OriginOil achieves rapid algae oil extraction

By Susanne Retka Schill
OriginOil Inc. is making progress toward reducing the cost of harvesting algae and extracting the oil in a rapid, one-step process. In addition to integrating this process into its own algae production system, OriginOil plans to quickly commercialize the patent-pending process for use by others in the algae industry.

While a number of developers have been working on various systems to efficiently grow algae, a major hurdle for the industry has been efficiently harvesting the algae and extracting the oil. Not only does algae production require large volumes of water, but algae share the same specific gravity as water, hindering easy separation. "The energy cost of extracting algae is 10 times the energy cost of extracting soybean oil," said OriginOil Chief Executive Officer Riggs Eckelberry.

In the past several months, OriginOil has combined its ultrasound-based Quantum Fracturing process with pH modification and electromagnetism. "In a single step you can extract the oil and get the biomass and oil to separate spontaneously shortly afterward," he explained. The process releases the oil to rise to the top for skimming, while the remaining biomass settles to the bottom. In less than an hour, the oil, water and biomass separate by gravity alone. No chemicals or heavy machinery are used, and no initial dewatering is required.

OriginOil is already in talks with potential partners to commercialize the technology quickly, Eckelberry added. The company has completed a series of bench prototype testing and continues to experiment with adjusting the various factors to optimize the process. OriginOil intends to distribute the technology for algae harvest and oil extraction separately, as it continues to work with its own algae production system.

In February, OriginOil announced it had signed a cooperative research and development agreement with the U.S. DOE's Idaho National Laboratory. In the first phase, INL will develop a model to evaluate algae systems' mass and energy balance. In the second phase, INL will work with OriginOil's prototype technology to validate and further develop the company's algae technology.

With breakthroughs being announced weekly by the multiple companies developing algae technology, Eckelberry admits healthy skepticism is in order. "It's a dot-com environment right now, and it's going to take a while for it all to sort out," he said. He advises observers to follow the announcements, and "see how it settles out." Eckelberry is an advocate of sharing information and progress, while respecting the need to protect proprietary information. He will be speaking at the quarterly forum of algae entrepreneurs on April 30 organized by the National Algae Association. OriginOil's chief technology officer Vikram Pattarkine will be speaking at Algae World on April 27-28 in Rotterdam, Netherlands.