Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Watching for Big Algae Oil Production

This past summer there were announcements of expected large-scale algae oil production. I'm watching for follow-up to see if any of these companies are actually making their predicted flow. So far, no confirmation.

One announcement was from CEHMM, a New Mexico non-profit research firm, that planned to have a "large scale demonstration algae farm" in full operation by September 1. No news on whether this is actually happening.

Solix Biofuels has also begun a large-scale demonstration algae farm in Colorado in cooperation with the Southern Ute Indian Tribe. This was expected to be fully operating by late summer. There is no further news on this. One intriguing thing about algae farming is that it can (and should) be done on non-arable land such as the bad land that tends to compose Native American reservations. If Native Americans can create jobs and make profits selling fuel, as they might demonstrate they can in this endeavor, then this would be a healthy turn for them and the rest of our country.

There was also the agreement between SunEco Energy and J.B. Hunt Transportation (a large trucking company whose name you see often on the panels of 18-wheelers) for SunEco to provide algae-grown fuel oil to blend with petroleum Diesel for us in trucks. SunEco claims to be already producing "barrels," rather than "beakers" of algae oil each day. Let's hope this contract comes to fruition.

All three of the above algae companies use open-air ponds for algae production. This is generally the cheapest kind of algae farm to build, but it is likely to have the lowest yield of oil per acre, in part because of the inefficient use of space and the inability to use genetically designed algae. Only native algae can be used in the open ponds.

The U.S. Air Force and Navy have expressed interest in biofuels grown in the U.S. because of the promise of a secure energy supply. They don't want their planes and ships grounded if the Middle East decides not to sell us fuel for plans and ships to use in bombing the Middle East. Toward this end, the Navy has purhcased 20,000 gallons of algae-derived Diesel fuel (and 40,000 gallons of fuel made from camelina weeds) from Solazyme, an algae company that has not fully explained its process, but is known to grow its algae in closed containers using starchy bio-waste to feed the algae.

My current favorite algae company, Origin Oil, has released production models for growing algae oil using its technology (press release here, pdf of presentation here). Like Solazyme, Origin Oil grows algae in closed containers, but Origin claims to have made some creative advances. Their process of quantum fracturing creates tiny bubbles of CO2 and other nutrients to facilitate delivery to the algae cells; also, this quantum fracturing of CO2 aids in cracking the algae cells open to release the oil. According to the company, this method of getting the oil out of the algae greatly cheapens the otherwise very expensive process of getting oil out of algae by pressing it.

Origin Oil's presentation has two proposals: one just for growing algae oil, and another for growing oil while simultaneously using the algae to treat wastewater. The first model shows little profit and, thus, is probably not feasible at this time. The second model shows a more favorable 20% profit. Also note the need for "free energy" in both models in the form of heat. This energy could come along with concentrated CO2 in the form of power plant emissions. So, look for Origin Oil's technology to be first used in cleaning smokestack emissions and/or wastewater, and producing oil as a by-product.

1 comment:

David XIII said...

Ben, Thanks for keeping us up to date on the algae fuel revolution.