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Doing diesel in the dark

This article is from our archives and has not been updated and integrated with our "new" site yet... Even so, it's still awesome - so keep reading!

Published on Sat, Dec 8, 2012

By: The LACar Editorial Staff

Microalgae grown for biofuel

Diesel aficionados call their cars “oil burners”—and they were among the green vehicles getting attention at the LA Auto Show. Solazyme Inc. introduced its brand of renewable Soladiesel in a "clean diesel" Volkswagen Passat TDI. Solazyme grows microalgae in the dark to produce renewable clean diesel—adding new meaning to the term “burning the midnight oil.” By Derrick Lim FLIPPING DIESEL IN THE DARK Plugging into electricity wasn't the only alternative fuel getting attention at the environmentally focused 2012 LA Auto Show. During Thursday's Press Day Green and Advanced Technology Ride and Drive, Solazyme Inc. introduced its own brand of renewable Soladiesel in a logo-wrapped Volkswagen Passat TDI SEL.

Volkswagen Passat TDI powered by microalgae-derrived Soladiesel

My clean diesel interest piqued when Solazyme's public relations firm Weber Shandwick invited LA Car to the ride-and-drive. I drive a premium fueled 2003 VW Passat Turbo with stick shift pining for what is trending green. VW is upping the ante on the fully redesigned Passat that received Motor Trend's 2012 Car of the Year award. It is also banking on clean diesel with a suite of seven TDI models: Beetle, Beetle Convertable, Golf, Jetta (2009 Green Car of the Year by Green Car Journal magazine), Jetta SportWagen, Passat, and Touareg. Ignoring the foreboding clouds and rain forecast for northern California, I delayed my long return drive home over the grapevine at the last minute to accommodate the ride-and-drive. Clean diesel started to come on the scene in 2006 with stricter Environmental Protection Agency standards on domestic and imported diesel derived from crude oil. The sulphur naturally present in the crude and chief culprit of the smell, smoke, and particulates from the exhaust had to come way down from 500 ppm (parts per million) to 15 ppm. Hence, Ultra Low Sulphur Diesel (ULSD), or clean(er) diesel. Since December 2010, all highway-use diesel for sale must be ULSD.


What Solazyme has done is flip the dark side of crude oil diesel by going dark (indirect photosynthesis) with microalgae and plant based sugar to get renewable clean diesel that is market ready and taps into existing fueling stations. "Our fuels provide significant reductions in GHG (Green House Gas) emissions as compared to fossil fuels, which qualifies these products for government mandated emission reduction programs, such as those in the U.S. and EU (European Union)", according to Dan Philipps, Director of Fuels at Solazyme. The Passat mid size sedan SEL is fully loaded over the S and SE trimlines. The 2.0L, 16 valve, in-line 4 cylinder TDI generates 140 hp and 236 foot pounds of torque. Estimated mileage is 30 mpg in the city and 40 mpg on the highway. The limited in town freeway free drive only allowed visceral impressions belying the Passat's German engineering lineage. I opened the backseat door to lay my camera down and found roomy seating and leg room. After a power seat adjustment, I slid into the supple leather of the driver's seat warmly hugging my creeping weight. The interior exuded an immediate feeling of refinement with the push button start, touchscreen navigation, Fender audio system, and dual zone climate control. Driving was comfortable and effortless save getting use to the power of the brakes.


The one knock against the diesel engine is the normal but distinct knock-like rattle of the engine idling. This sound presents a quirky paradox for a middle-aged mindset that equates diesel engines with large trucks and smelly exhaust without acknowledgement that (higher end) cars use (clean) diesel too. Am I the only one on the dark side of diesel that needs to see the light? Guess I am overdue for a mindset refresh. In the quest for a greener planet, ULSD, and now renewable diesel, is another evolutionary step toward that goal, satiating the growing appetite for non petroleum based products on the mass market. By using renewable resources like microalgae and plant based sugar to produce clean diesel fuel that meets higher performance and emission standards, and takes advantage of existing drop-in fuel dispensing infrastructure, doing diesel in the dark is starting to see more light of day. For more information about Solazyme's proprietary venture into flipping algae into transportation fuel, click on

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