Solazyme representative visits Urban School, speaks about sustainable oil

Ozone depletion, polar ice caps melting, oceans rising, more natural disasters than ever. Can oil made from microalgae end our worries about climate change?

On Friday, Nov. 1, Jill Kauffman Johnson came to Urban to talk about sustainable oil, which could be the future of energy. But why is this important?

Many Americans believe that climate change threatens the environment and that changes are needed. Kauffman Johnson is the director of sustainability at Solazyme, a company that turns microalgae (which, according to Wikipedia, is “microscopic algae, typically found in freshwater and marine systems”) into renewable oil.

Founded in 2003 and based in South San Francisco, Calif., this organization’s aim is to help slow down the effects of climate change. Kauffman Johnson explained everything a person would need to know about the future of renewable oil.

While studying microalgae, researchers found that the uses for sustainable oil made from it are broad and numerous; according to Kauffman Johnson, it can be used in food, beauty products, airplane fuel, soaps and detergents and other household items, lubricants and solvents used in manufacturing. But how is this seemingly ideal product created?

“Most microalgae grow by using sunlight in a photosynthetic process,” Kauffman Johnson wrote in a follow-up email to the Legend. “We grow microalgae that are heterotrophic, meaning they grow in the dark (in fermenters, or containers in which the algae go through a fermentation process) and eat sugar that comes from plants that have already harnessed the sun’s energy.”

Solazyme uses microalgae that are genetically modified so that they produce as much oil as possible. “After the algae grow plump with oil through the fermentation process, they are pressed to squeeze out the oil,” wrote Kauffman Johnson.

This sustainable oil may seem foolproof but it does come with complications. According to the Solazyme website, “standard industrial fermentation equipment” must be set up before any oil can be produced. This equipment is expensive and necessary in the oil production.

The actual algae used are developed to raise the oil content without genetic modification.

“We also have some strains that we are developing that are optimized for specific fatty acid profiles – in some cases to mimic the high value parts of palm oil or other oils that have significant carbon and water impacts,” wrote Kauffman Johnson in an email.

On its website, Solazyme says “the average wild algae only has 5-10 percent oil content” while its microalgae are highly productive and contain more than 80 percent oil.

While this oil could be a beneficial energy source, whether or not it will be able to compete with the oil market is an open question.