Origin Oil presents at algae conference

By Jerry W. Kram | July 14, 2008
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Web exclusive posted Aug. 23, 2008 at 12:00 p.m. CST

The future of algae is aglow, if the claims of Origin Oil are correct. The company presented its photobioreactor technology at the National Algae Association Business Plan Forum on July 17 in The Woodlands, Texas.

"We just filed our fifth patent and that signaled our sort of coming out party," said Riggs Eckelberry, president and chief executive officer of Origin Oil Inc. "It was the first time we have discussed our technology in detail and discussed our vision."

Origin Oil's algae production system incorporates several unique innovations. "Algae has always been one of those promising things that is just a few years away," Eckelberry said. "We discovered there are a number of speed bumps in the process that add up to be a show stopper. If you have a problem with every step, it adds up to something that just doesn't work. Our approach was not to think of algae as a crop but as an industrial process."

The company calls the first patented step "quantum fracturing" which creates micronized bubbles to carry carbon dioxide and other nutrients to the algae. Eckelberry said this system is a very efficient way to deliver elements necessary for growth to the algae. "We launched the company with that original patent," Eckelberry said.

The second stage of the process uses the company's Helix Bioreactor. The system differs from most photobioreactors in that it's lit internally by low power LEDs which are tuned to the red and blue frequencies that deliver the most energy to the algae. Eckelberry said these LEDs could be powered by wind, solar or other renewable resources. "We strongly prefer indirect lighting," he said. "We love the sun, but we don't want to have direct sunlight. Algae only consumes a small part of the sun's spectrum, less than 10 percent. Some of the other rays are actually harmful to the algae. We believe that if you can get the right wavelength to the algae cells, then you will have much more efficient growth."

The final step in the process uses the Quantum Fracturing process to harvest the algae. Creating the microscopic bubbles also creates ultrasonic waves and heat. Combining these effects with low power tuned microwaves disrupts the cell wall of the algae, releasing the oil which can then be skimmed off.

The first implementation of the company's technology will be deployed in transport containers which are commonly used in shipping. This will allow Origin's customers to work with the system on a modular basis, adding units as necessary. This setup will be used as the company optimizes the system to the point where it can be implemented on an industrial scale. "The problem with this industry is that everybody wants to do it," Eckelberry said. "We said we will build a standard module that can be used for entry level applications. People can easily get a turnkey algae production system that is stackable, scalable and transportable."

As the applications of the system grow and develop, Origin Oil will license its designs to companies who want to build large scale systems. "After (scaling up to) more than six or seven units, you really want to go to a custom application, more like a brewery," Eckelberry said. "We want to help you build that brewery. It will be more a 'powered by' solution rather than our company building all these facilities."

The National Algae Association was recently formed by Barry Cohen. He deemed the association's quarterly forum a success with more than 250 attendees. "The conference is far beyond my expectations," Cohen said. "We have doubled in size since our last conference. Algae is taking off as a feedstock that doesn't affect the food channel. With the price of feedstocks going up, algae is going be something that will help the biodiesel industry."

Eckelberry agreed with the assessment of the meeting. "I was amazed at the energy of the conference," Eckelberry said. "The corridors were just overwhelmed with people. There was a combination of very smart scientific people and businesspeople, funders and entrepreneurs. It was quite a mix."
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