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Akhila Vijayaraghavan headshot

Green Algae Meets Dirty Coal for Carbon Capture

An unlikely marriage of algae and coal-plants could become a reality through a company called OriginOil. The company helps algae growers with the incredibly difficult process of extracting oil from their product for commercial use. It is bringing together dirty coal and green algae as part of a carbon capture project at a coal plant in Australia that could be an alternative to risky and expensive underground carbon capture and storage (CCS) schemes.

CCS is a term used for any technology that captures carbon emissions from industrial plants and stores them (usually) underground so they cannot escape into the atmosphere. The technology is unproven, pricey, and possibly dangerous. According to studies, captured carbon could leak into groundwater aquifers, making the water undrinkable. OriginOil wants to grow algae using captured CO2 from coal-fired plants as a key input.

How It Works

Each oil-producing cell of algae can mature in a few hours and contains as much as 60% of its dry weight in oil. As the algae feed off the CO2 from the coal-plant, they quickly reproduce. Then OriginOil's patent pending technology harvests the algal biomass and extract algae oil.  The biomass which is rich in Omega 3-fatty acids can be used as cattle feed and also for ethanol extraction.

OriginOil is currently focused on what happens between the upstream algae growth stage and downstream refining. The critical connection between these processes is  called the “midstream,” a choke point where efficient harvesting, dewatering and oil extraction still remain major challenges. As part of its midstream focus, they are developing a technology to harvest hydrogen gas which is another important energy source produced by algae. Hydrogen recovery systems can improve algae production’s energy balance and enable fuel refining at the point of production, creating a strategic opportunity for algae producers.

The company's system works using electromagnetic pulses that cause algae to bunch together and break up cells. The whole process is done without chemicals and it uses just one tenth of the energy required for competitors' algae extraction techniques. Beyond putting greenhouse gasses to use one more time, OriginOil ultimately aims to use their algal biofuel technology to replace petroleum. Because algae is fuel efficient and carbon neutral, they believe that it can displace petroleum if it is manufactured in a continuous, energy-efficient industrial process.

Taking it to the Next Stage

MBD Energy recently committed to purchase an initial OriginOil extraction unit for piloting at one of Australia's three largest coal-fired power plants. "OriginOil's algae harvesting equipment performed extremely well during preconstruction tests at MBD's R&D facility at James Cook University and we have every confidence that OriginOil's algae oil extraction technology will meet our high expectations for the next stage," said Andrew Lawson, managing director of MBD Energy, Ltd.

The proof-of-concept phase on a one-hectare site, scheduled for later this year, will use concentrated carbon dioxide emissions to produce oil-rich algae in MBD's proprietary growth membranes. The extraction technology will be used to harvest the algae oil and biomass.

According to MBD, performance at the 80-hectare Tarong Power Station in Queensland, each full-scale production facility has the potential to grow to 1,600 hectares (3,900 acres) and could produce around 300 million liters (over 79 million gallons) of transport (or plastics) oil per year, as well as other valuable commodities. At full scale it would also consume more than half of each power station's carbon dioxide emissions.

Image Credit: Najot Flickr Creative Commons

Akhila Vijayaraghavan headshotAkhila Vijayaraghavan

Akhila is the Founding Director of GreenDen Consultancy which is dedicated to offering business analysis, reporting and marketing solutions powered by sustainability and social responsibility. Based in the US, Europe, and India, the GreenDen's consultants share the best practices and innovation from around the globe to achieve real results. She has previously written about CSR and ethical consumption for Justmeans and hopes to put a fresh spin on things for this column. As an IEMA certified CSR practitioner, she hopes to highlight a new way of doing business. She believes that consumers have the immense power to change 'business as usual' through their choices. She is a Graduate in Molecular Biology from the University of Glasgow, UK and in Environmental Management and Law. In her free-time she is a voracious reader and enjoys photography, yoga, travelling and the great outdoors. She can be contacted via Twitter @aksvi and also http://www.thegreenden.net

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