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Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Another Algae-to-Biodiesel Process Being Commercialized

Solix Biofuels, Inc. and Colorado State University Partner to Bring Algae-based Biodiesel Production Process to Market

[From Green Car Congress:]

Solix Biofuels Inc., a startup company based in Boulder, Colorado, is working with Colorado State University engineers to commercialize technology to produce biodiesel from oil derived from algae. Solix officials plan to have the technology on the market over the next two years.

The Solix photo-bioreactors for algae production are based upon 20 years of research (the Aquatic Species Program) originating at the National Renewal Energy Laboratory (NREL), and are massively scaleable, according to the company.

The algae grow within closed plastic bags, which reduces the possibility of infestation drastically. A novel low-energy temperature control system keeps the algae within a temperature range that optimizes growth.

The bioreactor primarily consists of two large transparent flattened tubes made of specialty plastics. Water-weighted rollers squeeze the algae-bearing fluid through the tubes as they slowly move down tracks built into concrete supports on the side of the tubes.

The peristaltic motion of the rollers creates a current inside the reactor, which force the algae to be in constant motion and allows more than just the top layer of algae to receive sunlight.

In turn, that allows the fluid depth of the reactor to be 12 inches, and thus does not restrict photosynthesis to the surface layer of the fluid—a traditional obstacle to making cost-efficient photosynthetic bioreactors.

Within the “bag” is a thermal layer that can be raised or lowered by the rollers to regulate the internal temperature of the bioreactor. The shape of the straps holding the foam is designed to maximize the fluid rotation within the reactor, presenting all the algae sequentially to the sun absorption zone in the top layers of the reactor. CO2 is injected into the photo-bioreactor for the photosynthesis reaction.

Colorado State and Solix officials are collaborating with New Belgium Brewing Co. to use excess carbon dioxide from the brewery’s plant to test the algae-based biodiesel process.

Algae cells are harvested from the fluid with a centrifuge. Once harvested, the oil will be extracted and the resulting oil can then be refined into biodiesel fuels through the same transesterification process currently used to refine other vegetative oil sources into biodiesel. The algae oil can also be refined into other liquid fuels, including ethanol and jet fuel.

Solix officials estimate that widespread construction of its photo-bioreactor system could meet the demand for the US consumption of diesel fuel—about 4 million barrels a day—by growing algae on less than 0.5% of the US land area, which is otherwise unused land adjacent to power plants and ethanol plants. The plants would also supply the requisite carbon dioxide.

Doug Henston, chief executive officer of Solix:

Algae to biofuel technologies are still being developed, yet a strong case can be made for global domestication of algae as an energy crop. We want to manage this technology to create a business that will serve current and future energy stakeholders.

Solix and CSU join the ranks of several other start-ups trying to commercialize algae-to-biofuels technologies, including Algae BioFuels, GreenFuel Technologies Corporation, and cleantech business development company GreenShift (who is licensing technology developed at Ohio University) [previous posts here and at the Energy Blog].

Next-generation algae-based biofuels have the potential to scale large enough to actually make a significant impact on petroleum consumption. I wish these startups luck in commercializing one or more of their technologies.


Emily said...

Algae is awesome. We just need it to be feasible on large scales. Possible?

Jesse Jenkins said...

I think it's certainly possible, Emily. I think we'll have to just wait and see if one of these companies can commercialize a viable product. With the biofuels boom going on right now, and the sustained high price of oil/gas, I bet one or more of these companies can commercialize a method for producing biofuels from algae that beats the current biodiesel price point. And like they said in the article, there's plenty of space near existing coal-fired power plants, breweries, ethanol plants and other existing sources of carbon dioxide emissions that can be used to feed the algae. The resulting biofuels are largely carbon-neutral - i.e., they release as much CO2 when you use them as they absorbed from the atmosphere/emissions stream when the algae was grown.

Anonymous said...
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Ecacofonix said...

Thanks for the is heartening to see algae getting a lot of publicity, something I feel they deserve.

I co-ordinate Oilgae, a site that explores use of algae as a feedstock for biodiesel, and I can say with some amount of confidence based on my researches that algae appear to be one of the most qualified candidates for biodiesel production.

While the math certainly appears to favor algae, there are a number of issues to be overcome. These have to do with (1) choosing optimal algal strains, (2) issues faced in cultivation and harvesting (believe me there are some serious bottlenecks here), and (3) cost-effective methods to extract oil and transform it into biodiesel.

So yes, there is still a long way to go before it can be proven with certainty that algal biodiesel can be cost-effective on a large scale, but it is gratifying to see brilliant minds (not to forget VC money) getting into this field. And with institutes like MIT (Boston) getting into the act, I'm optimistic most of the above-mentioned issues will be overcome.

Time will tell if algae are our future source of energy, but for now, they certainly appear to have many of the qualifications required for the same.

Narsi from Oilgae - Oil from Algae

Anonymous said...

Please check out Green Star Products, Inc (GSPI). They have been producing algae in large amounts using a proprietary strain and large covered ponds with far lower cost to start up. The University has a nice project, but peristaltic tubes are notoriously expensive and fall apart like a daisy smacked with a nine iron. Besides, concrete supports are not practical in large scale operations.