Why Algae Won’t Fly Anytime Soon

We’ve heard people talk about biofuels for quite awhile now, and algae has always been promoted as one of the best possible hopes for mass production. It’s renewable and it doesn’t take from existing food supplies. But will we actually be seeing algae-powered airplanes in the near future? Probably not. I spoke with OriginOil President and CEO Riggs Eckelberry about the state of algae oil product, and it was a really interesting discussion.

The use of algae oil as fuel is not just hype. It has been proven that it can be done, and according to Riggs, it has a “fairly compact footprint.” Part of the issue until now has been figuring out the best way to extract the oil.

In Riggs’ words, in the current process, “they literally cook the water out. It takes a huge amount of energy to do that. Eventually it turns into a 10% water content which is an extremely dry meal. Then they combine it with hexane to extract the oil.”

So it takes a lot of energy and the use of chemicals to get anything done, and that’s not exactly a sustainable process. OriginOil’s process is different in that it separates the lipids from the biomass and then the algae sinks to the bottom while the oil sits on top of the water. You can see a time-lapsed video of this happening on their website.

Origin Oil Algae Process

They don’t need any chemicals or energy to do this. All they need is a ton of water, which presents problems of its own. At least the water can be reused. After the process is complete, the water simply has to be refiltered and it can be used again and again with limited loss in the process. They’ve also found that you can harvest a certain amount out of a batch every day and it grows back by the next day. Right now, they can pull out about 12.5% per day.

So, now that the processes are improving, can we use this on airplanes? I doubt it. Riggs gave me some numbers to put things in perspective. Let’s say you have 1 acre. On that acre, you probably will have about 40% of it as actual tank capacity for growing. In that environment, you will turn out about 63,000 gallons per year for that acre. How many airplanes can that power?

It’ll keep a 747 in the air for about 18 hours. That’s it.

So at this point, you need a LOT of land to power a fleet of aircraft. It’s just not feasible right now. But there are plenty of other uses that are good for algae and that can help take some demand out for petroleum. Things like specialty chemicals and health foods can work very well.

Riggs was certainly up front about this. “It’s not a very pretty picture. The best the industry has reported, and some are skeptical, is $8 per gallon of oil and some people think it’s more like $12 or $14. It’s still very, very high.”

There is some good news, however. Costs can come down significantly in environments where the right conditions already exist: wastewater treatment plants. Think about it – a ton of water flows through wastewater plants every day, and they can grow algae while that’s going on. Then the cost is very low for production, but again, the quantities won’t power the airline industry.

In Riggs’ mind, we’re probably about 5 years out from having a sustainable algae oil industry, but he’s confident we’ll get there. In order to get algae to power airplanes on a large scale, there’s a lot left to do.

27 Responses to Why Algae Won’t Fly Anytime Soon

  1. David SFeastbay says:

    At those prices just think of the increase in ‘Fuel Surcharges’ the airlines would charge (YQ/YR tax on your tkt).

  2. I love the idea but as David says, the price is just too crazy right now for that. I’m sure with in the next couple of years we will be able to use the algae better. I’ve always told my friends that the future will be completely organic. Living planes and all! lol.

  3. Why not battery powered planes with solar panels as well? Sure the weight to energy ratio sucks, but if you route it right so it can recharge in low cost electricity area you’d be perfect..

    I think we’ll get the algae fuel sometime within the next 10 years.

    I wonder have there been any innovations from the engine side to better use algae or other fuels?

  4. Jay says:

    They don’t need any chemicals or energy to do this

    No energy? They use electromagnetic filelds in the process. Electromagetic radition IS energy.

    Maybe smaller amounts of energy (compared to the solvent extraction method) would be a more accurate statement.

    And what are you calling a “chemical?” They use CO2 in the process to adjust the pH. While not an organic solvent, it is a chemical…..as is water. =0}

  5. Actually, what’s crazy is that this IS possible…even if it is 5 years away (or fewer?) that’s pretty exciting! And the Air Transport Association and its member airlines are on board. Airlines want alternative fuels. Airlines need alternative fuels. We’ve even flown aircraft with alternative fuels. So why don’t we have them yet? see: http://www.airlines.org/news/speeches/speech_9-30-09.htm

  6. Stuart says:

    You’re biggest problem with algae fuel would be preventing it from freezing at high altitude, which would require so many chemical additives that any notion of eco-friendliness would be laughable.
    Aviation is one of the most conservative industries on earth when it comes to new technology; fundamentally, aircraft design hasn’t changed in half a century. It takes years to certify a new part or piece of software for an aircraft, so a completely new kind of fuel? Forget it. There are too many vested interests in maintaining the status quo on so many levels.

