All of a sudden... algae is everywhere
There are all sorts of companies springing up offering algae as a universal cure-all, from jet fuel for aeroplanes, to a means of cleaning waste water and even as a new food source.
What's behind this growing fascination with algae is the promise of wealth, but with lower carbon emissions than traditional black gold. Oh, and algae can help fix climate change too.
If we grow fresh algae, this takes carbon in from the atmosphere, rather than releasing the carbon that is safely locked away in fossil fuels until we burn them.
Algae enthusiasts claim the production and burning of algal oil is a cycle that's close to carbon neutral, and urge the world to take algae seriously as we work out how to tackle climate change, food shortages and diminishing oil reserves.
My journey into the world of algae began with a trip to the less glamorous end of town in San Francisco. In an off-beat industrial park, housed in a former ice-cream factory, a company called Solazyme is banking its future on algae.
Formed by two college friends 5 years ago, Solazyme showed us a sealed flat-pack bag of the dried algae they believe holds the key to carbon neutral fuel. They asked us not film the sample because its colour might tell competitors the type of microalgae they're using.
They walked me round the labs where they're experimenting with algae samples from all over the world. They tweak some of these algal strains, genetically engineering them to thrive on wood. The wood takes carbon out of the air, the algae eat the carbon as they grow in fermenters, and the algal oil that results has just been certified as good enough to match conventional diesel and jet fuel.
The US military is interested and the company has raised a total of $45m in investment capital. They also claim to be talking to governments and airlines keen on algal oil.
One selling point for algal oil is that it doesn't have to be grown on land so doesn't compete for space with food production. In fact, Solazyme swears that the algae it doesn't turn into oil is good enough to eat. I tried their brownies made with algae instead of egg...and they weren't as bad as I was expected!
And there are other signs that this is moving beyond the research phase. A company called AlgaeLink is producing algae in greenhouses using CO2 emissions taken from a nearby power station. They claim to be producing 20 times more biofuel per hectare than conventional biofuel crops, and on non-agricultural land.
They also produce food for animals and fish and beauty products from the algae that isn't turned into oil. The firm has a tie-in with KLM/Air France to develop a jet fuel.
And there are other more long-standing algae advocates. Harry Hart has been writing to the BBC for a dozen years about a plan to save the world with algae that he hatched decades ago. It's all based on the incredible power of microalgae to grow fast, doubling in biomass in just a few hours with very few nutrients.
Mr Hart's utopian vision of feeding and fuelling the world on algae appears wildly ambitious at first sight. But in some ways he has been ahead of the curve that entrepreneurs like Solazyme and AlgaeLink are now riding.
We sent our intrepid camera man who proved so resilient on Newsnight's Arctic Adventure, George Pagliero, to meet Harry at his home in Bury-St-Edmunds.
Harry is mistrustful of the traditional capitalist approach that's bringing algal oil to the market and sniggers at the idea of genetically engineering algae when they naturally do what he says we need - draw carbon out of the atmosphere. He sees this carbon as a source of wealth that could replace our oil-based economies.
Put simply, his plan is to take algae, grow them in controlled ponds in a mixture of salt and fresh water. The algae draw down huge quantities of carbon from the air as they grow and convert it to biomass - which we then either eat, or burn as fuel.
All this would take place in enclosed systems designed so that no climate-changing CO2 or methane gas escapes. He talks about building algal ponds on barren land, growing food where people are hungriest. You can have a look at his website here.
Harry was inspired decades ago when he worked as a cameraman filming the starving. He and a like-minded team have been working for years on versions of this scenario. They even persuaded a team at the agricultural research centre at Rothamsted to let a group of A'level students try out some of their ideas over the summer.
All this might sound far-fetched, but interest in algae is booming. There's even an algae trade group - the Algal Biomass Association - set up, they say, to promote commercially-viable transport and power generating algal fuels. They're holding their second annual algal biomass summit in Seattle this month if you want to know more..!
Watch Susan Watts reporting from Iceland here, on radical new approaches to reducing carbon in the atmosphere involving algae, artificial trees and lava.