Why do this? What's the motivation?
We all live on the same planet. The bad cliché is: we're all in the same lifeboat. If somebody takes a power drill and drills a hole in the bottom of the boat, we're all screwed. The changes to the atmosphere and the changes to the resources we have on this planet from depleting our resources and taking carbon out of the ground is something, regardless of somebody's politics—you can't keep doing that long-term. Even the ones not smart enough to know the science and the implications of it are smart enough to know the world is shifting to some type of tax on carbon. Sooner or later, the oil and coal industries won't have any choice. The forward-looking companies are trying to get a real jump on that now. None of these solutions are things you just pick up a book and find the solution. It is long-term research.
What is government's role in pushing sustainable solutions?
It should be trying to be a whole lot smarter, which is maybe asking too much of government. If we're successful and others are successful in producing alternative sources of hydrocarbons for fuels, eventually we could be shifting the supply and shifting the demand for oil. The consequence of doing that would be we would be constantly dropping the price of our key competitor. Governments are going to play a critical role in this working. If governments don't constantly put a higher price on carbon as CO2-based fuels emerge, it'll be like the Jimmy Carter era, where all kinds of things got started and the price of oil crashed again.
In the past scientists have spent a lot of time trying to make algae produce oil or solve other problems, most famously at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory [pdf]. But the government shut down that program in the 1990s, concluding algae would not be able to compete with oil, due to the expense of systems to grow it, nutrient needs and other hurdles. Given algae's checkered past, what makes you confident of success?
It's like the claims of arsenic-eating bacteria: people making extraordinary claims have the obligation to provide extraordinary evidence that their claims are true. I like to win arguments by having the data. Right now, nobody has the data in any of these fields. We have some new tools to approach these same problems. Algae has had a lousy history. There is no guarantee we will succeed either.