Algae biodiesel milestone achieved

By Luke Geiver | November 17, 2010
Posted Nov. 24, 2010

In January, the U.S. DOE awarded the National Alliance for Advanced Biofuels and Bioproducts (NAABB) $50 million dollars in funding to research and develop a method for converting algae oil into biodiesel. Roughly six months after beginning the work, NAABB has proven that the DOE's funding award was well earned, after announcing a consortium between leading scientists, engineers, universities, private industry and national laboratories has successfully produced ASTM-spec biodiesel from an algae-based feedstock.

"This is a big deal," said Dave Sams, vice president of business development for Catilin Inc., an innovative biodiesel processor company. "This is the most money the DOE has given to convert algae to biodiesel." Made up of 33 members, the consortium used algae oil provided by Eldorado Biofuels, and Catilin converted the oil using their T300 solid catalyst system, which produces a highly purified glycerin product.

The oil provided by Eldorado was mainly triglycerides, according to Sams, and after converting it into a crude biodiesel via transesterifcation, it was distilled to create a biodiesel that met ASTM specs. The amount of product produced was only at bench scale, equaling a couple of liters, but Sams says the consortium will continue to work on the process methods. "The biggest challenge today in converting algae to fuel is the harvesting and extraction step," Sams said, adding, "the algal biology is pretty well understood, but the killer is harvesting and extraction, and just getting algae out of the pond is expensive because you can't be burning a lot of fossil carbon trying to dry the biomass."

There are at least five teams working on the harvesting and extraction step, and although some are looking at ways to gasify the biomass for power generation, Sams says the main aim of the consortium and the goal of the DOE is to convert algal oil into biodiesel. The Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis has the contract from the DOE, and the members act as subcontractors to the Science Center with Danforth managing the consortium. "We are only half way through year one," Sams said. "So we have two-and-a-half more years." NAABB will now distribute the oil to all of its members for engine emissions testing.
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