An unusual microbiology related story: cargo boats and US navy warships have been successfully powered on oil derived from genetically modified algae in a move which could herald a revolution in the fuel used by the world's fleets.
This story was broken in the UK newspaper The Guardian. In addition this blog has widely reported on the subject of biofuels. See here and here.
The results of substituting algal oil for low-grade, "bunker" fuel and diesel in a 98,000-tonne container ship are still being evaluated by Maersk, the world's biggest shipping company, which last week tested 30 tonnes of oil supplied by the US navy in a vessel travelling from Europe to India. Last month, the navy tested 20,000 gallons of algal fuel on a decommissioned destroyer for a few hours. Both ran their trials on a mix of algal oil – between 7% and 100% – and conventional bunker fuel.
Algae are an attractive way to harvest solar energy because they reproduce themselves, they can live in areas not useful for producing food and they do not need clean or even fresh water. In addition, they use far less space to grow than traditional biofuel crops such as corn or palm oil.
Maersk uses more than $6bn of bunker fuel a year for its 1,300 ships, and the US navy, the world's biggest single user of marine fuels, burns around 40m barrels of oil a year.
For further details, there is an interesting feature in Scientific American.