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California’s scum ranchers are working on a fuel to replace oil

Researchers are using algae to clean polluted water in the hopes it will become a renewable source of fuel.

The Department of Energy is trying to turn a lake in the California desert called the Salton Sea into a farm for renewable fuels — and clean its infamously polluted water in the process.

The Salton Sea Biomass Remediation Project harnesses algae’s ability to grow in hostile conditions. In this case, the water is polluted with agricultural fertilizers and pesticides that algae can filter out and use to fuel its own growth.


Every week, researchers harvest algae from a 900-foot metal chute in a wetland by the Salton Sea, process it, and take it to Sandia National Laboratories, where they’re testing methods to turn it into a high-quality fuel. The end goal is for algae fuel to replace oil in everything from cars to plastics.

It sounds futuristic, and the project is trying to succeed where others have failed. In the mid-2000s, venture capitalists poured funding into algae startups and their slime farms. But the promise — a cheap and abundant fuel that wouldn’t compete with land needed for food production, like corn or soy-based biofuels do — never materialized. It turns out that commercial-scale algae-farming is hard and resource-intensive, and most of the initial startups have folded or are marketing algae for cosmetics and dietary supplements, not aircraft fuels.

With the SABRE project, the DOE thinks it can avoid the mistakes made in the past. VICE News went to the California desert to see how they’re giving algae a second chance.

This segment originally aired March 21, 2018, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.