Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Brownwashing is the New Green?

I’ve only heard this word "brownwashing" from Riggs Eckelberry of Origin Oil, and it refers to the absorption, by algae, of the CO2 in smokestack emissions from power plants. The algae uses the CO2 to produce oil which can be harvested and re-used as fuel. So, essentially, brownwashing is carbon recycling.

(For a while, some folks thought CO2 from power plants needed to be buried in the ground. But after this farmer in Canada, whose land lies above the world’s biggest carbon sequestration project, found his damp ground and puddles to be bubbling like tonic water, and small animals that live near the ground to be dying, the idea of burying carbon might be defunct.)

Eckelberry and others have been saying for some time that algae, as a fuel source, will first appear in conjunction with some other purpose, and brownwashing is such a purpose.

The first company to make a major attempt to recycle power plant carbon emissions was Greenfuels Technologies. They installed test facilities at Arizona Public Service’s Redhawk natural gas plant, and NRG’s Big Cajun II in Louisiana. But then Greenfuels went out of business. APS seems to be making some attempt to continue the experiment, but no recent news on this can be found.

There are lots of other algae companies around the world working on carbon capture from power plants, but the project that seems to be leading the way is the collaboration between Origin Oil and MBD Energy in Australia.

MBD is a company focused on carbon recycling, while Origin Oil is, for now, focused on extracting oil from algae. Oil extraction has been one of the major obstacles in algae farming, but Origin Oil claims to have cost effective methods. Their Single Step Extraction method is to infuse algae-laden water with extra CO2 to lower its pH; then to use low energy electromagnetic radiation to break the algae cells. They also have Live Extraction which uses electromagnetic pulses to make algae cells leak their oil without killing the cells. The algae can then continue to produce more oil without needing to grow entire new cells.

How cost effective are Origin Oil’s methods? There is no way to tell just from reviewing company press releases. But we can watch what happens in Australia. To my knowledge, this collaboration is the first time an algae-fuel technology has been purchased from a company; and the first phase has been successful, so the next phase, a scaling-up of the operation, is underway.

No comments: