One of the key factors standing between algae biofuel and the real world of market-competitive energy is something that has a lot in common with comm illnesses, and that is bacteria. The tiny little buggers can interfere with an efficient growth process and they really go to work as soon as algae is harvested, which shortens its shelf life and makes storage and transportation a dicey proposition. However, while a cure for the common cold is still eons away, according to the algae biofuel company OriginOil, a solution to the algae biofuel bacteria problem appears to be close at hand.
A Teeny Tiny Problem for Algae Biofuel
Strength in numbers is the motto of all bacteria, which accounts for why something so small can wreak so much havoc. OriginOil’s Jose Sanchez, who is General Manager of the company’s Algae Division, sums the problem up in a nutshell:
“Bacteria and other invaders feast on the biomass, especially the valuable oils, dramatically reducing the value of the crop within a matter of hours.”
According to Sanchez freshly harvested algae is only stable for about half a day, or about 10 to 12 hours. After that, with a little help from bacteria, it takes on the pungent, fishy smell that signals rot.
The Algae Biofuel Breakthrough
OriginOil believes that it has found an economical solution to the problem, through its proprietary Algae Screen™ process.
OriginOil first developed the system in order to enhance algae growth by inhibiting harmful microbes. Instead of using chemicals, it relies on an electromagnetic pulse. The salvo is powerful enough to kill off bacteria as well as rotifers and ciliates (these are other kinds of microscopic organisms and yes, we had to look those up, too), while leaving the tougher-walled algae alone.
The breakthrough consists in using Algae Screen during the harvesting process as well as during the growth period. OriginOil sent samples to a university team (unnamed in the company’s press release) and the independent lab Pacific Coast Analytical Services, and the results came back with significantly fewer bacterial colonies than conventional harvesting.
Shortcuts to Algae Biofuel
Algae’s ancient pedigree has been powering the fossil fuel industry for generations, so the idea of taking a millions-of-years shortcut to algae fuel is beyond tempting. The trick, of course, is to rev up a very long process into a tidy, cost-effective package.
The obstacles are many but much has been achieved in the past few years. OriginOil, the activities of which we’ve been following at CleanTechnica pretty closely (here, here and here for example) for a while now, is just one of several U.S. companies leading the charge.
The other part of the equation is public sector support, most notoriously in the form of the U.S. Navy’s algae biofuel initiatives, which have been chugging steadily along despite opposition from the anti-biofuel crowd.
The Department of Energy is of course front and center in advancing the algae biofuel cause, most recently with a $15 million grant to establish an algae biofuel test bed in Arizona. NASA has also launched an initiative with long distance space travel in mind that piggybacks algae biofuel production on wastewater, thereby killing two birds with one stone.
Algae Biofuel Makes Strange Bedfellows
One fallout from OriginOil’s breakthrough, according to the company, is that a more efficient process would enable more algae to be grown in a smaller area. That would bring the operation within reach of small farmers and other small-scale entrepreneurs.
With the release of Matt Damon’s new fracking-themed movie Promised Land in mind, small-scale algae farming could help provide distressed rural communities with a new cash crop that does not involve the kind of risk to public health that often attends fossil fuel operations.
Somewhat ironically, OriginOil has found that the separation process it developed for algae farming can serve as an effective treatment for many kind of industrial wastewater, including wastewater from fracking operations.
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Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.