Decades later, some of the technology developed under a NASA program to put a space station on Mars might pay dividends.

PetroAlgae, a biodiesel startup in Melbourne, Fla., has leased environmental-simulation chambers originally developed for the Mars mission. It hopes to use the chambers to discover the optimal environment for growing algae and then to create it on an industrial level.  

The chambers were created in the 1970s. If NASA put a space station on Mars, the thinking went at that time, the astronauts living there would have to grow their own food. Thus, it became a high priority to create tomatoes and cucumbers that could withstand low-oxygen environments and less sunlight than normal. 

After the Mars mission got canceled (see Capricorn One starring James Brolin and O.J. Simpson for one explanation of the demise of the program), NASA lost most of its interest in extraterrestrial lettuce. For PetroAlgae, or other biodiesel developers, however, it’s an ideal playground. 

“You can control light, CO2, gases,” said Fred Tennant, vice president of business and development at PetroAlgae. “It was dormant. They were glad to lease it.”

The company is one of a large number of startups and established companies trying to fashion diesel or synthetic gasoline out of algae. 

The National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden, Colo., kicked off the effort in the 1980s. Some of today’s startups, such as LiveFuels, which plans to make biocrude instead of fuel out of algae, rely on technology licensed from the national labs.

Others, such as GreenFuel Technologies Corp., have sprung from university research. In GreenFuel’s case, that would be Harvard and MIT.

There are three basic business models. Some, like GreenFuel, capture carbon dioxide from smokestacks and feed it to algae in bioreactors-- essentially clear plastic bags. The algae are then harvested and converted to liquid fuel and animal feed. The companies can earn revenue from selling feedstock as well as sequestering carbon for power plants.

Others, such as LiveFuels, grow algae in open ponds. Rather than focus on a single strain of algae, these companies let lots of species bloom. Each species can grow from a different spectrum of light. The algae then gets separated from water and harvested for feed or oil. 

Then there is Solazyme, which cooks algae with sugars in beer kettles. The process is similar to brewing beer. Although the added sugar boosts the production costs, Solazyme says it can make fuel faster and cheaper. Why? It doesn’t have to separate the algae from water, a problem that has vexed researchers since the beginning. The company also genetically optimizes the algae.

PetroAlgae is a bioreactor company, but also concentrates on genetic optimization. It has licensed a strain of algae from Arizona State University that is particularly greasy. Approximately 50 percent of the algae’s weight is lipid material, he said, far higher than average. 

“Our little critters do nothing but eat and make oil. If you put them back in the swamp, they wouldn’t last five minutes,” Tennant said. “We bred the defenses out of them.”

And the algae strain breeds fast, he said. An acre-sized pond of PetroAlgae’s algae could conceivably produce 10,000 to 14,000 gallons of fuel a year, he asserted, higher than normal. (LiveFuels has talked about 10,000 gallons.) The algae have not been genetically modified, but they have been bred for oiliness.

“Over a billion generations, you can come up with a really oily strain that grows fast,” he said.  

PetroAlgae also has obtained patents on particular stages of the algae-to-fuel process, he said. 

Still, growing algae has plenty of challenges. While companies have been working on the idea of making fuel from algae for years, none have been able to make it affordably in large volumes.  

PetroAlgae is owned by the XL TechGroup, an incubator that claims it tries to envision future markets and then tailor companies around those distant needs. 

Many venture capitalists frown on this technique of company crafting, asserting that it mostly results in “me too” companies. Instead, they prefer companies to emerge, almost accidentally, out of a pending problem facing a grad student or engineer.

The think-tank model, however, has had a few successes. 

IdeaLab came up with the idea of paid search with Overture, which subsequently was bought by Yahoo. 

XL also owns TyraTech, which is creating biopesticides. TyraTech has a contract with Kraft to come up with dairy products for emerging nations that contain medicinal benefits. It is developing an experimental cheese, for instance, that can kill tapeworms.