Sunday, May 3, 2009

Algae Breakthrough?

The website "Technology Review," published by MIT, has an article from Friday regarding a company's announcement that it has developed a new, more efficient way to extract oil from algae. An excerpt:

"The process combines ultrasound and an electromagnetic pulse to break the algal cell walls. Then the algae solution is force-fed carbon dioxide, which lowers its pH, separating the biomass from the oil."It's low energy, there's not a lot of machinery, and it's a simple process," says CEO Riggs Eckelberry. The algae and oil can be separated in a matter of minutes, he adds. A number of companies are attempting to take advantage of the fact that algae naturally produce oil. But growing algae and extracting its oil efficiently is difficult, time consuming, and expensive. While some companies are focusing on better growing and harvesting methods, others, such as OriginOil, are focused on finding new ways to access the oil. Each algal cell has a sturdy cell wall protecting it, making the oil hard to get at. The algae also have to be separated from the water that they are grown in and dried out before the oil can be removed. . . .
In OriginOil's process, the algae solution is channeled through a pipe to which an electromagnetic field and ultrasound are applied, rupturing the cell walls and releasing the oil. Carbon dioxide is bubbled through, which lowers the pH. The resulting solution is then piped into another container. The lowered pH separates the biomass from the oil, and the oil floats to the top, while the biomass sinks to the bottom. The oil can be skimmed off, the biomass can be further processed, and the water is recycled. The whole process takes a matter of minutes, says Eckelberry."

Hopefully this technique is actually as significant a breakthrough as the company is claiming, and will serve as a key step along the path to developing significant, cost-effective, and environmentally friendly energy production from algae. Encouragingly, it also represents a novel approach to bringing down the costs of this process. While other entities seek better ways to grow and harvest algae, OriginOil tackled the cost/efficiency problem from a different direction.

Multiple breakthroughs like these on several fronts will likely be needed for all kinds of alternative energy forms which might one day be viable. For example, in solar generation, advances will likely be needed in making manufacturing more efficient, improving the performance of the cells, finding a better way to maintain the cells, and improving transmission efficiency. While it would be wonderful to solve all these problems at the same time under the same roof, odds are we would be better off if companies and institutions focused their efforts on specific problems best suited to their expertise, coming at them from all different angles.

Cheers to OriginOil if their claims are accurate, and hopefully similar advances can be replicated across many of the alternative energy efforts researchers and entrepreneurs are active in today.


Sam Brown said...

This is interesting. I would be interested to know what the energy costs are for using an electromagentic pulse and ultrasound. The CEO claims that there is a low energy cost, but a group working on a similar method here at UT found that although lower, the energy costs are still significant. Still, hearing of technologies like these are encouraging as tehre are many hurdles to making algae a viable feedstock; the primary one being the cost of development. If this technology is indeed cheap, then perhaps it will reduce some of the productivity costs associated with having lower yield algae strains.

David Wogan said...

I saw the CEO of Origin Oil last year at an "indusry" conference last year. They were shy on exact details of their process, and it looks like they still are. I tend to be a little skeptical about all of the algae technologies. I'll really believe one when I actually see barrels of algae-based lipids being produced.