    Virgin Atlantic did a publicity stunt last year where they flew a 747 with one of its engines powered by a mix of something like 30% “biofuel”. It’s never been repeated…

  7. I like this idea. I mean, it clearly has a long way to go, but it seems like this could one day be a feasible fuel option. It shows a sense of forward thinking on the part of the airline industry. Even if the idea ends up falling on its face, it generates publicity and stimulates thinking. This is what we need to develop the airlines of tomorrow. I know it sounds horribly patronizing, but it’s true. I think if airlines start using alternative fuels, then the auto industry will have no choice but to jump on. Who knows, maybe this will lead to a savings in both airline fares and gas for our cars? It is an infant idea, but it’s a start!

  8. Carter Nacke wrote:

    I think if airlines start using alternative fuels, then the auto industry will have no choice but to jump on.

    I really doubt that airlines will be using alternative fuels before the auto industry has a sizable product line of alternative fueled vehicles. I believe this for multiple reasons:
    1. Automakers are already making alternative fueled vehicles.
    2. Airplane development cycles are quite long, and the 737 and A320 family replacements are starting to get on the drawing board, although there are no viable alternative fueled engine technologies.
    3. The energy densities required for airplane fuel are quite high. E.g. the amount of energy you get out of each gram of fuel is quite high, higher than any alternative fuels.
    4. If you’re in a car and you run out of fuel, you have an unpleasant stop somewhere, then you call AAA for help. If you’re in a plane and you run out of fuel, you have a much more unpleasant and sudden stop, and the NTSB will be called for you.

  9. CF says:

    Nicholas Barnard wrote:

    I wonder have there been any innovations from the engine side to better use algae or other fuels?

    There have been none that I know of. The general belief is that any biofuel needs to be a drop-in fuel – in other words, can be run without any changes to existing engines.

    Jay wrote:

    No energy? They use electromagnetic filelds in the process. Electromagetic radition IS energy.
    Maybe smaller amounts of energy (compared to the solvent extraction method) would be a more accurate statement.
    And what are you calling a “chemical?” They use CO2 in the process to adjust the pH. While not an organic solvent, it is a chemical…..as is water. =0}

    I knew I’d get myself into trouble with my phrasing here. Clearly this isn’t my area of expertise. I’ll just say “it’s good” and leave it at that!

    Stuart wrote:

    Virgin Atlantic did a publicity stunt last year where they flew a 747 with one of its engines powered by a mix of something like 30% “biofuel”. It’s never been repeated…

    Not so fast there. There have been several biofuel test flights out there including one by Continental and one by Air New Zealand. Both of those flights showed an increase in fuel efficiency by using a 50/50 mix of alternative fuel (jatropha and algae) and regular fuel. The only issue is figuring out how to produce enough of it to make it work on a large scale. I give it 5 to 10 years before they get there.

  10. Cranky Flier is right – there have now been four flight tests using different mixes and sources of biofuel. Virgin Atlantic in early 2008, Air New Zealand, Continental and Japan Airlines in early 2009. In fact, the research has moved on so rapidly that the industry has gone from saying ‘it’s a dream’ to being technically possible in the last two years. We are now expecting to have certification to fly commercial flights on at least a 50% mix of biofuels with normal Jet A-1 by the end of next year. It’s extraordinary stuff and very exciting for the industry.

    CF also is correct that the fuel type we are looking at is ‘drop-in’ – in other words, the biofuel has basically the same chemical properties as Jet A-1 so it can me mixed with today’s jet fuel in whatever ratios we can get. This means that there doesn’t have to be any new aircraft or engine types to use biofuel – it is useable on current equipment. It is likely that we we start flying on very small quantities of biofuel (perhaps around 1% of the fuel on board a flight) and then can increase that percentage as we can get hold of more biofuel.

    Stuart mentioned the freezing point – this is an issue with co-called “first generation” biofuels (such as ethanol) which do tend to freeze at lower altitudes. This is not an issue with the “second generation” of fuels – produced from sources such as algae.

