Houston algae developer to release electromechanical processor

By Luke Geiver | June 06, 2011

OpenAlgae, a Houston-based algae developer formed in 2008 with help from the University of Texas, hasn’t been “blowing its own horn” for the past few years, according to CEO Hoyt Thomas. That is, until now. The reason it didn’t issue press releases or talk about the company to the public, he said, is because he knew the company would be releasing its algae processor and accompanying technology this summer.

With help from UT’s Center for Electromechanics, the company came up with a lysing process that is used to separate the lipids within the algae out of the cells. “Lysing is a fancy term for opening the cells,” Thomas explained, “and they do it with high voltage and low amperage electromechanical pulses.” Over the past two years, the team of UT researchers, with the help of OpenAlgae, has run tests on the processing unit that features the lysing electromechanical unit on a dual axle modular trailer, Thomas said, processing roughly 30,000 gallons of algae water. “Essentially, it looks like a horse trailer and you can move it from pond to pond to process algae. You end up with a water stream that you can return to your pond,” along with oil and biomass streams.

The difference between the OpenAlgae approach, Thomas said, is that this process doesn’t require a drying step for the algal biomass, a hexane extraction step or a centrifugation step. “This is not electroporation,” he added. While electroporation is used as a process to open cells for genetic modifications, this process instead permanently opens the cells, essentially killing them, according to Thomas. “What we end up with is the dead cell with the oil still close to it.”

Thomas believes that OpenAlgae’s technology offers an advantage over other similar processes today due to its membrane separation technology that separates the oil in the slurry from the water. “The oil does not float to the surface,” he said, even as other companies claim that their process will make this happen. “It has to be pulled away, and that is what we use the membrane for.”

UT, which owns half of the technology, first developed the electromechanical process for extracting additional sugar out of sugarcane and sugar beets, Thomas said, but when that proved to be uneconomical, Thomas and his team approached UT about using the process for algae. “The thing that we want to accomplish in the next year is to have several units out in the workplace,” he said. The team has already tested a unit, and although the pricing for the unit has not been made official yet, the device will be available this summer and will work in any type of algae cultivation set-up, ranging from open ponds to closed photobioreactors. 


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