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Ford Scientists Explore Algae as Potential Biofuel

October 04, 2010

DEARBORN, MI - Ford scientists are working to understand the suitability of renewable sources such as algae as potential automotive biofuels. This effort reflects Ford's desire to better understand the use of biomass to produce future biofuels, as part of an overall strategy to reduce the nation's dependence on foreign oil and address climate change.

"Ford has a long history of developing vehicles that run on renewable fuels, and the increased use of biofuels is an important element of our sustainability strategy now and moving forward," said Tim Wallington, technical leader with Ford's systems analytics and environmental sciences department. "We look ahead from a technological, economic, environmental and social standpoint at potential next-generation renewable fuels that could power our vehicles."

Industry forecasters and trend magazines such as The Futurist have highlighted "algae for oil" as one of the hottest technologies and thought-provoking ideas for 2010.

Algae biofuel research received an added boost this spring when the House of Representatives introduced a bill (HR 5142) -- known as the Green Jobs Act of 2010 -- to encourage investment tax credits for algae-based biorefineries.

This year, Ford researchers visited Wayne State University's National Biofuels Energy Laboratory, which is actively analyzing suitable algae strains that could be used as a feedstock for biodiesel. The Ford researchers, part of the company's department of systems analytics and environmental sciences, also have conducted in-house research on the opportunities and challenges of producing biodiesel from algae oil.

"Algae have some very desirable characteristics as a potential biofuel feedstock and Ford wants to show its support for any efforts that could lead to a viable, commercial-scale application of this technology," said Sherry Mueller, research scientist with Ford Motor Co. "At this point, algae researchers are still challenged to find economical and sustainable ways for commercial-scale controlled production and culturing of high oil-producing algae."

The biofuel buzz centers around algae's prolific nature. Certain species of algae have the ability to efficiently convert carbon dioxide to oil, carbohydrates and other cell components through photosynthesis. Algae also can be grown in a variety of environments, including fresh or saline waters.

Another potential for algae is its ability to double in number daily and be harvested year-round if grown in environmentally-controlled conditions or in suitable climates. The ability for algae to grow so quickly is a distinct advantage over other feedstocks, such as soy beans or corn, which produce just one crop per year.

At Ford, algae-based fuel is one of the possible future biofuels researchers are keeping a close eye on. Other bio-based solutions such as ethanol and butanol, ideally from cellulosic feedstocks, are considered to have more near-term potential.

"We recognize the important contribution that biofuels could make toward a more sustainable future and improved energy security," said Jim Anderson, technical expert with Ford Motor Co. "Ford is very supportive of the increased availability of biofuels and biofuel blends from diverse and sustainable sources."

You can access Ford's 11th annual sustainability report, "Blueprint for Sustainability," at

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