Producing oil from algae is cool, its green, its clean and it may also allow coal plants to continue producing emissions-intensive electricity.
In an interview with Breaking Energy, OriginOil CEO Riggs Eckelberry said that with its high consumption of CO2–it takes two tons of carbon dioxide to feed one ton of algae–the green species can be a major asset in the effort to curb carbon emissions.
When Australia implemented a tax on carbon emissions, large numbers of thermal generation companies there resorted to growing carbon-eating algae as the fastest, cheapest and most effective method for cutting greenhouse gas emissions, Eckelberry said. The algal oil byproduct had little appeal.
OriginOil specializes in harvesting that algae and removing excess water from the mix before it emits oil. The algae and the resulting oil both have practical uses.
“I think in the short term algae will make things like clean coal possible. You see, we want to replace all fossil fuels with renewables, but this is going to take a while,” Eckelberry said. “In the meantime we want to alleviate some of the problems and that’s where algae comes in.”
Because algae thrives in muck water like sewage, it can also be used to soak up nitrates to clean up waste water.
For this reason, Eckelberry says the OriginOil technology may be most optimal on a small scale as a mechanism that helps municipalities clean their sewage–and their air–while producing their own oil. It may also be preferable to agricultural product-derived biofuels because it does not disturb food markets, he said.
But the technology faces significant challenges when moving to large-scale production. In order to grow the algae on a large scale, a significant amount of land is needed and locating it near a power plant would require extensive infrastructure, potentially including pipelines.
Algae is also highly sensitive to temperature and will grow more slowly if it lives far below or far above 70 degrees Farenheit. Companies are starting to experiment with putting the algae in bags in the ocean, a system that would naturally maintain optimal temperatures for the growing cultures. But this solution presents limitations for large-scale production plans.
Experimentation is key to the business model, Eckelberry said. “Scale is going to be a big challenge,” but, he said, “we need to scale up and see what happens.”
Photo Caption: Algae floats in the Hanjiang river, a tributary of the Yangtze River in Wuhan after rain-triggered floods, in central China’s Hubei province on June 20, 2011.