With the cost of petroleum-based fuel climbing, and the political climate of oil-producing nations ever more risky, the idea that algae could be used to produce a clean replacement for conventional petroleum seems almost too good to be true.
But there are signs that the industry may finally be set to bloom. Among them are the private and public partnerships that OriginOil, the Los Angeles-based algae biofuel company, has recently formed. In December, OriginOil formed a joint venture, Future Energy Solutions Unlimited, Inc., to create integrated biorefineries around the world that would supply fuel to the U.S. and NATO. The agreement leverages another OriginOil-Department of Energy collaboration to develop industry standards for blending algae with other feedstocks to help scale up algae fuel production.
“The U.S. Navy alone plans to achieve 50% use of alternative fuels in just eight years, a goal of eight million barrels of biofuels per year that must be blended from non-food fuels like algae,” OriginOil’s CEO Riggs Eckelberry says. “But to blend, we must standardize, using the latest breakthrough technologies.”
Growing military support for biofuels makes OriginOil’s announcement more significant. In the shorter term, the Navy will spend $12 million for 450,000 gallons of biofuel—much of it derived from algae—for a test exercise of its Green Strike Fleet off the coast of Hawaii this summer, in preparation for its Green Fleet mission in 2016, which will be fueled entirely by advanced biofuels.
U.S. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus acknowledges that the purchase price for this summer’s test, which works out to roughly $26 a gallon, is not cheap. “This is still R&D,” he said in December. “As the market develops, you will see the cost come down.”
Image courtesy of OriginOil.
The purchase follows last summer’s announcement by President Obama that the Navy and Departments of Agriculture and Energy will invest $510 million over three years to produce biofuels for military and commercial transportation.
Ken Reynolds, vice president of OriginOil Marketing, predicts such partnerships, among branches of the U.S. government and those like Origin’s new joint venture, will help unlock algae’s true potential. “Having the Departments of Defense, Agriculture, and Energy working together in a common direction will be very valuable,” says Reynolds, noting that private sector collaboration is important as well. “There are so many disciplines involved in algae that working together to create end to end processes will be crucial. Partnering is key.”
So the time is ripe for algae. And certainly, at first glance, algae seems like a no-brainer. Fill up a hole with water and the pond scum, or algae, will come. All it needs is water, light, and, best of all for a warming planet, carbon dioxide. As a biofuel source, Reynolds says, algae have a strong edge over land-based crops, like corn, used in first-generation biofuels. “Algae are highly productive per acre, they can use land that is marginal, and they don’t compete with the food chain for animals or humans.”
Some algae boosters also argue that what’s good for algae can be good for the environment. Algae can be grown in wastewater and, in the process, even purify it. Much research has also been devoted to carbon capture and storage, but algae biofuel presents the possibility of carbon capture and reuse.
Eckelberry, for one, advocates siting algae biorefineries near power plants, which are big emitters of the CO2 that algae love. “For cost-effective algae production the CO2 should be force-fed and not taken from the general atmosphere," he says. "This dictates a site host that generates lots of CO2.”
But Reynolds admits there are challenges. Large amounts of water—and energy—are needed to produce the algae. “There is one part algae to 2,000-5,000 parts water, so it’s kind of like getting Kool-Aid out of water. That’s a lot of water, and it also likes to be circulated, so you have this issue of stirring it. Moving it around requires energy.”
Creating new energy drains is what has environmental groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council concerned despite the tremendous potential in algae biofuel.
Further, challenges at the “choke point,” where algae must be harvested and dewatered, then made to give up the lipids ideal for the production of, for example, jet fuel, still must be solved. It’s there, at the midstream, that Origin has staked a claim with its patent-pending Single Step Extraction technology. Using tuned electromagnetic pulses, the technology facilitates harvesting—with less energy and no added chemical flocculants—by breaking down the algae’s cell walls to release the oil.
Reynolds is optimistic about the industry’s direction. “A distributed mini-refinery approach, one that would allow us to take the entire algae biomass straight to a renewable crude oil near the source of production, would reduce weight and transport costs,” he says.
But even if the cost of algae biofuel remains high, advocates like Sean O’Hanlon, a senior analyst at BiofuelsDigest.com, argue that its other benefits make it a winner. “Biofuels are only one product derived from algae,” he says. “They can also produce pharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals, even food for farm animals. Algae have the potential for bioremediation.”
Though Reynolds admits the technology is still expensive, he’s betting we’ll soon see even that change. “I’m aware of at least half a dozen technologies bound for pilot stage this year that have the potential to enable us to come close to or even match the cost of oil at its present price," he says. "It may take five or ten years for these technologies to reach commercial scale, but we see growth both upstream and down."
Marion Hart is an independent writer.
There are so many disciplines involved in algae that working together to create end to end processes will be absolutely crucial.
Ken Reynolds, vice president, OriginOil Marketing