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Cracking Algae With Electricity

Oct 23, 2009 - greentech media

Organic Fuels Algae Technology says it can use electricity to break open algae cell walls to extract oil for cheap. Can it prove the technology works outside the lab?

Organic Fuels Algae Technology says it has a cheap way to accomplish one of the most expensive parts of turning algae into biofuel – getting the oil out of the algae.

Electromechanical forces will do the trick, said Peter Loggenberg, CEO of the joint venture of Houston-based biodiesel producer Organic Fuels and the University of Texas at Austin's Center for Electromechanics.

"The concept is around using electromagnetic forces to disrupt the [algae] cell walls," Loggenberg explained last week at the Clean Energy Venture Summit in Austin, Texas. "When you're dealing with this micro-world, you can't use hammers and chisels."

To be more precise, using heat to dry out the algae or centrifuges to separate it from the water it grows in use up a lot of energy. Crushers that work for oil seeds don't work on microscopic algae, and using solvents to break open the cells is costly and hard to scale up.

OFAT's alternative solution involves zapping algae with electricity to disrupt the cell walls. It's a similar concept to that being proposed by Origin Oil, which has proposed using microwaves and ultrasound to break open algae cells (see Green Light post).

How cheap is OFAT's method? Loggenberg wouldn't get into specifics, but this paper from UT describing the technology claims it can produce algae oil for about $1.50 a gallon. That algae oil would then need to be turned into biodiesel, of course, but that would still be quite a breakthrough in costs (see Coming Soon: $2 a Gallon Diesel From Algae?).

There are other steps involved, however. For example, while OFAT's "electromechanical lysing" process could work on algae in the very low concentrations that naturally occur in water – about 0.1 percent to 0.2 percent – it would be most cost-effective if that algae concentration can be boosted to 10 percent or so, the company says. That, of course, will take time and energy.

OFAT is seeking to raise about $4 million to build a commercial prototype. Like Origin Oil, the company doesn't want to actually get into the business of growing algae, turning it into fuel and selling it, Loggenberg said.

That challenge has been underscored by the demise of Greenfuel Technologies, a high-profile algae biofuel startup that shut its doors this year after burning through around $70 million in investor funds.

Rather, OFAT plans to sell its technology to algae biofuel makers instead, he said.

"We want to be the renewable oil services company of the future," he said.

That would represent a shift from the goal of Loggenberg's Organic Fuels, which is itself in the business of making biodiesel the old-fashioned way, from feedstocks such as animal fats and vegetable oils. That business has proven enormously challenging for startups such as Imperium Renewables (see Green Light post).


Updated: 2016/06/30

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