OriginOil and Algasol, two companies working to develop algae into renewable fuel, have announced a collaboration on growth and harvest technology. The companies hope the partnership will help them reduce cost and improve performance, therefore increasing commercial prospects for algae as fuel source. Harvesting algae is one of the main cost drivers associated with this type of raw material. Algae are microscopic and live in suspension on liquid. When the time comes to harvesting it, the water/algae ratio can be as high as 1,000/1. In order to make it suitable for commercial applications, that ratio needs to be reduced to around 10/1.

As we've seen, California-based OriginOil has big hopes for algae. The company has developed a technique called Single Step Extraction, which is a way to separate algae from water without using expensive chemicals or heavy equipment, which makes it more energy-efficient. The process also breaks into algae cell walls to release oils and other components that can be separated out during other phases of processing. Algae are highly sensitive to electromagnetic waves. OriginOil has developed tuned wave patterns that cause the algae to “flocculate”, that is, to separate from water. It also causes the algae to “lyse”, or rupture.

Algasol, headquartered on the Balearic Islands in Spain, is developing a photobioreactor with low cost material and design that can be scaled up industrially. The idea is to lower investments and operating costs, which are currently a major obstacle for the development of algae fuel. The weather-protected photobioreactor developed by Algasol floats on water and is divided into several compartments. To manufacture it, Algasol uses a thin and flexible polymer material, and the device can be installed in seawater, either in a pond land or in the sea. The company has patents pending in 70 countries.

Algae as biofuel feedstock offer several advantages compared with food crops. For one, it doesn’t compete with food production, a major point of contention among environmentalists. Further, biofuel crops release carbon emissions and in some cases can contribute to deforestation because of the land needed to raise biofuel crops sometimes replaces tropical rainforest. Algae avoid all these problems. They can be grown in open ponds and closed bioreactor systems. Potential yields are high, even 10 times higher than the most productive crops currently explored.

Hopes are high for algae as a cleaner petroleum substitute, and aviation is spearheading algae biofuel application. Last November, a United Airlines flew between Houston and Chicago on Solazyme's mix of 60 percent petroleum and 40 percent algal fuel. Before that, Solazyme had tested its algae fuel technology on a military helicopter running a 50/50 mix of petroleum and algal oil.

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