OriginOil recently announced a big breakthrough that could potentially advance the entire algae biofuel field. In April, they announced that they had developed an extraction process that separates oil and water from the algae biomass in one step without heavy machinery or chemicals.
Up until this point, creating a process that efficiently extracted oil from algae had been one of the major challenges that remained for researchers. They could already extract the oil from algae but the process involved many steps that were both time consuming, involved the use of some hazardous chemicals, and was very energy intensive.
The development of OriginOil's "Single-Step Extraction" process eliminated many of the previous hurdles researchers faced. For example, this process does not need all of the chemicals previously used to separate the oil from the algae biomass. The only compound used in OriginOil's process is CO2 which helps to increase the pH content of the algae/water mixture. They have also reduced the energy required to separate the oil from algae. With their "Single-Step Extraction" process, the energy costs are now 90% lower than the other processes currently used.
Origin's extraction process also allows the remaining algae biomass to be used for production of other algae based products like animal feed or chemicals. Some may find this surprising but the co-products that can be made from algae are actually worth more than the actual oil extracted from the algae. Without the ability to use the algae biomass to create additional products that can be sold to subsidize the costs of algae oil production, the current process wouldn't be cost effective. Therefore, it is essential that any process used to extract oil leaves the algae biomass able to produce any needed co-products. OriginOil's "Single-Step Extraction" process does just that.
This extraction technology also clears another hurdle inherent in many aspects of the algae biofuel sector: scalability. The way this extraction process is designed should allow it to be scaled up to any size needed. Riggs Eckelberry, the CEO of OriginOil, said that he does "not see a scaling limit" to this extraction technology. Also, since the actual extraction technique happens at the inlet to the extraction tank, the size of the tank will not affect the results or the length of time the process takes. This will further help this process to be scaled to the needed size for commercial applications.
Additionally, while this technological advancement will help lead to the commercialization of algae fuels, it will also help OrignOil achieve its goal of helping small, low income communities. Eckelberry explained that OriginOil plans on "open-sourcing the basic algae production process so that people in low income areas will be able to grow algae for local energy and food/water use."
With the creation of this breakthrough extraction process, OriginOil is moving forward with launching small pilot programs in 2010. These pilot programs will consist of "complete, modular, stackable, portable, self-sufficient, adaptable, fully remote-manageable algae production systems in a 40x8 shipping container." If these mobile algae production systems prove successful, the inherent flexibility of these units will offer a seemingly endless number of future applications.
From successful test flights using partial algae biofuel blends to this new extraction method, algae has seen many technological advances and breakthroughs over the past 6 months. While one of the first algae biofuel startups folded just this month, this development by OriginOil illustrates that algae biofuel industry as a whole is still advancing in leaps and bounds. Therefore, be sure to keep your eyes open for future advancements because algae biofuels may be on the commercial market sooner than you think.
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