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Henrico Man Turns River "Mystery Foam" Into Gasoline

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It was just about this time last summer that meringues of mystery foam bloomed on the James River. The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality investigated and shrugged (one theory focused on the women's prison in Goochland, which was persuaded to switch laundry detergents). Patrick Ward, however, found Green Gold.

Ward claims he's turned the foam into fuel.

The man defies simple categorization. He's a 59-year-old interested in astronomy and electrical engineering who started his professional life at 19 as a sound engineer for stadium rock shows. He has an associate's degree in electrical engineering from the Capital Radio Institute in Los Angeles, and is a few credits short of a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from Virginia Commonwealth University. He also installs residential solar energy systems.

When Ward read about the foam last summer, he says, "I jumped up from my scrambled eggs and toast. Mother Nature was telling us this was the solution, not the pollution."

Ward laced up his hiking boots, grabbed some plastic garbage bags and headed out to a spot a few miles west of the Huguenot Bridge. He shoved blocks of the whipped-cream-stiff foam in his bags, went home and threw it in the freezer. Later, he microwaved the foam samples to evaporate the extra water and was left with "some mystery-something that burns ferociously and looks like oil," Ward says.

It gets better. He discovered a still-unclassified species of algae that produces oil as a byproduct when it's short on certain nutrients. When there's enough algae-produced oil, it changes the surface tension of the water, he says, and this creates the bubbles. Ward began cultivating the algae in a souped-up fish tank and eventually had enough to process it into bio-butane, a makeshift gasoline he calls Green Gold.

Last month, Ward took a road trip to New Mexico. On a detour through the Rockies, he pulled over and siphoned out his gas-station fuel and filled the tank of his Geo Metro with his algae gas. The car started. He kept driving.

He's not the first on the bandwagon for oil-from-algae, viewed as a potential alternative to corn-based ethanol. "We have a project where we're growing algae on wastewater to provide the nutrients," says Margie Mulholland, an associate professor at Old Dominion University. "Most oil is fossilized algae. There's actually a lot of effort now in this whole search for alternative fuels. Algae has been being explored for quite some time. Right now the job is really to make it economical, and people are starting to get there." Mulholland's project is funded from a $1.5 million program the General Assembly funded this year to explore coastal sources of energy.

Ward planned to meet with staff from U.S. Senator Jim Webb's office in Washington, D.C., on July 16. Later this summer, after manufacturing enough Green Gold to produce about 60 gallons, he's planning a media tour-cum-road trip from New York to San Diego to generate publicity for his discovery. S

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