified in anyway from their regular TDI Passat/Jettas? If not, and proves to be harmless to existing configurations, this is wonderful news if it can be produced at a reasonable cost. Blending it with existing diesel could actually keep the cost down quite a bit too until it can start being produced on a larger scale and eventually phase out petrol based diesel. Id' pay a small premium for this type of fuel, but not much, we already pay a premium for diesel.

  26. @John Voelcker, do you know if they are using modified models, or straight off the production line models?

  27. @Tom: My understanding is that they are using stock VW TDI models, so that they can compare any effects on the diesel fueling equipment against that found in similar cars operated on conventional diesel fuel.

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