May 06, 2009
Method Lowers Algae Oil Extraction Costs

Origin Oil claims a faster method for extracting oil from algae.

OriginOil, an algae biofuel company based in Los Angeles, has developed a simpler and more efficient way to extract oil from algae. The process combines ultrasound and an electromagnetic pulse to break the algal cell walls. Then the algae solution is force-fed carbon dioxide, which lowers its pH, separating the biomass from the oil.

Does any reader know much about biodiesel algae economics? If the extraction step became, say, an order of magnitude cheaper would that cut more or less than half the current cost of algae biodiesel production? Is the growing or the extraction the higher cost?

Update: Here is an overview of companies developing algae ponds for energy and feed. Can algae pond operations become more economically feasible by producing biomass for animal food?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2009 May 06 12:13 AM  Energy Biomass

bbartlog said at May 6, 2009 12:51 PM:

a simpler [...] way [...] process combines ultrasound and an electromagnetic pulse [...] Then [..] force-fed carbon dioxide

This optimistic press release begs the question, 'simpler than what?'. Ultrasound, electromagnetic pulse and then CO2? Gosh, how *simple*! I couldn't foresee any issues with capital expense, mean time between equipment failure, or difficulties in optimizing yield with a setup like that. It certainly isn't 'simpler' than mechanical extraction, nor does it seem to be simpler than existing ultrasound plus solvent techniques. If it has an advantage, it sounds like it would be that it combines the high yields of other similar combined processes with a fairly closed loop. I expect the CO2 can be recycled, and the sludge won't be contaminated with solvent so you can just reuse that as an input for your algae growth.
I would still bet on PV (plus batteries, where applicable) over this. Two to four times the efficiency, and not as messy.

Fat Man said at May 6, 2009 4:33 PM:

Why is different than extracting oil from olives?

James Bowery said at May 6, 2009 4:41 PM:

Cost efficiency of photosynthetic area is the most important.

Second most important is dewatering.

Just Me said at May 7, 2009 3:18 PM:

So what do you do with this oil once you produce it? Burn it? That still produces CO2. We have plenty of oil and coal - so much so that the Obama administration is trying to block more drilling. Why do we need to produce oil by another method?

If you believe in AGW, you must be against this, because it puts CO2 in the atmosphere. If you don't, why not dig more coal?

Also, this will never be implemented because the upcoming cap and trade legislation will kill it, just as it will hurt all energy production.

KenB said at May 7, 2009 3:29 PM:

Just me says, "That still produces CO2."

Yes, but it's not the same as burning oil pumped from the ground. CO2 resulting from burning oil in the ground has not recently been circulating in the atmosphere. When you burn the oil, you are releasing net new CO2.

In contract, with algae-derived oil, the CO2 was only recently extracted from the atmosphere by the algae, so there's no net new CO2. It's a recirculating loop.

So even if you believe in AGW, about which I am profoundly skeptical, this is a good thing.

Light said at May 7, 2009 3:47 PM:

If you're worried about CO2 being in the atmosphere, do us all a favor and stop breathing.

The benefit is more than jut one sided! You stop expelling your own CO2 into the atmosphere by your breathing, you stop expelling CO2 since you're not driving anywhere or doing anything that makes a CO2 byproduct besides decomposing (minimal amount), and most beneficial, we get to stop hearing your BS on how CO2 is a pollutant that is destroying our planet.

I hope all you idiot AGW people realize that CO2 levels were once at 1500ppm. That is three times our current levels. If you're really worried about CO2.. STOP BREATHING! You'll help us all out!

Not only that. This process has nothing to do with AGW and it has everything to do with not getting our energy from a bunch of psychotic murderous thugs.

John Pennell said at May 7, 2009 4:20 PM:

I do not know the economics of this particular process, HOWEVER, to get a feel for biodiesel in general here are some basics. It takes 7.65 pounds of soy bean oil to make one gallon of biodiesel, soy bean oil trades on the CME and the price is quoted in $ per pound. The July contract (because its the one I have on my quote screen right now) settled today at $.3876 per pound, so that means the raw material cost for a gallon of biodiesel is $2.9651 per gallon. Today's settle on the NYMEX for the July Heating Oil contract was $1.5163 per gallon, diesel prior to excise tax (wholesale price) is normally trades from even with heating oil to maybe 30 cents per gallon more expensive. The point being, before you make any contribution to the cost of facilities, or variable manufacturing costs, a biodiesel manufacturer is more than $1.00 per gallon underwater. There are of course large tax breaks and mandated use laws that make it profitable for biodiesel manufacturing, often using oils other than soy, and usually in small, local plants. It is very difficult to make a large scale commercial biodiesel operation make sense, as a straight up competitor to petroleum diesel. Biodiesel supplies don't amount to a meaningful dent in diesel demand, diesel demand being north of 140,000,000 gallons per day, a large biodiesel plant making 5,000 gallons per day.

JamesB said at May 7, 2009 4:41 PM:

Here is a little on the economics: Pretty general but a start.



Junk Science Skeptic said at May 7, 2009 4:58 PM:

But will it scale?

