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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