These specialized algae, though, require special care. They must be kept in contained, and expensive, "bioreactors" for example, so they won't be out-competed by wild algae. Extracting the fuel can also be difficult.
So who's going to win? Certainly not all 1,865 companies. And maybe none will. Maybe the science will be too hard to scale up cheaply. "There has never been as much science and engineering done," Chum says. "We do not have a simple solution. But the conditions for making it work are there."
Virent takes a slurry of sugars from broken-down plant matter and, like an oil refinery, uses metal catalysts to create hydrogen. The hydrogen is used to remove oxygen from the mixture, which yields hydrocarbons instead of alcohols. The hydrocarbons can be made into more traditional fuels like gasoline, diesel or jet fuel.
Randy Cortright, Virent's chief technology officer, says that while his process requires more sugar, it saves energy by not requiring distillation. Also, his process can produce gasoline, which holds one-third more energy than ethanol. "We're producing a real drop in replacement for fossil fuels," he says.
Algenol made the front page of the Baltimore Sun on Friday, 8 May 2009.