Agriculture OriginOil has algae biofuel breakthrough with bacteria fighting process

Published on December 28th, 2012 | by Tina Casey


Algae Biofuel Breakthrough Hinges On Common Bacteria

December 28th, 2012 by  

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.

OriginOil has algae biofuel breakthrough with bacteria fighting process

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.

Go figure.

Image (cropped): Bacteria by gwire

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About the Author

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. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

  • LJ

    This article is stupid. First of all, the cold is caused by a virus and this article is dealing with bacteria. They are not even remotely similar and have to be treated in very different ways. More importantly, bacteria are not what are holding back biofuels made from algae. What is really holding them back is the fact that more energy has to be invested to produce the organisms than can be obtained from harvesting them. Furthermore, they use massive quantities of nutrients and water that simply aren’t sustainable. This is to say nothing of the need to genetically modify algae in order to get a decent yield from them in the first place. This article really fails to cover anything of value.

    • robert_13

      Yes, it is indeed incredibly ignorant for a journalist, of all professions, not to know that colds are not bacterial diseases. Other than that, there is nothing wrong with the article. The author is merely publishing the results of research that you may consider stupid, but if so, it’s the research that’s stupid and not the article, absent the stupid reference to colds as bacterial infections.

      It’s easy to jump the gun and have to scrape egg off one’s face when citing obstacles to the success of pioneering research. Too much can happen in the way of new discoveries to keep naysayers safe from egg-faced status, (e.g., the Wright brothers; Einstein’s theories as related to GPS navigation; quantum theory for LED technology, CD players, solid-state microwave circuitry in cellphones; very small but highly efficient fractal antenna designs used in cellphones; etc.)

      Here are two other research projects that potentially turn your objections on their heads:

  • derekbolton

    Another problem with algal biofuel is that, as far as I am aware, there is little prospect of its being economically viable if the CO2 is drawn from the air. In the short to medium term, it will depend on a rich source of CO2. If that’s from a biomass burner, fine, but if it is from a fossil fuel power station it doesn’t get us much further forward. It will be a single reuse. The overall process will still take carbon that was safely stored underground and release it into the atmosphere when the biofuel is burnt. At best, it halves carbon intensity, and that’s not going to be good enough.
    (On a pedantic note, the common cold is a virus, not a bacterium.)

  • Great post Tina,

    As a long time advocate of algal oil being the answer to our liquid fuel needs, it’s gratifying to see this being reported. I’ve been following Origin Oil for a few years now and their innovations are exciting.

    Just one note though. With the burning of fossil fuels bringing humanity to the brink of extinction { } {} how in the hell can there even be an “anti bio-fuel crowd”? First we are going to have to deal with this methane bomb, then rid our congress of these morons who just don’t “get it”. Failing that will simply be “failing”…

    Edward Kerr

    • Tom G.

      Dear Edward:
      Like yourself I realize that change needs to happen and our use of fossil fuels will come to an end by either running out of the stuff or it will be priced out of existence.

      I get a kick out of watching the J. Leno show and his man on the street segments. People can’t even identify who the Vice President is or who their state governor is when shown their pictures. People are more interested in the latest cell phone model, latest viral u Tube video, latest Hollywood scandal or which video game to buy. Our country is in a truly sad state of affairs isn’t it.

      While you and I visit sites like this one learning about what needs to be done, others are watching music videos and the vast majority of the public do NOT even visit excellent sites like this one. Only a very small percentage of the population can even spell renewable energy and that is truly a sad state of affairs.

      Try this experiment sometime – pick a few renewable energy buzz words like “wind mills” or “PV” or “geothermal” and ask your friends or work mates to explain how they work and why they are needed. I will bet you a good dinner most of your friends can not identify the differences or importance of each. While 70+% of the American people support renewable energy they DON’T understand what it is or WHY it is even important. Most Americans knowledge of our energy systems ends at the light switch on the wall. If it works fine, if not, they call an electrician

      You and I have a big job to do and that job is to EDUCATE everyone around us WHY using renewable energy systems is important. Just recently I was able to convince the mayor of our small community to go solar for all city offices. I feel really proud of this accomplishment considering the community is lead by mostly Republicans, LOL.

      You can do the same, work on your community leaders to effect change.
      Complaining on a blog site visited by people who mostly ALREADY agree with you is not going to make things happen. You need to step outside of your COMFORT zone, so to speak, to make change happen. Volunteer to speak to high school students. Prepare a presentation for your city council. I did and worked on one city council member at a time. Send emails to your elected local and state representatives – some do read their emails and will respond, LOL.

      Don’t loose faith and keeping working on getting your ideas implemented.

      Tom G.

      • I agree with all that you have pointed out here Tom. However, at this point renewable energy is no longer the main issue of concern. If you follow the links that I have provided you will see that we are are a few short years from extinction if we don’t address the issue of methane being released in the arctic as a result of having heated the planet just a bit. Yes, educating people is what I aim to do and I’ve blogged about alternative energy for a while now. Yes we will need to move to all carbon-less and carbon neutral energy sources in the longer run but for right now we need to make sure that there will BE a longer run. If you check out the work being done and alarm bells being rung by the Arctic Methane Emergence Group {} you will better understand my sense of panic. This situation is DIRE and our options are limited but there are some things that we can try. There is a way to degrade methane into nano-diamonds but will take serious and immediate action from several governments. SO it is they to whom I will be writing and not my local township council.

        • Tom G.

          Very interesting reading Edward. Thank you for the links. Here is a link which I find almost funny after reading some of the information in the links you provided.

          It appears to me that according to AMEG we ARE on track to unstoppable global warming. Even actions like the 5 states in the Eastern U.S. suing the EPA seems like wasted effort. Things like cloud seeding are too late to help given the dates indicated in the various reports. If the AMEG is correct, then we might just as well start parting now since there appears to be nothing that can be done to stop world ending global warming.

          Five [5] million years from now space travelers will look back and say – they should have started in the 1940’s.

          • Tom,
            I also find most of the “actions” being done to combat global warming humorous (in a perverse way). However, if you root around in the “rabbit hole” that I sent you to you will find that all is not hopeless YET. There is a way to degrade methane in the atmosphere which would buy us a little time. {} However, we would them be faced the same problem that has led us to where we are today. The only long term answer will be to abandon fossil fuels asap and then start pulling some of the CO2 out the air (there is a way). We will not likely be able to have the pipe-dream of endless economic growth nor many of our other delusions. I still keep a case of beer handy along with hats and whistles and some party favors.

            Happy New Year

            Edward 12-31-2012

    • LJ

      Get educated on biofuels and the vast resources they use and you will see why many people oppose them. It requires more energy to bring a fuel to harvest than can be extracted from it. These fuels also don’t address the problem of climate change either. Many studies have shown that biofuels INCREASE GHG emissions with a payback on the order of 500 years!!

      • LJ, when I say bio-fuels I’m not referring to “corn ethanol” if that’s what you think. I refer to algal oil (which fossil oils are) as it can be produced with minimal H2O, fertilizers ad the other problems of CE. I oppose CE as it isn’t carbon neutral and provides almost no energy gain and it’s damaging to engines designed to burn gasoline. Oil from algae is a “drop-in” for our present refineries and is carbon neutral. There are other liquid fuels made from micro-organisms like various butanols. I have done my best to “get educated”. Regardless, thanks for the feedback.

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