December 2008 -


Dirty, Ugly, Clean and Green

If, in 15 years, you're driving a car powered by pond scum, you'll probably have Rose Ann Cattolico to thank. The UW biology professor thinks algae is the most promising source of alternative energy out there, because it grows so fast and produces so much vegetable oil.

And the people at Allied Minds, a Boston-based venture capital firm, agree. Through the UW Offi ce of Technology Transfer, they've partnered with Cattolico to create the UW's first biofuels startup. Known as AXI, it will develop prolific and hardy strains of algae from which other companies can extract fuel oil.

Cattolico has been a pond scum authority since the mid-'70s. Different types of algae produce different types of lipids, she says. This diversity makes it a potential source of fuel for everything from home furnaces to cars to jumbo jets. And the very quality that makes pond scum such a nuisance—its ability to grow so rapidly—also makes it the perfect renewable resource. She adds that it can thrive in all sorts of environments, including wastewater—which means that, yes, sewage-fed scum may be one of our best hopes for clean energy.—Eric McHenry