Utah company develops powdered biofuel

By Erin Voegele
Posted August 18, 2010, at 4:30 p.m. CST

Compact Contractors of America LLC, a Utah-based company developing dry algae aviation fuels, recently announced it has sold samples of its powdered algae-based jet fuel to the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory. According to Robert Fulton, CCA's chief technologist and founder, the laboratory will conduct testing and evaluation on the fuel for use as a solid propellant for aviation rocket use.

CCA's technology involves drying biobased feedstock at a specific temperature over a specific period of time, said Fulton. "We use a spray dryer [which is] commercial technology that is currently available," he continued. "I discovered…that under certain conditions you can actually draw the oils to the surface of the cells while you are removing the moisture from [the feedstock]." The resulting powdered fuel is very conducive to simultaneous combustion, Fulton said, meaning that the sugars, plant material, cellulose and proteins all tend to fire at once. "It does not caramelize and it does not gel, which makes it a good jet fuel," he continued.

While CCA's research is currently focused on using algae as a primary feedstock, Fulton said that there potential to use other feedstocks, such as camelina in the future. While the process can utilize a wide variety of algae strains, Fulton noted that the oil content of the feedstock affects the grade of the fuel. While high-grade fuels are needed for aviation use, Fulton said lower grades may be used to fuel stationary applications on the ground, such as turbine engines that produce electricity.

One benefit of CCA's production process is that it is cheap. "We take algae in its harvested condition, i.e., right out of the water stream," Fulton said. "I can harvest from wild sources such as in lakes, or from open raceways or ponds. I can take it as it is harvested, meaning very low density-all the way down to 2 percent solids. Since I'm spraying it and then recovering the waste air, I am also able to pull the moisture out and return it to the source."

Another benefit of the fuel, said Fulton, is that it's easy to transport and store. He also noted that the fuel has specific advantages for use at low temperatures and high altitudes. "Most other biofuels, especially those for aviation use, tend to gel," Fulton said. "They become nearly solid, whereas the powered fuel that I've created is even more fluid or viscous at low temperatures. In other words, it becomes better for use in a jet engine, although it is exquisite at room temperature and even relatively high temperatures."

While jet engines themselves require no modification to utilize the dry biofuel, Fulton said changes to need to be made to the fuel delivery system. With the help of the Utah Science Technology and Research initiative, Fulton said CCA has teamed up with Pennsylvania State University researchers who have experience in working with powdered fuel delivery systems.

"USTAR is a state of Utah funded technology-based economic development initiative," said Michael O'Mallui, USTAR's director of marketing and communications. "One of our goals is to increase the collaboration between the private sector and our universities. This project is a great example of the success of that program." In addition to assisting CCA in partnering with Penn State Researchers, USTAR has also provided CCA with funding that has enabled the company to experiment with and catalog algae strains. "[We are] experimenting with algae …to find those that will be the best, the cheapest, and the easiest to process, while yielding the highest energy upon combustion," Fulton said.

According to Fulton, CCA is working to develop off-take agreements for its dry biofuel products. Once those agreements are in place, Fulton estimates it will take approximately 6 months to develop a commercial-scale production facility.