    The aviation industry has set up a website, http://www.enviro.aero/biofuels, which should clear up some of these confusions – there is a Beginner’s Guide to Aviation Biofuels that you can download on that page.

    Just another note about what CF has said – he is also right to say that technically we can use biofuels, we know this now. The next challenge is to get the production started for these biofuels. We are calling on governments and the fuel suppliers to kick start this process. There is a chance that we could have biofuels (in very small quantities) on commercial flights in 3-5 years and (with support from governments) potentially have significant quantities of biofuel on board by 2020, which is when the industry has said it will cap CO2 emissions.

    Haldane Dodd
    Air Transport Action Group, Geneva

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  14. Nira Horeis says:

    Algal fuel has already been used in 4 test flights and proven successful. The US government has been handing out grants to biotech companies, SAIC for one, to determine how to lower production costs of algal jet fuel. I think Originoil’s president might be serious when he says “five years out.” Five years is quick. I remember when solar and wind power were laughed at, costs were going to be way too high, but now, 20 years later they are still with us. When the oil companies figure out how to make a profit on algal fuel, the sector will take off. I expect commercial production sooner than crankyflier.

  15. Stuart says:

    CF wrote:

    Not so fast there. There have been several biofuel test flights out there including one by Continental and one by Air New Zealand. Both of those flights showed an increase in fuel efficiency by using a 50/50 mix of alternative fuel (jatropha and algae) and regular fuel.

    OK, I stand corrected. No worries.

  16. Chris says:

    Air New Zealand has done a Bio Fuel Test Flight

    http://www.airnewzealand.com/aboutus/biofuel-test/default.htm

    and Continental

    http://www.fastcompany.com/blog/saabira-chaudhuri/itinerant-mind/algae-new-oil

    http://www.fastcompany.com/blog/ariel-schwartz/sustainability/continental-biofuel-based-jet-fuel-flight-saved-energy-lowered-ca

    It’s got a ways to go, yet between wastewater treatment, Co2 conversion and possible power generation for the process from Solar, Wind, Biogas or even non recyclable trash incineration (vs. landfills) it could bring the cost more into line. The real problem is SFC in aero engines (Specific Fuel Consumption) being far too high and airframes weighing far too much. The bigger you build them, the more they weigh and the more fuel that has to be burned to lift them and carry them to their destination. Carbon Fiber is a partial solution, yet making the airframes smaller and lighter is the answer.

    Think Fokker 100, B757, Mitsubishi RJ and possibly the E190/195 or C & of course the Q400 series and then you’ll get the idea.

  17. CF says:

    Chris wrote:

    The real problem is SFC in aero engines (Specific Fuel Consumption) being far too high and airframes weighing far too much. The bigger you build them, the more they weigh and the more fuel that has to be burned to lift them and carry them to their destination. Carbon Fiber is a partial solution, yet making the airframes smaller and lighter is the answer.
    Think Fokker 100, B757, Mitsubishi RJ and possibly the E190/195 or C & of course the Q400 series and then you’ll get the idea.

    I don’t see how smaller, lighter airplanes solve the problem. Yes, a 747 weighs more than a 757, but it also carries a lot more people. So while you may have a lighter airframe, you’re going to need fuel to power a lot more flights.

  18. Nira Horeis says:

    “The results are back from Continental Airlines’ biofuel test flight in January, and they look good. Continental’s biofuel blend yielded a 1.1% increase in fuel efficiency over traditional jet fuels, and more impressively, cut carbon emissions by 60% to 80%”
    –Fastcompany blog

    The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is handing out grants to develop inexpensive military grade jet fuel, JP-8, from biomass. Recipients include Logos Technologies, General Atomics (built the Predator drones) and SAIC. These companies are trying to develop fuel from algae triglyceride at a production cost of $2/gallon. A 100-liter sample of algae-based fuel is due for government testing in the first phase. Economy is the emphasis. According to Defense Sec Robert Gates, every time the cost of a barrel of oil goes up $1 it costs us $130 million.

    DARPA has funded projects such as ARPANET, linking three computers nationwide in the 1960s, a precursor to the internet, and it also funded the program that led to the stealth aircraft.

    Success of tests so far on algal fuel plus the research being conducted by military industrial firms suggest to me we are within 5 years of commercial production of algal fuels. Beginning with use by military, algal fuel will eventually be used by consumers. Is five years quick? It is to me.

