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Oil Change

Can two friends from Emory help us kick the fossil fuel habit?

By Paige Parvin | Emory Magazine | May 21, 2012

Story image
Green slime, liquid gold: algae cultivated at Solazyme.

It probably wouldn't dawn on you to rub diesel fuel on your cheeks, eat your expensive facial moisturizer with a spoon, or pour olive oil into the gas tank of your car.

But one day very soon, you might wake up and take a shower using sweet-smelling soap and shampoo, apply lotion to your face, and drink some vanilla-flavored milk for breakfast.

Later, you could drive your diesel-powered car to the airport and board a plane running on biofuel, where you'll be offered crackers with cheese or some ice cream as a snack.

And all of it will be made from algae.

Welcome to the future.

It's the future envisioned by 1993 Emory College graduates Jonathan Wolfson and Harrison Dillon, founders of Solazyme, one of the most promising renewable oil companies in the market. Started in 2003, the San Francisco–based business has swiftly pulled ahead in the thunderous race toward more sustainable energy—attracting reams of positive press, millions in private investment and federal funding, and a landmark contract with the US Navy to test its biofuel in jets and ships.

Making oil from algae is not a new idea, but then if it were easy, giants like Chevron would have been doing it a long time before 9/11. One thing that sets Solazyme apart from other biotech hopefuls is its ability to customize—to produce oils suited for a range of different uses and products. And so far, these algal impersonators seem to be doing their jobs just as well as the original ingredients, if not better. Perfecting biofuel is the ultimate finish line, but creating a variety of revenue streams along the way is giving Solazyme an edge over companies that are laser-focused on fossil fuel alternatives.

Another point in their favor is the potential for scalability. A number of startups have produced viable renewable fuels, but many hit a wall when it comes to ramping up the volume necessary to balance the cost. Solazyme's technology will theoretically allow them to partner with other companies and use old oil refineries to produce millions—maybe billions—of gallons of renewable oil a year.

But perhaps most compelling is that Solazyme is making what's known in the fuel industry as a drop-in solution—oils that can be pumped straight into the tanks of existing planes, trains, and automobiles, without mixing or modification. That's where another serious biofuel contender, ethanol, has failed, and it's a big reason why Solazyme was named number one among the "50 Hottest Companies in Bioenergy" for 2011 to 2012 by Biofuels Digest.

"We've developed the ability to convert low-cost plant sugars into renewable oils," said Dillon, speaking to a class at Emory's Goizueta Business School last fall. "We design the oils, and we make them so that they plug into the 150-year-old existing infrastructure for processing oils."

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