Previous chapter: Chapter 1: My Own Personal Planet
Editor’s note: This chapter was written by Lou Berger. Lou is a Denver-based writer who lives with three children, two Sheltie dogs and a kink-tailed cat. He’s been wrinkling his nose at pond scum his entire life.
Bob pulled up fifteen minutes later in a low-slung red sports car, the engine burbling with understated power. Topher opened the passenger door and slid inside, pulling the door shut.
“You drive this?” he asked, a note of incredulity creeping into his voice.
Bob checked his side mirror and pulled into traffic expertly, wasting no motion. “I work for you because I like it, boss. I don’t do it for the money.”
Topher began to reply with a smart remark but bit off his retort. Bob had come highly recommended and had passed the background check with flying colors. He felt his face burn with embarrassment as he realized that he really knew very little about Bob, after all. “Thanks for coming to get me,” he said. Bob nodded, never taking his eyes off the road, and smiled.
“No problem, boss,” he said, putting a slight emphasis on the final word.
Topher leaned back in the seat and accessed his glasses to review his presentation notes. “The Mayor’s office, please?”
Bob pressed the pedal down and the car leaped forward, powerful rumbles rising into a banshee scream as the car tore down the road.
Seven minutes later they pulled up at the Mayor’s office bulding, where a sharply dressed woman in a business suit awaited them. She glanced at her wristwatch and frowned as Topher unfolded himself from the low-slung vehicle. “Give me an hour, would you Bob?” Topher closed the door gently and watched as Bob maneuvered the car into traffic with practiced ease.
He turned to the woman, grinned his best boyish grin and held his hands up in surrender. “I am so sorry,” he began, then stopped when he saw her expression.
“Never mind about that,” she snapped. “Let’s get to the meeting.” He followed her into the building’s lobby and up an antiquated elevator to the fifteenth floor. She didn’t say anything on the ride up and wordlessly invited him to exit once the elevator doors squeaked open.
Topher walked down the hallway and through the glass doors of the mayor’s office, then followed the woman to a conference room. The table was filled with dark-suited men and women and the Mayor rose to shake his hand.
“Hello, Topher, glad you could make it,” the Mayor smiled, not unkindly, then gestured to an empty chair at the head of the table. “Would you care to sit?”
“No thanks,” Topher said, then rubbed his hands together, glancing around the room. “Is the equipment I ordered ready?”
The Mayor looked over at his technology person, a young woman dressed in casual clothes. “I think so. Miranda?”
She gulped and nodded, then handed a remote to Topher. He glanced at it, hit the “memorize” button and pushed a small button on the side of his glasses. A single word popped up in his field of vision: “searching.” Moments later, it was replaced by first “accessing” and then “acquired.” The glass window of the conference room grew opaque and Topher mumbled “begin presentation.” The opaque gray glass wall lit up and displayed a pond in a grassy field, trees in the near distance, a dragonfly buzzing over the water, dipping now and again to create little expanding circles of ripples on the surface.
“Gentlemen, and ladies, this is a quiet pond in a rolling meadow, on a lazy summer’s day. You’ll notice that the water is still, the cattails are growing like crazy and that butterflies are present.” The simulation was clear and vibrant, the colors as real as if the conference room had been magically transported entirely. Topher continued.
“What you may not realize, however, is that this very pond is the answer to your energy needs.” Topher stepped around the conference table and stood with his back to the simulation. “Can anybody guess what this pond has that will replace all of the oil we use today?” A couple hands went up and he pointed to a silver-haired man wearing old-fashioned spectacles. The man cleared his throat nervously. “The cattails?” he asked, his voice rising.
Topher smiled. “Nope. Good guess. We can process cattails to generate starchy biomass, that’s true, and the ethanol production capabilities of cattail starches hold promise for excellent alcohol-based fuels. But that’s not the really promising component that this pond provides. Anybody else?”
A woman raised her hand and ventured a guess. “The grasses along the edge of the pond?” Topher glanced over his shoulder, and nodded.
“You have a good eye. Switchgrass plunges its roots six feet underground and breaks up even the toughest clay soils in this weed’s constant search for water. At one time, the American Plains were covered in switchgrass, with the bread basket of America owing all its dark, rich soil to this plant. The stems can be harvested for ethanol production, and an acre of switchgrass can provide as much ethanol as 4.5 acres of corn, without the erosion that we see in harvesting row-planted crops. Switchgrass only needs herbicides during the first year of a ten-year growth cycle and grows so rapidly that it can be harvested twice a year. No, that’s not the true energy surprise in this picture. Anybody else?”
Nobody was willing to guess. Topher reached into his pocket and pulled out a test tube filled with a yellow-green curdled mess. He tossed the test tube underhand to the Mayor, who fumbled it at first but managed to hold on. “Pond scum. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the energy resource of tomorrow.”
Topher walked around the table, handing out small test-tubes to each of the participants. “Each of these vials contains a few ounces of pond-scum pulled from the surface of a pond just like this. Each time we burn oil-based fuels, we unleash carbon into our atmosphere, creating an incrementally warmer atmosphere as we add to the overall carbon footprint. Pond scum algae is one of over 30,000 species of algae and is unusually high in lipids, or oils. These oils can be extracted using enzymes to produce vast quantities of biofuel, ready to replace our current oil production.”
One of the suits raised his hand and grumbled. “Well, we already raise corn for biofuels, what’s the difference? You mentioned erosion and such, but isn’t it basically a wash?”
Topher blinked twice rapidly and the pond image was replaced with a comparison table listing corn, soybeans, safflower and algae. “Corn produces about eighteen gallons of fuel oil per acre, per year. Soybeans are slightly better at 48 gallons of fuel oil per acre, per year. Safflower is even better than that, at an incredible 83 gallons per year. Can you guess where pond-scum…er…algae falls on that chart?” He raised his eyebrows and grinned at the man who had raised his hand. The man hesitated, then frowned. “Come on,” Topher pressed on. “Give us a guess. Wanna go with a hundred gallons?”
The man hesitated, as if thinking it over, then nodded.
“No,” said Topher softly, building up the drama of the moment. “Pond-scum, easily grown and requiring very little in order to maximize yields, can generate as much as fifteen thousand gallons of biofuel per acre, per year.”
Gasps of disbelief rose from the assemblage as excited murmuring replaced the previous silence. Even the mayor was shocked at this revelation. He leaned back in his chair and steepled his fingers, nodding and smiling at Topher.
Barton Lynch, the CEO and President of Noble Oil, was at that very moment in Omaha, behind his carrier-sized desk, working on calculations for algal fuel oil production. His intercom buzzed. “Sir?” His secretary. “Sir, there’s a man here to see you, he doesn’t give a name.”
Barton smiled and pressed the button on the intercom. “Send him in Mary. I’ll see him privately. Hold my calls until he leaves, will you?” He leaned back in his chair and spun it halfway around so that he could look out the floor-to-ceiling glass window at the bustling view of downtown Omaha. His office door opened and closed behind him and he sensed the man who entered the room approaching his desk.
“How did it go?”
There was a clunk as something heavy landed on his desk. Barton didn’t need to turn around to know it was the computer from Topher’s car.
“It went fine,” growled a voice roughened by cigarettes and whisky. “He was out before he saw my face.” Barton nodded without breaking his gaze out the window. “Thank you. Our business is concluded. Please see Mary for your envelope. I trust you will find the contents…satisfactory.”
He waited until he heard the door open and close again before turning his chair around. He lifted the computer from the surface of his desk and turned it around in his fingers. “Welcome, my pretty,” he murmured, stroking the metallic case. “We are going to have so much fun…”