Under the gleam of blinding lamps, engulfed by banks of angrily frothing flasks, Makoto Watanabe is plotting a slimy, lurid-green revolution. He has spent his life in search of a species of algae that efficiently “sweats” crude oil, and has finally found it.
Now, exploiting the previously unrecognised power of pondlife, Professor Watanabe dreams of transforming Japan from a voracious energy importer into an oil-exporting nation to rival any member of Opec.
The professor has given himself a decade to effect this seemingly implausible conversion: Japan’s export-led economics have always been shaped by their near 100 per cent dependence on foreign energy. In the present world economic climate, those economics are looking especially fragile.
“I believe I can change Japan within five years,” the Professor told The Times from his laboratory in Tsukuba University. “A couple of years after that, we start changing the world.”
The algae, he believes, will spearhead enormous changes to the way that energy is produced and to the explosive geopolitics that have developed around the global thirst for fossil fuels. They could also overturn the current debate on corn and sugar-based biofuels. It is madness, he says, for humanity to pursue sources of energy that compete with its own stomachs when there is a far purer source that does not sitting in a test tube in his laboratory.
Professor Watanabe’s vision arises from the extraordinary properties of the Botryococcus braunii algae: give the microscopic green strands enough light – and plenty of carbon dioxide – and they excrete oil. The tiny globules of oil that form on the surface of the algae can be easily harvested and then refined using the same “cracking” technologies with which the oil industry now converts crude into everything from jet fuel to plastics.
The Japanese Government has supplied him with hefty grants to work on ways of industrialising the algae cultures. The professor admits that there is much work to be done to bring the financial and environmental costs of creating algae oilfields down to reasonable levels: to meet Japan’s current oil needs would require an algae-filled paddyfield the size of Yorkshire.
But – in laboratory conditions at least – the powers of Botryococcus braunii are astonishing. A field of corn, when converted into biofuel ethanol, may produce about 0.2 tonnes of oil equivalent per hectare. Rapeseed may generate around 1.2 tonnes. Micro algae can theoretically produce between 50 and 140 tonnes using the same plot of land.
The discovery of Botryococcus braunii and its precious excretions has taken years. The oil-producing properties of Botryococcus algae have been known for decades, but the volume and quality varies between species.
There remain, however, substantial obstacles before cars and aircraft are all running on algae. Although field tests have proved that there is little technical difficulty in breeding or harvesting the algae, the sums do not add up. A prospective algae-breeding oil concern would either have to invest billions of dollars in expensive breeder tanks – at a cost of around three times what the oil would sell for on the international market over the lifetime of the tanks – or find an enormous expanse of well-irrigated land in a country where labour can be bought very cheaply. It is for this reason that Professor Watanabe believes the world’s first algae farms will be constructed in countries such as Indonesia or Vietnam.