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]

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About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more