How did you make the decision to move from high-tech to biofuels?
It was made many years ago. In 1995, my brother Nicholas and I were keenly interested in going into environmental technologies, but it was too early at a time when oil was at $15 a barrel. I was from high-tech already, having operated a systems house in New York in the eighties. So I continued to pay my dues as a high-tech exec all through the dot-com, while Nicholas invented technology that was used successfully in the wastewater industry, primarily in Japan. In 2007, I had the backing of a group of clean-tech investors and we were able to get together to realize this long-held dream.
Where does the algae come from and what does it cost to contain and harvest it?
Algae is a lot like a culture of sourdough or yogurt. You start with a sample of the algae that you want and you grow as much of it as you want. There are large algae libraries at universities and elsewhere. But often, the algae you want already lives right where you want to produce, and that is likely the best algae for that environment, because it lives there.
The algae is grown in a number of ways, from open ponds to tubes on the ground, to our multi-layer solar growth system called the MultiReactor™, to electrically-powered systems like our Helix BioReactor™. The capital and operating costs of these different systems vary widely.
As for extraction, my presentation at the World Biofuels Markets conference (see link here, slide 21) discusses the costs of extraction, which depend on the technology used.
What are some of OriginOil’s biggest technological achievements thus far?
The development that has made the biggest impact has been our Single Step Extraction™ system, which dramatically simplifies and reduces the cost of algae separation from the water, and extraction of the oil. (see slide 21 of the above presentation). Also, we believe that the MultiReactor will become the best way to grow lots of algae from direct solar energy while minimizing how much real estate is required.
How does the algae to oil process work in general terms?
It starts with injection of nutrients into the algae culture. Our invention, called Quantum Fracturing, breaks the nutrients down into micro-particles so the algae can feed on it. Then the algae is grown using either direct sunlight or artificial light. The algae is harvested and “cracked” into oil and biomass. The oil goes on to be refined into bio-fuel or bio-chemicals, or into nutritional and pharmaceutical products. The biomass can be turned into natural gas, or used as livestock feed, fertilizer, and other products.
Where do you envision the plant(s) to be located, how big will they be and what are the main factors in determining location?
They must be located where the CO2 is. I have seen estimates that algae grows twenty times faster with injected CO2 than with plain atmospheric CO2, so that is essential. If the sites are co-located with industrial CO2 emitters, then you have to think of who is going to operate them, as the factory operators won’t be experts in algae production. So we foresee the emergence of “algae service providers” who will operate the far-flung algae plants located at CO2 emitting sites. These ASPs will operate the plants on behalf of the emitters, manage the carbon credits, and aggregate the fuel and other products for distribution to the market. This is a new distributed energy model brought about by the need to co-locate with algae’s sources of CO2 and other nutrients. In a way, it is a lot like how the Internet changed computing from central to distributed.
As for size, it takes about two tons of CO2 to make one ton of algae (the rest is oxygen). So, a site that emits a million tons a year of CO2 will produce half a million tons of algae. Depending on the type of growth technology used, this might require from hundreds to several thousand acres of “footprint” for each CO2 emitting site.
Will there need to be a new infrastructure to deliver the product or can we use the existing oil distribution system?
Currently the algae industry is working on “drop-in” technology that will allow the refining of algae into true gasoline, diesel and kerosene (jet fuel). These products are identical to their fossil equivalents. Therefore, after refining, the distribution system need not be affected.
Practically speaking, it’s very likely that bio-fuels and bio-chemicals will be delivered as premium products as many consumers will prefer them. So there might be a separate gas pump for a bio-gasoline. But functionally, it will be the same.
How soon do you think we can expect to see oil from algae being used in our everyday lives?
I think that we will first see algae oil being used in bio-chemicals such as plastics, coatings and so on. This is a huge potential market that requires only a high-quantity, affordable source of feedstock. I think we will see this begin to reach the market over the next five years. The oil will take a little longer, as there is no spare refining capacity in the US. But we will see algae based drop-in fuels in distribution in this decade.
What will the first applications be?
Absolutely, bio-chemicals. But even before we get to the oil, the role of algae in reducing CO2 pollution will, in a way, be its first application. The CO2 polluters are extremely anxious to start mitigating their CO2 output using algae instead of other, much more expensive and unrealistic approaches like liquefying the gas and shooting it miles underground. This urgent role is what I believe will drive massive algae adoption. Ironically, algae will have a key role in helping fossil fuel producers to survive!
How has the Oil Spill affected the outlook for biofuels?
The spill has fundamentally affected the politics of energy for the long-term. It’s the oil industry’s Three Mile Island. As the reality continues to parade in front of television viewers for months, tremendous demand will build for a New Way, and we need to act quickly to satisfy that demand with scalable and affordable bio-fuels.
Riggs Eckelberry, President & CEO, OriginOil
One of the inventors of the Company’s breakthrough technology, Riggs Eckelberry brings his veteran technology management skills to the alternative energy sector. As President and COO of CyberDefender Corporation from 2005 to 2006, he was instrumental in building the company and its innovative product line, helping to achieve initial funding and a public company filing (CYDE.OB). From 2001 to mid-2005, he helped launch and turn around technology companies as founder and President of TechTransform, a technology consulting firm. In 2004, he was a key member of the team that commercialized YellowPages.com, resulting in its sale for $100 million to SBC/BellSouth. In 2003, he helped make Panda Software a key player in the US market as the General Manager of its US unit. During the high-tech boom of the 1990s, he was responsible for the global brand success of the software product, CleanSweep; as Chief Operating Officer of MicroHouse Technologies, he drove record sales and a modernization of the company’s technology, helping to achieve a successful sale of the company to Earthweb; and as VP Marketing of venture-backed TriVida, he was a key member of the team that commercialized the company’s technology and achieved the sale of this technology company to BeFree, Inc. (now part of ValueClick: VCLK).