OriginOil reports hydrogen harvest breakthrough

By Anna Austin | May 31, 2010
Posted July 9, 2010, at 11:10 a.m. CST

Algae biofuel technology company OriginOil Inc. has unveiled yet another component to its portfolio of algae growth and harvest technologies, a hydrogen harvesting process that Chief Technology Officer Brian Goodall said is a critical development for the realization of a completely integrated algal biorefinery.

Hydrogen is the most abundant element on Earth, frequently described as a perfect fuel. It does not exist in nature by itself, however, and research/methods to date have not been able to efficiently, cleanly and affordably generate hydrogen from renewable resources such as biomass.

OriginOil's Hydrogen Harvester does this, according to Goodall, allowing for the photosynthetic splitting of water into oxygen and hydrogen using algae. Direct water-splitting technologies have been the focus of many research and development efforts over the years, being referred to by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory as the "Holy Grail" of the hydrogen economy.

Today, there are two ways in which hydrogen is made commercially, Goodall explained. "Ninety-five-plus percent of the world's hydrogen is made from the reforming of natural gas. If you don't have to use natural gas, you'll have an even further improved life-cycle analysis on the fuels that you make," he said. "When you produce fuel from vegetable oils or algae biomass, you use quite a bit of hydrogen for hydrotreating to remove oxygen and meet the specs you need for winter/renewable diesel and jet fuel. That hydrogen comes from natural gas, so you're generating CO2."

The second method of producing hydrogen is through electrolysis, a process that uses electricity to pass a current through water to make hydrogen and oxygen, by burning fossil fuels. "What we're doing is using the same algae we are growing for biomass purposes by using the power of sunlight, while producing oil and biomass, and splitting the water to produce hydrogen and oxygen."

For privacy reasons, Goodall could not go into extensive detail about the Hydrogen Harvester, but he said the splitting process continues for many hours and produces a large amount of hydrogen. "It doesn't slow development or growth of algae; it's a supplementary product that we make through the same process," he said. "Our algae are doing this for us as a side task while also growing the oils and biomass."

But what's the real significance of the technology in relation to producing algae biofuels? There are several reasons why it is a breakthrough, Goodall said, the first being that recovering hydrogen provides the necessary ingredients for clean electricity generation using fuel cells. "The energy can be used to offset the electricity requirements of algae cultivation, harvesting and downstream processing," he said. The technology, which is currently patent pending, does not require considerable external energy inputs, sulfur deprivation or other "stressing" of the algae, and doesn't require genetic modifications to the algae, all methods that past research efforts have revolved around, according to Goodall.

"In producing fuel from algae in an integrated way, a previous conundrum has been a need for hydrogen pipelines, or close proximity to existing refineries which are typically far removed from ideal sites for algae growth," Goodall said. "If there aren't either, it will have to be transported by truck or rail to where there is a pipeline or existing refinery to turn it into fuel. The Hydrogen Harvester eliminates the need for both."

Goodall said OriginOil has more work to do in terms of screenings, scoping optimizing and scaling up, but bench-scale results have indicated that so far the process is scalable to at least one order of magnitude. "We believe in order to be successful [in the biofuel industry], one has to have a variety of different revenue streams in order to be profitable, commercially successful and relevant, because at the end of the day, oil is a very cheap commodity," he added.