Success Story

Fuel From Algae

Algae is a potentially attractive source of renewable energy, but this kind of biofuel has been challenging to bring to the marketplace. That’s because producers typically must first remove the water from the algae, then extract oil from the dried algae. This is an energy-intensive and costly process, and it leaves residual material behind that is difficult to use.

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) developed an efficient method to process biomass while it’s still wet. The wet algae is heated and pressurized, which can convert more than 99 percent of it into oil and natural gas. This process is similar to the way fossil fuels were formed, except that it does in less than an hour what would took nature millions of years to do. Byproducts such as nitrogen and phosphorous can be treated and pumped back into the algae growth ponds to support new growth. The result is an efficient process to make clean fuel that doesn’t add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

Utah-based Genifuel Corporation, which had developed growth and harvest techniques for aquatic biomass, supplied algae for early testing at PNNL. In 2009, Genifuel licensed the conversion technology from PNNL. Researchers from the two organizations collaborated to further develop and optimize the process for algae. The biofuel and business communities began highlighting the new technology, with media coverage ranging from Biomass Magazine to Forbes. Genifuel now is working with Reliance Industries, Ltd. in Colorado to build the nation’s first pilot-scale plant using the technology, with operations expected to begin in 2014. If all works as planned, it will pave the way for commercial-scale deployment.