OriginOil to help Mexico commercialize algae-based jet fuel

By Bryan Sims | February 22, 2011

California-based algae technology developer OriginOil Inc. has agreed to participate in a pilot-scale algae project funded by the Mexican government. The project aims to demonstrate industrial algae production while paving the way for substantial investment by the Mexican government in large-scale biobased jet fuel production.

The collaborative endeavor—dubbed the “Manhattan Project”—will be launched at an “alpha” pilot site in Ensenada, Baja, Calif. The Center for Scientific Research and Higher Education will operate the site alongside project partner Genesis Ventures, which will also invite University of Baja California algae researchers to collaborate in the project. The work will leverage a series of Economy Ministry grants that will be administered through The National Council for Science and Technology to help fund the multiyear effort, according to OriginOil Riggs Eckelberry.

“I expect we’ll be on the ground at the alpha site in the second quarter,” Eckelberry said. “There are three phases this year that are triggered by different grants. By the end of the third phase [Genesis Ventures] expects to have an operation of two hectares in production; one hectare devoted to open pond algal growth and the other devoted to photobioreactor growth.”

Eckelberry said OriginOil will provide a three-pronged service approach to the collaborative project. First, he said, the company intends to provide algae growth expertise such as introducing contaminant control systems and carbon dioxide capturing technologies. The second will be to supply its line of trademarked Single Step Extraction, Live Extraction and Hydrogen Harvester extraction technologies. The third major leg of OriginOil’s involvement will be to provide ongoing services and oversight of its technologies during the life of the project.

“We are completely in this project,” Eckelberry said. “It’s really is going to be a multiyear program for us.”

The alpha pilot site in Ensenada, Eckelberry said, is intended to serve as a model to replicate, or “seed,” Mexico with similar pilot-scale algae projects consisting of approximately 1,000 hectares (2,471 acres) of land co-located with large carbon dioxide sources. In parallel, Genesis Ventures and its partners intend to develop beta sites, which would be larger-scaled versions of their alpha counterparts. Aside from the pilot site in Ensenada, future alpha and beta sites have not yet been identified.

“The vision is to keep these projects highly distributed and not be centralized in a massive footprint,” Eckelberry said.

He estimates that one hectare could produce in excess of 200 kilograms (or 441 pounds) of algae biomass per day, yielding approximately 74 kilograms (163 pounds) of lipid depending on the oil content of the algae. He added that some refining processes are able to convert the entire algal biomass into a crude oil equivalent, which makes the entire algae crop a potential fuel.

While algae alone isn’t expected to fulfill Mexico’s ambitious goal of producing 10 million gallons of biobased jet fuel by 2015, Eckelberry said the project will likely work in tandem with other nonfood-based feedstock contributing to the country’s overall biofuel production goals, such as jatropha and camelina.

“Obviously, algae is going to be the most viable in the long-term, but it will likely be a blend of feedstocks that will help develop the country’s biofuel needs,” Eckelberry said. “We welcome that. We’re perfectly happy to coexist with a very strong farmer’s block in Mexico with jatropha cultivation. We don’t want to interrupt that.”

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