  19. Chris says:

    CF Wrote:

    ” I don’t see how smaller, lighter airplanes solve the problem. Yes, a 747 weighs more than a 757, but it also carries a lot more people. So while you may have a lighter airframe, you’re going to need fuel to power a lot more flights. ”

    I probably (due to it being 1:30 AM when commenting) didn’t convey my thoughts properly. While not intending to digress from the focus of this thread this all plays a par of the overall big picture. The main problem we’ve got here is that bigger, while being nicer for passenger comfort (sometimes), isn’t always necessarily better. There will always be a need for 747/67/77 and A340/80 series airframes for certain routes and distances, and larger passenger load factors are both necessary and make sense there.

    Yet if you compare the fuel burn rates of 737/57 or A318/19/20/21 series airframes to the lighter airframes of the F100, E 190/195 or C series and even the Sukhoi Superjet 100-95 or Avic 1 ARJ-700/900 series, the smaller airframes can meet most of the route profiles and passenger load factors on most routes that are currently being flown by Boeing/MD and Airbus airframes. This is why the new E-Jets are being adopted by many contract lift providers.

    If you compare the empty weights of smaller airframes and even the Fokker 100 (ahead of it’s time in that respect) to the empty weight of the larger and standard 737’s A319’s etc., the fuel burn of these airframes is less due to the lower weight being lifted. While true that there may be a need to add flights to a route depending on the load factor, the overall fuel burn of adding one flight to a route that has 5-6 flight segments per day is still less than flying larger airframes with a 80-90% load factor. This can depend on the stage length as well, yet it also provides passengers with more schedule flexibility, opens up more route opportunities and airport options due to reduced airfield requirements for smaller airframes and lowers noise profiles as well.

    Combining all of that together, this reduces the overall amount of fuel burned per carrier per day. Add in the new fuel cell APU’s and possible future battery/power storage advances there too and the fuel savings are substantial.

    Algae is the future when compared to other biofuels, yet reducing fuel burn is paramount as well. Now if we can get an even larger version of a Q400, possibly as a four engine, 3×3 seating arrangement with 120-150 seats and longer range, then that would truly be a game changer due to Turboprop fuel burn economics; while not sacrificing that much in speed, with no loss in cabin comfort.

  20. Allen says:

    For decades we’ve been hearing that a major breakthrough in XYX biofuel is 5 or 10 years away. Why is that? The underlying chemistry doesn’t favor what they’re trying to do and the sort of efficiencies they need to attain to make it worth their while.

    5 years is also significant because at the end of the day we really do not know what will happen. It’s a period of time where it seems not too distant yet far enough out for that unknown breakthrough to have occurred. History is full of claimed breakthroughs that are supposedly 5 years out. It’s not unique to biofuels.

  21. Nira says:

    Allen
    I don’t know about the underlying chemistry with biofuels but when it costs the oil companies a thousand a day to protect one oil worker in Nigeria, alternatives need to be considered. With drilling requirements becoming deeper each year, more expensive each year, I would say too much energy in terms of money is required to maintain what we are doing. Your do-nothing attitude is typical of a lot of Americans but you seem to live in a dreamy ideology that we are back in 1955, no international competition and new ideas are almost an insult to the mind. There is huge potential for algae-based fuel and plastics in the future. If you want to continue making Saudi princes wealthy instead of making our own fuel domestically, hiring US workers, then biofuel are not worth your while. Biofules are worth it to me.

  22. Allen says:

    @Nira, I did not say “do nothing”. I pointed out that for decades claims of a major break through have been thrown about and it hasn’t happened. Saying it’s 5 years out is like saying “we don’t know but we hope something we can’t forsee will happen during the next 5 years”. It’s unlikely that it will.

    As for costs, what are the costs of these biofuels? What are the costs of using something that does not work? Wealth does not come from new ideas but from doing things more efficiently.

    As for the potential, please listen to what you just said —> you know nothing about the underlying chemistry. Without that knowledge, you have no business parroting the claim that there is huge potential.

    As for the Saudi prince comment why would you make that? First off, it ignores that it’s a trade. I get a lot out of that trade. For just a few bucks, I can travel 30, 40, 100 miles. And they get, well, a few bucks. I’m not making them wealthy. More so, it shows ignorance of the system at hand. The single biggest source of oil used as gasoline in America is….America! The 2nd biggest? Canada! 3rd? Mexico? The vast majority of oil imported into America comes from places other than the Middle East. Those Saudi princes, btw, are getting rich because of a backward government that allows them to have power and property based on their birthright. If you’re worried about them getting rich, then you should worry about changing their system.

