Object 14

The Algal Boom

2024, Guelph, Canada

It made the world go round. It powered cars and planes, sparked wars, made fortunes, and its steady flow was relied on by billions. For two centuries, oil — or more broadly, petroleum — was the lifeblood of the world economy thanks to its high energy density and its ease of transportation through pipelines and on tankers. At its peak, more than 100 million barrels of oil were transported and consumed per day, with the US, EU, China, and Japan accounting for much of the total.

By the 21st century, new extraction methods from shale rock, tar sands, and deep-sea drilling meant that 'peak oil' was not considered to be a major problem. Even so, the grave political and environmental costs of an overdependence on oil led many countries to seek alternatives.

But what could replace it? 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-capacity batteries remained expensive for years, and finding a good alternative to jet fuel was even trickier. Energy historian Dr. Elena Somaiya describes the challenge:

"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. In the early decades of the 21st century, the world was stuck with needing oil whether it liked it or not."

And inside this flask of greenish-looking water is the substance that turned out to be a brand new source of oil.

If you look closely, you'll see that the water is swimming with particles of algae — genetically modified algae that could convert atmospheric carbon dioxide into ‘petroleum-replica fuel molecules’. This algae seemed like the perfect solution to the world’s needs, replacing fossil fuels without releasing any extra greenhouse gases, and superior to biofuels that required significant processing to work in most vehicles.

The scientific community, however, found it frustratingly difficult to work out how to keep the algae growing reliably and at scale. As with much of the science of the time, advances were made in a haphazard, trial-and-error manner; researchers were faced with frequent die-offs, competing natural strains, inadequate computing resources, and viruses, not to mention considerable public opposition.

After all, these algae had to grow somewhere. With characteristic early 21st-century naïveté, most thought that high-tech energy production would be confined to glass and steel-walled facilities, out of sight and out of mind. Some specialised algae strains — the ones that were usually shown on TV — were indeed housed in bioreactors in advanced labs. The majority, however, were kept in thousands of square kilometres of ponds situated close to carbon dioxide sources like coal plants. Ponds full of increasingly expensive and scarce water.

At the same time, algal oil struggled to compete with more reliable sources of energy such as natural gas. What ultimately saved it from obscurity was not a single person or company or government; it was a community. The cost of 'synthetic biology' and biofabs was plummeting, putting the ability to genetically engineer organisms into the hands of thousands of curious experimenters. Algal oil production held a strong appeal due to its real-world applications and the challenge of tailoring strains specific to particular environments around the globe.

The first breakthrough came from a collaboration in 2024 between a retired professor in Nairobi and a team of undergraduates at the University of Guelph in Canada. Their new ‘adjusted’ 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 and into commercial viability. Biofab historian Kate Spader explains the consequences of this breakthrough:

"Adjusted algae became competitive with traditional modes of oil extraction surprisingly quickly. Yes, countries such as Saudi Arabia were still pumping out millions of barrels per day, but adjusted algae allowed companies and countries — and even cities and towns and households — to produce oil to their own specifications. Transportation costs and price instability were slashed, and the competition was fierce, favouring the water-rich global north in particular."

Along with the traditional oil extracting states, the 'algal boom' also harmed the fortunes of global energy companies such as Shell and BP. While you might not have been able to tell from their PR campaigns, their profits still largely came from oil. A few farsighted 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 2025 was the beginning of the end.

"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 in the 1970s. With adjusted algae, the world will never run out of oil — but oil-producing countries did run out of money.