Dirty Coal And Algae Fuel: The Start Of A Beautiful Friendship

Algae eats CO2, and then it makes fuel. Where do we have a lot of CO2? Spewing out of coal power plants. Now OriginOil is working to use those emissions to feed algae and ramp up the biofuels business.


At first glance, a marriage between algae and coal-fired power plants seems unlikely. One is a natural source of healthy fish oils and biofuel; the other spews greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. But OriginOil, a company that helps algae growers with the incredibly difficult process of extracting oil from their product for commercial use, is bringing the two together as part of a carbon capture project at a coal plant in Australia—and it could be an alternative to risky and expensive underground carbon capture and storage (CCS) schemes.

CCS is a catch-all term for technology that captures carbon emissions from industrial plants and buries them underground so that they can't escape into the atmosphere. The technology is unproven, pricey, and possibly dangerous—one study, for example, indicates that captured carbon could leak into groundwater aquifers, making the water undrinkable. But OriginOil and carbon capture and recycling (CCR) company MBD have a potential solution: using carbon-hungry micro-algae to capture CO2 directly from coal-fired plants. The well-fed algae quickly reproduce, and OriginOil's extraction system quickly separates out the good stuff—which can be used to make ethanol, among other products—from the water.

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, according to OriginOil, it uses just one tenth of the energy required for competitors' algae extraction techniques. "Turning green water into feedstock—that's the hard part," says Riggs Eckleberry, OriginOil's CEO.

OriginOil already has a demo unit in Australia that can extract 20 gallons per minute of algae culture. Next up: a full-size unit that processes 300 gallons per minute at MBD's two and a half acre test site, located at a coal-fired power plant in Queensland, Australia. MBD plans on using the lipids as a source of Omega 3's (fish oil), and separating out the biomass for cattle feed and ethanol. The site should be ready within a year—and it's just the beginning.

"Our main limitation is we can process far more algae than most people have in production," says Eckleberry.

[Images: Top: Flickr user Najots; Bottom: MBD Energy]

Reach Ariel Schwartz via Twitter or email.

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  • arthur g robinson

    Interested in using this technology for coal fired power plants to reduce/cut out CO2 emissions. We are funders for coal fired plants. What costings do you have to incorporate this technology in say a 1000MGW coal fired plant?

  • Stafford Williamson

    To answer the "costs" question, the OriginOil technology is a great "breakthrough" (I know because while they were inventing and patenting their system, I did one that was "almost" the same) and it solves one of the major "cost barriers" to commercially producing algae as a feedstock for liquid fuels (although at present, nutrient and chemical co-products are still an important part of the equation to covering the "costs").  However, the OriginOil technology is, or course, only one facet of the broader issue of growing and harvesting algae. 
    I have also sent you another message via Facebook, but the general idea is that carbon capture and recycle (as the OriginOil system does) is about the same cost as a complete flue gas scrubber system (or a retro-fit thereof, according to some of my sources).  But while the scrubber is essentially just a cost center, using the algae can be a revenue generating activity too, and therefore a cost recovery method.
    (Please feel free to contact me via email "president" [at] "daochienergy.com" if you'd like to discuss any or all of this further.

    Stafford "Doc" Williamson

    p.s. OriginOil's CEO Riggs Eckelberry and I worked at the same software company in the mid-1990's, so I don't know if it surprising that we ended up in such parallel business shifts or just to be expected.
    p.p.s.  (I'm not sure what "size" you meant by the "1000MGW" so I'll take a guess at 1GW, and at that level any system is likely to cost something in the range of hundreds of millions of US dollars.  That is, unquestionably a large number, but the EPA has ordered one Arizona power company to spend that on retro-fitting better scrubbers on a couple of their plants and they claim it will cost hundreds of millions of dollars just for the repairs/upgrades.