Issue: Mar 2011


$40/bbl Algae Oil promised by new Photobioreactor



by Bob Brooks

Algae may have the potential to improve U.S. environmental quality, increase national economic health, up employment, boost energy security and decrease military expenses. 

An enclosed photobioreactor system for making bio oil from algae has demonstrated a yield of 32,000 gal/acre/year and $40/gal basic cost in pilot operation. Developed by partners Earl McConchie and Roger Stroud, an initial module of the system is being built in the U.S. for operation at a Manildra Group plant in New South Wales, Australia this year. The partnership operates as Algae.Tec Ltd with offices in Atlanta, Georgia and Perth, Western Australia. 

The system employs stacked layers of very thin passages fed with sunlight via fiber optics. The passages are sealed to eliminate any chance of contamination and also eliminate the sizeable evaporation problem associated with open pond systems. Specific strains of algae are cultivated in fresh, waste or salt water supplied with CO2 and nutrients.

Earl McConchie explains that huge supplies of waste CO2 are available at no cost from many commercial/industrial sources faced otherwise with the cost of disposing or sequestering CO2. Also, in time, CO2 credits could enter the picture with added benefit to operators of McConchie-Stroud algae-to-oil systems. In fact, algae oil production may become a financially viable business for some operations now generating significant quantities of unwanted CO2.

McConchie estimates that the capital cost is about $2 per gallon of installed capacity. He points out that the current and expected market price of petroleum may see rapid pay-back of the investment. This is helped by low algae-oil production costs, which are calculated with suitable allowance for sale of by-products including protein, glycerin, carbohydrates and biomass. CO2 credits may also become an economic factor.
All together, the economics of the system, without need for subsidies, could be beneficial for the U.S. Construction, installation and operation of the system would account for many jobs and large investment in the U.S. rather than dollar outflow for foreign oil.

McConchie suggested the use of modified, standard sized, intermodal shipping containers as cost effective modules for algae cultivation process equipment. He says that an overall economic business unit of 500 modules each would produce 250 tons of dry algae matter per year. Favorable locations would be those with the most sunlight, located within 35 deg above or below the equator. 

Along with the development of algae-based diesel fuel, new technology diesel engines are entering the picture. Featuring advanced technology including the elimination of expensive engine NOx emissions controls. This can be seen in Mazda’s Skyactiv D engines. The Mazda technology further improves diesel fuel efficiency through lowered compression ratio and other enhancements. 

Another new diesel is the remarkable EcoMotors opoc (Opposed-Piston, Opposed-Cylinder) engine architecture. The balanced, opposed two cylinder system with four pistons per module reduced engine size, weight and parts count by 50%. Diesel engine maker Navistar recently linked with EcoMotors for commercialization of the engine (the first single module is reported to have 100mm cylinder bore, 250-300 hp).

Diesel engine gains such as these put a new focus on compression ignition and increases the possibility of using diesel fuel made from algae rather than gasoline. In the overall picture, domestic bio fuel production has the potential to improve U.S. environmental quality, national economic health, employment, energy security and reduce the huge military expense needed for the protection of imported oil shipping lanes. 

The military expense factor runs the real cost of petroleum substantially higher than the current market price of around $100/bbl; not forgetting the cost of unemployment, debt servicing and other consequences of purchased versus home-made bio oil.  

AI Insider Bob Brooks is a member of the Society of Automotive Engineers and long-time automotive technology journalist specializing in powertrains and fuels.


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