A few years back, when the U.S. biofuel scene consisted mainly of corn ethanol, biofuel from algae seemed like a futuristic lab creature that would never survive in the real world. Now one company, OriginOil, is taking steps to fast-track its algae biofuel out of development and into commercial use. Last year the company found a major Australian customer for its algae biofuel, and now it's eager to crack the U.S. market.
Have Clean Tech, Will Travel:
One roadblock to introducing new biofuels in the U.S. is Congress's lack of interest in transitioning to sustainable fuels under a federal framework. That makes long term market predictability for biofuels in the U.S. shaky, to say the least. For that reason, OriginOil is taking no chances. The company has just announced that Paul Reep has come aboard as OriginOil's Senior VP of Technology. That's a significant addition to the team because Reep has an extensive background in moving innovative new technology out of development and into commercialization. His experience covers a broad range of alternative and conventional technologies, and it includes multiple federal agencies as well as major corporations and utilities.
From Old Tech to New Tech
Reep's move into biofuels may indicate that, balky Congress and all, the alternative energy field is showing enough promise to attract seasoned talent that could otherwise find lucrative work in more conventional energy fields. That may not only apply to engineers and scientists; for example, it turns out that the current chief executive of the American Wind Energy Association, Denise Bode, is a former president of the Independent Petroleum Association of America.
Growing Algae for Biofuel
One barrier to large scale algae biofuel farming is the need for a significant amount of land and water. OriginOil's algae growing system, called the MultiReactor, uses lenses to channel solar radiation through relatively deep layers of algae. That reduces the surface area of the growing pond, which minimizes the environmental impacts of conventional algae farming. OriginOil has also field-tested the system in standard 40-foot shipping containers, which would provide growers with a greater number of siting options compared to in-ground ponds.
Energy Efficient Algae Biofuel Production
OriginOil has also developed a system to overcome another hurdle, which is the large amount of energy required to extract oil from algae through conventional technologies. The company's Single-Step Extraction method uses energy to "crack" the algae, and then oil, water and algae biomass are separated by gravity. As for the future of the algae biofuel market, an upcoming conference of the National Algae Association in New York City should demonstrate that this emerging industry is serious about getting its product not only into the consumer and business markets, and into the growing national defense market for biofuels as well.
Image: Algae by Clearly Ambiguous on flickr.com.
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.