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.

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27 Comments on "Why Algae Won’t Fly Anytime Soon"

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David SF eastbay
Member

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

Becky Grant
Guest

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.

Nick Barnard
Member

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?

Jay
Guest

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}

Elizabeth Merida
Guest

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

Stuart
Guest
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… Read more »
Carter Nacke
Guest
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… Read more »
Nick Barnard
Member
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… Read more »
Haldane Dodd
Guest
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.… Read more »
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Nira Horeis
Guest
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… Read more »
Stuart
Guest

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.

Chris
Guest
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… Read more »
Nira Horeis
Guest
“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… Read more »
Chris
Guest
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… Read more »
Allen
Guest
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.… Read more »
Nira
Guest
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.… Read more »
Allen
Guest
@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… Read more »
Nira
Guest
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,… Read more »
Allen
Guest
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… Read more »
ezshuter
Guest

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.

juries
Guest

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.

ezshuter
Guest
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… Read more »
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