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From Algae to Omega: Could a Simple, Common Organism Hold the Key to Sustainable Fuel?

October 20, 2011 |

Growing concern over the depletion of world oil reserves, carbon emissions and global warming have created a strong incentive to develop viable alternative energy sources. The technical convenience of fossil fuels – and the sheer international infrastructure built around them – have entrenched the established technology. Some experts and entrepreneurs think that they have found a solution – in algae.

Microalgae are small, aquatic organisms which have fascinated energy researchers for decades due to their high energy content and rapid growth cycle. Algae doesn’t compete with existing food crops, and can be nourished with waste and saltwater. But as with all alternative fuels, the primary challenge is to get the cost of production down.

Riggs Eckelberry, CEO of California-based OriginOil, is as conscious as anyone of the barriers that need to be overcome for algae biofuels to become competitive with fossil fuels. And just as important, he says, is to expose the public and potential investors to the promise of algae.

“I think we’re done with all these fuels like ethanol,” Eckelberry said. “They’ll never scale up to completely replace petroleum.”

Eckelberry founded OriginOil in 2007 to explore ways to make the production of algae biofuels more efficient and sustainable. The company’s key innovation to date is an electromagnetic single-step extraction technology which produces a sludge they call “algae crude,” which can be further processed into fuels and petrochemicals.

Although the efficacy of the process needs to be demonstrated in the market, OriginOil’s house estimate is that algae biofuel production will top one billion gallons a year by 2018. Key, according to Eckelberry, is to show the setup working under industrial, cradle to grave conditions – from cultivating the algae to extracting a salable product.

“This technology has not been proven, even though the rest of the pieces of the puzzle are already in place,” Eckelberry said. “What still has to happen is we need to see sites that go end to end with this new technology.”

OriginOil is also working with the Department of Energy to develop standards for the production of algae biofuels.

“What works better is to have a blended strategy, which drives producers to produce a specific standard,” Eckelberry said.

Algae can be used to produce ethanol, biodiesel and biobutanol. California-based algae researcher Solazyme has even developed an algae-based jet fuel, sparking interest in algae’s potential role in air travel after the International Air Transport Association, a prominent air travel industry lobby, called for its member airlines to introduce ten percent alternative fuel sources by 2017.

Another potential coup for the industry’s public profile would be the development of affordable “drop-in” products for internal combustion engines, which could be used in conventional automobiles with no modification.

Early algae research focused on cultivation in open ponds, but that model has been largely abandoned because the exposure and unpredictable conditions forced growers to sacrifice the energy content and short harvest time of less resistant strains for the durability of hardier ones. A closed, controlled system with no exposure to outside organisms can support more productive algae, but is more delicate. It also requires a source of sterile carbon dioxide, stoking hope for algae biofuel cogeneration at industrial facilities that produce excess heat and carbon dioxide.

Like petroleum, the consumption of algae biofuels in a combustion engine produces carbon dioxide. As with other biofuels, however, growing the biomass offsets the emissions.

Another advantage of algae in comparison to first-generation biofuels, which are made from corn, sugar beets or grains, is that production does not compete with foodstuff or feedstock. In addition, algae can be grown at locations not arable for food products, and can be watered with waste and saltwater.

There are no plans for OriginOil to enter the commercial production of algae biofuels itself, according to Eckelberry. By licensing the extraction technology to producers, he hopes to promote synergy in the fledgling industry.

“The more we try to do ourselves, the more we’ll be competing with our potential partners,” Eckelberry said.

And to as great a degree as possible, the plan is to integrate OriginOil’s extraction technology into established facilities.

“That is the only way to go is an emerging system which takes advantage of existing infrastructure,” Eckelberry said.

Some researchers are also interested in using the tremendous existing macroalgae biomass, including seaweed, to produce viable biofuels. Startup Sea6, based in Chennai and incubated at the Indian Institute of Technology at Madras, intends to modernize the traditional cultivation of seaweed to create biofuels.

Producing fuel from macroalgae biomass would use saltwater instead of freshwater, as with microalgae. However, the Sea6 team believes that novel biotechnology will be necessary to harness the power of seaweed in the quantities needed to produce biofuel.

The future of algae biofuel faces leviathan challenges on both technical and social fronts: producers need to make the product financially viable, and they need to carve themselves a marketing niche distinct from existing alternative energy technologies. As for the outlook? OriginOil achieved its first revenue in 2010, and exceeded one million dollars in booked orders for this year, according to company documents.

“What we’ve figured out is that there is a vast amount of pent-up demand for sustainable algae fuels,” Eckelberry said. “People know that all by themselves, second generation fuels are not going to work.”

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