Algae oil may end up in your Dove soap

Unilever is buying the stuff for its personal care products as part of a goal to improve its environmental impact.

By Aimee Picchi Sep 26, 2013 12:20PM

A customer selects bar of Dove soap (© Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg via Getty Images)A few decades ago, algae-based oil might have been considered weird science. After all, the blooming microorganisms were seen as an annoyance to fish-tank owners, not as a valuable fuel source. 

But after years of research, algae-based fuel products are hitting the market. Instead of filling gas tanks, though, algae oil is finding success as an ingredient in personal care and food products, The New York Times reports.

Unilever (UL), the packaged goods giant, this week announced a deal with Solazyme (SZYM) to use its "tailored algal oil" in Unilever's personal care products, which includes the Dove soap line and Suave shampoo products. 

The pact comes as Unilever has vowed to reduce its environmental impact, having a goal of completely sourcing its agricultural raw materials in a sustainable manner by 2020. By the same year, the company wants to cut its environmental impact by half, according to its annual report. 

It's an interesting turn in the development of algae-based oil, which initially was conceived as a replacement fuel for autos. While that's still in the works at Solazyme, one issue is how to ramp up production of algae fuel so that it becomes an economically viable alternative to fossil fuels. 

Solazyme has chosen to focus selling its oil to products with higher profit margins than vehicle fuel, such as soaps and food, The Times notes.  

A test of algae-based car fuel started in the San Francisco area last year with four local gas stations selling gasoline that was a mix of petroleum and algae. The fuel, which was made from Solazyme's algae product, wasn't cheap, though: It sold for about $4.25 a gallon. 

While consumers may balk at paying more at the gas pump, they might be more willing to shell out higher prices for products they'll slather over their skin and hair. After all, moisturizing with petroleum is increasingly unappetizing to many Americans.

Follow Aimee Picchi on Twitter at @aimeepicchi.

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