Photo courtesy Antonio Guillen
It’s what made the world go round – it powered cars and planes, started wars, provided wealth, and billions of people depended on its steady flow. For two centuries, oil – or rather, petroleum – was the lifeblood of the world economy thanks to its high energy density and its ease of transportation through pipelines and tankers. At its peak, over 100 million barrels per day was transported and consumed, with the US, China and Japan accounting for much of the total.
Like other fossil fuels, oil was formed millions of years ago from the decomposition of organic materials. In the 20th century, oil served as the fuel of choice, being easily transportable and extractable, with a high energy density. However, by the 21st century, even though new extraction methods from shale rock, tar sands, and deep sea drilling meant that ‘peak oil’ was not considered to be a major problem, the grave political and environmental costs of using oil led many countries to seek alternatives.
But what could replace oil? The vast majority was used to fuel cars, planes, and other vehicles. While it was relatively straightforward to build electric cars that could travel short distances, high performance batteries remained expensive for decades, and finding a good alternative to jet fuel wasn’t solved for even longer. Energy historian Dr. Elena Somaiya describes the challenge:
“The bottom line was that the world was stuck with oil whether it liked it or not. There was just too much infrastructure and legacy technology that depended on petroleum. In the short and medium term, the best countries could do was to try and manage their addiction, and combat its harmful effects wherever they could.”
And inside this flask of greenish-looking water was one of their answers.
If you look closely at this flask, you’ll see that it’s swimming with particles of algae – algae that can convert carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into oil. It seemed as if this algae was the perfect solution – it could replace fossil fuels without releasing any extra greenhouse gases.
The scientists and engineers of the time, however, didn’t quite appreciate all the interactions involved between the algae and its environment, and they didn’t have the information and computing resources to properly figure them out – and so like much of the science of the time, advances were made in a haphazard, trial-and-error manner that must have been terribly dispiriting in the face of continued die-offs, competing natural strains, viruses, and general public opposition.
After all, these algae had to go somewhere. With characteristic early 21st century naivety, most thought that such high-tech energy production would be confined to glass and steel-walled facilities, and indeed, some specialised algae strains – the ones that were usually shown on TV – were kept in bioreactors in advanced labs. Most, however, were kept in thousands of square kilometers of ponds situated close to carbon dioxide sources like coal plants.
Imagine it – just as water was becoming increasingly expensive, it was being used in massive quantities for energy production. It didn’t earn the technology any fans, and was frequently blamed for outbreaks of mosquitoes and algal blooms in neighbouring waters. Despite gradually increasing oil prices, algal oil production struggled to attract investment due to its difficult and finicky nature, especially when compared with natural gas and nuclear power.
What ultimately saved this algae from obscurity was not a single person or company or government; it was a community. At the same time that algae oil production was being seriously pushed, the cost of ‘synthetic biology’ and biofabs was plummeting, putting the ability to genetically engineer organisms into the hands of thousands of curious experimenters.
Unlike the traditional scientific community where promotion was still very much driven by the number of big publications you had your name on, this new scientific community was more open to sharing information and taking bigger risks. Algal oil production appealed to many enthusiasts due to its ‘real world’ applications and the fun challenge of tailoring strains specific to particular environments around the world.
The first breakthrough came from a collaboration between a retired lawyer in Nairobi and a team of undergraduates at the University of Guelph. Their new strain used an ingenious cocktail of enzymes lifted from bacteria to increase their resistance to environmental shocks while also keeping growth and oil production high. It still wasn’t quite hardy enough to be used outside, but subsequent tweaks to suit local conditions pushed its efficiency over the edge into commercial viability. Biofab historian Kate Spader explains the effects of this breakthrough:
“Adjusted algae became competitive with traditional modes of oil extraction shockingly quickly. Yes, countries like Saudi Arabia were still pumping millions of barrels per day, but adjusted algae allowed companies and countries – and even cities and towns and households – to produce their own oil to their own specifications. Transportation costs and price instability was slashed, and massive competition was unleashed, favouring the water-rich global north in particular.”
The ‘algal boom’ didn’t help the fortunes of global energy companies such as Shell and BP. For all of their public relations claims that they were moving to renewable sources of energy, their profits still largely came from oil. Some perceptive energy companies rode the boom by investing in biofab startups and algal infrastructure, but adapting to the new world of decentralised research and power generation proved too much of a shock for most of the oil majors. The introduction of the global carbon tax in 2023 sealed their fate.
“The Stone Age did not end for lack of stone, and the Oil Age will end long before the world runs out of oil.” So said Sheikh Zaki Yamani of Saudi Arabia. With adjusted algae, the world would never run out of oil. But oil-producing countries did run out of money, and we’ll be exploring that consequence in future objects…