Brain Storm: How David Berry is Going to Solve the Energy Crisis with Pond Scum

But then, just as suddenly, everything slowed down. In January 2010 a study in Environmental Science & Technology declared that algae fuel was nowhere near as eco-friendly as it appeared. A few months later, the Department of Energy published a research road map detailing a grim set of biofuel obstacles that still had to be overcome. Then UC Berkeley’s Energy Biosciences Institute released the report “A Realistic Technology and Engineering Assessment of Algae Biofuel Production,” which predicted that the industry would need at least another decade to determine whether these fuels were viable.

Soon, even the most promising algae contenders were reevaluating their game plans. Solazyme, a company that grows its algae in the dark and feeds them sugar, began emphasizing the soaps, cosmetics, and energy drinks it could make in addition to fuel. Aurora Biofuels changed its name to Aurora Algae and similarly refocused on food.

It turns out that it’s difficult to squeeze oil out of algae on a mass scale. It’s also not easy to convert a system that makes a hundred thousand gallons of fuel into one that makes a billion gallons. And it’s next to impossible to coax these organisms to produce more than a few thousand gallons of oil per acre each year. Under absolutely perfect conditions, you might expect 13,000 or so gallons, and it’s probably more realistic to expect 2,000 to 3,000 gallons.

So when Joule popped up out of nowhere, promising to produce 20,000 gallons or more per year, the news was met with skepticism. “Joule Biotechnologies announces new biofuel jargon, scant details,” Scientific American jabbed. A Wall Street Journal blog took issue with Joule’s two-years-to-market claim: “That’s the same kind of ambitious timeline that has marked an awful lot of next-generation biofuel projects in recent years — projects that almost uniformly have failed to live up [to] their hype.” And NASA algae scientist Aaron Wolf Baum blogged that Joule’s promises “should be a red flag for investors.”

ONE NIGHT IN DECEMBER, Berry and I took the Green Line up Beacon Street in Brookline. Stepping out into the bitter cold, we hastily covered the six blocks to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. Inside, Berry found his wife, Yelena Dudochkin, a tiny blond opera singer who was seated quietly in a dim antechamber as she prepared for her performance that night. She was alone but for a silent dark-haired woman wearing an enormous tartan cape.

Berry knelt beside his wife.

“I forgot my eye shadows,” she told him.

“Do you want me to go get them?”

“No…I don’t even know where they are.”

“You always forget something,” he said with a smile. “It wouldn’t be right if you didn’t.”

“Last time,” she said, looking at me, “we were singing in Cambridge, and I forgot one of my props. He drove all the way back to Brookline for it before the show.”

Across the room, the dark-haired woman — the evening’s mezzo-soprano — rose and began to pace, humming the opening bars of Carmen’s “Habanera.”