DECEMBER 2009

OriginOil cleans water and energizes algae

With the growing worldwide demand for energy, research is ongoing to secure oil and gas from alternative sources that are environmentally-friendly and utilize waste resources. OriginOil, Inc., based in Los Angeles, is developing proprietary technologies to create innovative surface-mounted systems to treat wastewater and produce algae that would produce renewable oil.

“The new system helps pursue clean water goals while generating algae for fuel and other valuable products in wastewater treatment plants,” said Dr. Vikram Pattarkine, OriginOil’s chief scientist. “We want to utilize all types of waste resources in terms of carbon dioxide, nutrients and energy to create biomass. The fastest growing biomass that we know of is algae. It doesn’t require fresh or potable water and, because it can use wastewater, it does not compete with other uses for water, such as irrigation. Algae can grow in marginal and brackish water and can also be grown on wasteland.”

OriginOil’s lighting assembly for their 200 gallon, mid-sized prototype. The in-tank design is meant to overcome the difficulty of delivering light to algae as it thickens and stops outside light.

OriginOil CEO Riggs Eckelberry stressed that previous attempts at using surface-mounted algae were not very scalable.

“Our Attached Growth System delivers scalability and throughput in an industrial process that delivers light more efficiently to grow algae for fuel and helps process wastewater at the same time,” he said.

The company recently filed for patent protection of the new Attached Growth System (AGS), its ninth patent application, titled Methods and Apparatus for Growing Algae on a Solid Surface. OriginOil will integrate the process into the demonstration algae system now being built at its headquarters.

Pattarkine said that growing algae in water is a challenge because as it grows, the algae thickens and stops light.

“One solution is OriginOil’s Helix Bioreactor™, which puts the lights inside the tank,” he said. “Another method is to rotate the algae periodically out of the water so it can be exposed to the light. The AGS uses types of algae that will attach to surfaces rotating in and out of the water, exposing the algae to sunlight or artificial light. At harvest time, the algae is scraped off as sludge, greatly decreasing the energy cost of dewatering during oil extraction.

Here, two incubations of nannochloropsis algae are separated for parallel testing. The algae can grow in marginal and brackish water and can also be grown on wasteland.

“In wastewater treatment plants, the AGS can be configured to encourage both algae and bacterial growth,” he added. “Combining algal and bacterial growth makes for better nutrient extraction than either one of them alone, contributing to clean water goals while also making fuel and absorbing CO2. We recently demonstrated in our cost analysis at the National Algae Association in Houston that algae can be far more profitable when located in wastewater treatment environments. This technology will multiply the benefit.”

Algae, said Pattarkine, is the fastest photo-synthetic organism and that photosynthesis involves the combination of CO2 and water to produce glucose, which is the key to further biochemical reactions. Nutrients to promote algae growth include nitrogen, phosphorous and minute amounts of metals such as iron.

“Global warming is a real issue and we want to look at dealing with CO2 in a reasonable fashion,” he said. “We want to get rid of it – and since there is plenty of it available, if you can utilize wastewater simultaneously, you have a winner.”

The company is in the process of building a pilot scale plant at its facility in Los Angeles – equipment that can be shipped by trailer to various sites in a city or easily transported around the world.

“Commercial and large scale units are probably a couple of years away,” said Pattarkine. “Our systems can be used anywhere in the world and will be piloted in Japan and India. Utilizing wastewater is very appealing in India and we are working there to develop large scale units.”

The company said the technology, when fully developed, can be used anywhere in the world and the production process can be adjusted for regional differences.

“The advantages are that you have a huge quantity of water, and algae also requires a huge amount of water,” said Pattarkine. “In order to get 1 ton of algae, you need to process nearly 1,000 tons of water. Wastewater treatment plants have that water-handling capacity. By retrofitting plants to remove the nutrients from wastewater to produce algae, we can also eliminate the costly tertiary stage of wastewater treatment. This will also prevent phosphates from ending up in lakes, rivers and bays such as San Francisco Bay, which provide critical wildlife habitat.”

The water used for algae production can be reused repeatedly, which means that it does not have to be replaced.

Pattarkine also noted that first and second generation biofuels such as ethanol and biodiesel which use corn, soybeans, and sugarcane, compete with food production, which has had negative impacts on food supplies and prices.

He added that the current oil and gas refinery energy model is now cost-effective because it does not account for all of the costs, such as CO2 emissions, global warming, and environmental damage.

“Future generations will have to pay for that and if we want to have a sustainable model for our energy use, that model will have to change,” said Pattarkine.