New Mexico News Connection - A statewide news service for New Mexico
Carlsbad - Vast areas of Arizona and New Mexico could soon be supplying the world with diesel fuel produced from algae. An Arizona State University researcher and plant biologist says algae biodiesel should be commercially viable in two-to-five years. A commercial scale demonstration project is already under way in the Pecos valley.
Oil is being grown in the fields of New Mexico's Pecos Valley. That's right - 'grown.' Arizona and New Mexico are expected to be producing commercial quantities of diesel fuel from algae within five years, and a large-scale demonstration project is already underway near Artesia. Plant biologist Professor Milton Sommerfeld has been working since the 1980s engineering algae strains that reproduce quickly with a high content of what's basically vegetable oil. Sommerfield says "It can be processed and refined to produce a variety of products. The algae oil is most easily converted to diesel. But products such as gasoline or kerosene or others are products that one can get from that oil as well."
Sommerfeld reports that the biggest remaining hurdle to large-scale algae farming is attracting the necessary investment. He says that'll depend a lot on world petroleum prices and government policy action. Sommerfeld says studies have shown Arizona and New Mexico to be perhaps the best places in the world to grow algae for biodiesel. He says, "Based on climate, based on available saline waters that can't be used for other purposes. And also vast land areas, areas that aren't amenable to typical crop plants."
Sommerfeld also notes that there was a lot of interest in algae biodiesel last year when crude oil prices spiked above 100-dollars a barrel. He says researchers are now focusing on reducing the cost of production to make the fuel competitive and "It may not be economically feasible this year, but in two, three, five years it will be economically feasible. The process will be refined enough that we can make money at doing this." Sommerfeld also believes if algae biodiesel had the same government subsidies as ethanol, it would be pretty close to being competitive even at today's prices.