  23. Nira says:

    I believe major breakthroughs have taken place in algae-based fuels. DARPA has already awarded grants to several military industrial companies to lower jet fuel production costs and the fuels have been tested by commercial airlines and the military. Our Navy has placed orders to buy and continue testing those fuels. Sapphire Energy, funded by Bill Gates, Rockefeller Trust and others, has announced they will be producing 1 to 2 million gallons of algae-based jet fuel in 2010-2011. There are 75 companies working on reducing costs of making oil from algae in the US. Greater progress is being made in Australia, India and Japan in the area of alternative fuels and if the US is complacent, believing the Americas will provide all the fuel product needed for our future, we will be left behind instead of enjoying the role of innovator, not to mention the monetary loss in the future if we do not hold the patents. Currently, almost 20% of the gasoline consumed in the US is biofuel from corn or soybeans. Algae has the advantages of being factory or open-pond produced, does not disrupt food sources and can be produced in a way to reduce pollution. If Congress subsidized alternative fuels to the degree they have subsidized large oil companies, we would be much farther along on algae research. Fiscally and politically, alternative fuels are the future. http://www.oilgae.com provides a remarkable window into how much more effort is being given to alternative fuel research in other countries. Standing still, the US will in time fall way behind the rest of the world.

  24. Allen says:

    20% of our fuel needs are not met by biofuels??? Nira, you need to do some research. We don’t have enough available land in the US to produce that even if we devoted it to that purpose. Just in terms of gasoline, the about 150 thousand million gallons (aka 150 billion) of gasoline. Estimates vary but with even the largest less than 10 billion gallons of biofuels were consumed. That’s only 1/15th! That is nothing near 20%. And at that, it doesn’t account for what really matter, energy content. For example, you would need @ 3 1/2 gallons of ethanol to get the same energy as 2 gallons of gasoline.

    Anything with any economic value has potential to displace other uses. If major break throughs occur and algae becomes ergonomically viable, it will displace other things including food production.

    The oil subsidy whining is just that, whining. Oil subsidies are wrong but they pale compared to the subsidies biofuels recieve. The best solution is to not do something even more wrong, but to do it right. We should end ALL subsidies.

    “Greater progress is being made in Australia, India and Japan in the area of alternative fuels and if the US is complacent,”

    Based on what? Over 75% of biofuels in the world are produced in the US.

    Again, a bunch of empty rhetoric that does nothing to provide any substance as to why this time around anything will be different. The breakthroughs needed still haven’t occurred let alone be implemented on a mass scale. What exactly have the learned new that should make use believe that they are about to make a major break through. A million or two gallons and a 75 companies means nothing. What matters is the actual science.

    What has changed? Why is it after decade after decade of people in the industry who badly need to raise capital for a product with no profit in site and researchers who make a living only if research money continues to come in for this stuff… why is it this time we should believe that it’s anything more than just another “almost there” claim only to be followed up with not getting there but yet another “almost there” claim? Exactly what is it?

  25. ezshuter says:

    Competing algae company, Solazyme, made an IPO this week at $15/share. It zoomed to $23/share. Making plastics, food and cosmetics from algae needs to be added to the profit potential. Don’t write off algae by any means.

  26. juries says:

    We still have three more years to watch and see the use of algae for power airplanes, more tactics had been provided to attain the use of algae. We’ll just be amazed that one day we’ll be flying powered by algae.

  27. ezshuter says:

    Algae may be in our fuel sooner than we think, at least jet fuel. The Kiplinger Letter, dated June 17, 2011, predicted the following:

    “In 2012, jet fuel from renewable sources will be widely used. The fuel…chemically similar to petroleum-based products….is concocted from garbage, plant matter and other materials. Rules allowing 50% biofules for airlplanes have already received preliminary approval froma testing organization. The final OK will come later this year. Lufthansa plans to test a new fuel blend early next year. Airlines using blends won’t have to pay carbon credits for flying in Europe.”

    Algae and garbage will be contibuting to our fuel supply in less than 5 years. Hopefully some new US jobs will come with the change.

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