Lots of cool stuff works in the lab or at a microbrewery-sized scale, but but if it won't scale up to Houston-sized proportions, it's not going to be competitive with petroleum.

When I queried a ethanol refinery designer/builder about the sweet-spot for (grain or cellulosic) ethanol production, taking feedstock transportation, process efficiencies, and everything else into account, the gallon figure he quoted was equivalent to the sales of about seven average gas stations. In short, just like there's a place for your local beer brewpub, and that local brewpub won't ever replace the need for Bud/Miller/Coors, neither will your local ethanol plant put Houston out of business.

When I queried somebody who has actually spent their own money working on algae-based biodiesel development, he indicated that apart from some fine tuning of the processing, along the lines of that described in the article above, the biggest stumbling block to scaling up algae production to a commercial scale will be the siting issues. Apart from existing bayous and swamps, who wants to live next to a 500-acre slime pond? Never mind the restrictions against releasing vast amounts of monoculture algae into a biodiverse environment.

As for soy biodiesel, it runs into many of the same scaling issues as grain/cellulosic ethanol, due to the bulk of the feedstock and thus the upstream transportation costs.

Bruce H. said at May 7, 2009 6:25 PM:

>> If you don't, why not dig more coal?

Because nobody has an economical process for making vehicle fuel from coal.

Larry said at May 7, 2009 7:02 PM:

"Because nobody has an economical process for making vehicle fuel from coal."

Economical enough.
Coal Liquification:

South Africa has been producing coal-derived fuels since 1955 and has the only commercial coal to liquids (CTL) industry in operation today. Currently around 30% of the country’s gasoline and diesel needs are produced from indigenous coal. The total capacity of the South African CTL operations now stands in excess of 160,000bbl/d.

bbartlog said at May 7, 2009 7:03 PM:

SASOL makes money turning coal into liquid fuel. I believe that one of their advantages is that they were able to recoup a lot of their large capital costs because South Africa had trouble buying oil on the world market (i.e. they were able to charge above-market prices for some years). However, their process is basically profitable, given a sufficient combination of high oil prices and low capital costs.

buzz said at May 7, 2009 7:26 PM:

Whatever the cost, this is another reason why we will never run out of oil. At the moment it is still cheaper to use oil than any substitute.. That will eventually change. There is a reason we don't still heat with whale oil. There was a write up a few years ago about scaling algae bio diesel. Cant find it, but essentially it said to replace all the gas and diesel burned in 2002, you would need 1 or 2% of the amount of land currently used for crops and livestock. A huge amount, but you can grow this stuff anywhere. I think back then the costs of obtaining the land, growing the crops and refining the diesel could be paid for by $3/gal diesel for 2 years. This wouldn't include anything over actual costs. Who knows how accurate that was. However, just making a dent in the usage would make a impact. Plus the stuff could be transported in pipelines, trucks, etc unlike ethanol.

Bi-Coloured-Python-Rock-Snake said at May 7, 2009 7:36 PM:

"This optimistic press release begs the question, 'simpler than what?'. Ultrasound, electromagnetic pulse and then CO2? Gosh, how *simple*!

I agree, it does sound pretty complex, but fractional distillation and cracking of petroleum isn't exactly exactly an afternoon science project, either.

There's no reason for knee-jerk skepticism toward new technologies. Every technological breakthrough in history is built on the remnants of dozens or hundreds of technological dead-ends. It's these attempts that innovation is built on. And whether we buy into AGW or not (I lean not), a diversity of domestic energy sources still makes us stronger. It's when these biofuel startups start lobbying for government subsidies that we need to turn the skepticism up to 11.

koa said at May 7, 2009 11:45 PM:

I'm still waiting to hear from Craig Venter. Wasn't it over a year ago that he said he was 16 months out with his algal biofuel?

johnmc said at May 9, 2009 11:10 AM:

I would not expect algae based fuels to be a replacement for the worlds current extraction methods. Too hard to beat the current embedded base infrastructure. But algae based fuels have two things going for it --

1) I regions of the world where oil is not locally available but have an environment favorable to algae propagation it could represent a good substitute. Provided of course the primary feedstocks are locally available for use.

2) Algae can beat the brains out of the concept of hydrogen based fuel usage. Hydrogen faces the daunting task that a new distribution network would have to be developed to use the fuel in vehicles. Algae based fuels could use the same pumps, pipelines and trucks that the rest of the oil industry uses. A huge savings in effort.

David S. said at September 8, 2009 12:08 PM:

The key players are bacteria, algae, and yeast. Solvents have to be used in the recovery of the oil from algae, because bacteria would eat the oil otherwise. If algae were left to rot, like what occurs in nature. However, in nature this occurs under high heat and pressure which prevents the bacteria from eating the oil. If the oil gets out of the ground the bacteria eat it up. This is the issue associated with costs per gallon of gas from algae. Ethanol is the more practical approach, and Brazil is showing us that. The big oil companies just want to keep it in the family. The power of yeast has been know for centuries. It is a great player, since its product kills both bacteria and algae making it the easiest one to refine into a product. Methods of distillation will eventually improve the amount of energy needed to make a gallon of ethanol.

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