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A Better, Faster, Cheaper Way to Get Biofuel from Microalgae

Unitel Technologies develops high efficiency, low cost process for extracting biofuel from microalgaeMicroalgae could be one key to a more sustainable, less risk energy future for the U.S., and researchers are working on several fronts to find a low cost, high efficiency process for extracting renewable biofuel from the tiny plants.  At Unitel Technologies, Inc., researchers have developed a microalgae – to – biofuel process that leaps over at least one obstacle, and that is the large amount of energy currently required by most oil extraction methods.


Most algae-to-biofuels technologies involve an expensive, energy-intensive process for extracting oil from algae in a stationary state.  Unitel developed a mobile, slurry-based method that involves less need for dewatering, and entirely skips the steps of oils extraction and drying.  Ironically, the concept for the new process had its genesis in equipment that was originally designed to convert coal in to liquid fuels.

Unitel and Microalgae Biofuel

Unitel achieved its breakthrough by focusing on the extraction of fatty acids from algae, rather than on the extraction of oil.  The new technology involves processing a slurry of algae in a hydrolysis reactor (hydrolysis is the breakdown of molecules by introducing water, as occurs for example when certain salts dissolve in water).  That yields a fatty acid which is ultimately converted to jet fuel.  Other byproducts are a nutrient-rich water which gets recycled back to grow more algae.  The leftover biomass can be dried and used as animal feed.  Some parts of the process, such as a slurry pump loop and high efficiency heat exchange system, were used in the 1990’s for demonstrating coal liquefaction.

Microalgae Biofuel and the Future

The animal feed angle is an interesting one because researchers in Australia have found that an algae diet could reduce methane emissions from cow farts, a major source of greenhouse gas emissions (try doing that with coal!).  Other recent advances in the algae biofuel field include a discovery by Teas A&M University that a certain algae has a direct connection to fossil fuel deposits, which could lead to the development of new high-yield strains of algae.  Meanwhile, OriginOil has developed a new high efficiency, solar powered method for growing more algae in less space.  This dovetails with the U.S. EPA’s new program to reclaim brownfields for green jobs and alternative energy.  In the future our abandoned industrial landscape could be repopulated with safe, sustainable algae farms.

Image: Microalgae by inks1002 on

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Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.


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