When senior executives move from the petroleum industry into the biofuels sector, there is a certain satisfaction that comes with them into this new field. Their satisfaction, because they are reinvesting themselves in the green future; and the satisfaction of those they are now working with, who feel the expertise those people bring with them is some of what’s needed to create a “real” industry for algae. This is certainly the case with Brian Goodall, OriginOil’s recently added CTO.
What did he study in college? “Not algae, that’s for sure!” he says.
By training, Brian’s a chemist who went to the University of Bristol, in England, for both his Bachelors and Ph.D. His specialization was organometallic chemistry, which got him into the rarified area of catalysis. “I did that for 20+ years, becoming Shell’s global expert in propylene polymerization catalysis in the process, and generating more than 80 patents for catalysts or materials using catalysts,” says Brian.
After a long career at Royal Dutch Shell, Brian moved to Rohm and Haas in the early 2000’s and it was there, while working on a government-funded research project on a new generation of polymerization catalysis, that Brian saw the future he wanted to help create. I had already decided at that point that I needed to reinvent myself, because the area where I had spent my career until that point and become an expert, in my opinion, was pretty much at the top of the “S curve.”
“All of the really exciting big new things had been done already. People weren’t really waiting with bated breath for a new polymer or polymerization catalyst because pretty much everything that customers wanted was already there. It was just tweaking at that point,” he says.
So Brian started looking for a new S-curve. “I’ve always wanted to work on things that are really important, at least to the company where I’m working and, ideally, beyond that. I don’t mind how big the challenge is or how hard it is, if it’s exciting to work on, if it is truly commercially relevant, and if you can solve the problem, then people will care and it will make a difference. I cannot think of a better example than finding a solution to the World’s need for renewable, sustainable liquid transportation fuels.”
Q: What was your first encounter with biodiesel?
A: Around 2005 biodiesel seemed to be the big thing, so I jumped in with both feet. I started dabbling with biodiesel catalysis and esterification catalysis while I was at Rohm and Haas. The feedstock at that point was food oils. It was apparent to the people at Rohm and Haas that in order to be long term economical, you didn’t want to use RBD (Refined Bleached Deodorized) grade oils. You needed to think lower grade, less refined oils that would get your cost down.
You could use recycled cooking oil, but the big challenge then (in addition to limited supplies) was that those lower grade oils would have a lot of free fatty acids in them. So the conventional process using sodium methoxide, (or sodium methylate) wouldn’t work because the free fatty acids would react with the sodium and it would give you a soap, rendering the process a non-starter. So our approach at Rohm and Haas was to develop a pre-esterification unit that enabled you to use lower grade feedstocks.
That was one of the topics that I was working on when I quit Rohm and Haas and joined Imperium Renewables as VP of Technology Development, and I kind of served my apprenticeship in the new space of first and second-generation biofuels.
I came to a few personal conclusions around what fuels were better than others, and what technologies were the most viable. It quickly became apparent in 2007 that, at the end of the day, it’s all about the cost of your feedstock. The cost of food oil just went through the roof in 2007. It was crazy, and you had plants that were shutting down because it just didn’t make sense to make biodiesel anymore.
Q: Is that when you came around to looking at algae as a feedstock?
A: Educating myself from that perch it became apparent that it had to be an aquatic plant, simply because of the yield of oil per acre per year, and the fact that you wouldn’t be competing with farm land and, if you did it right, microalgae is the most productive of all of the aquatic plants and was clearly the way to go.
I decided to leave Imperium when I was offered an opportunity I couldn’t say no to — to become Vice President of Downstream Technology, at Sapphire Energy. And that’s when I really got into understanding what algae was all about, all of the different downstream processes, and enough about the upstream to be able to select different strains, to see the plusses and minuses, recognize what the challenges were, and start to address them.
Literally my very first day at Sapphire (June 2008) I picked up the phone and started working on getting algae oil on that Continental demo flight, about six months later, in January of 2009. That was an important milestone to take algae out of that far, far away mindset, to more the thinking of: if we can just get the cost down, we have a winner here.
Q: A lot has happened in just a couple of years. Since your stint at Sapphire, where have you seen the most progress industry-wide?
A: I think the major progress is that it’s now been demonstrated that algae oil can make all the fuels that people are interested in, jet fuel, diesel, gasoline, the aromatics that need to go into the jet fuel to make it really a drop-in replacement of today’s jet fuel, and then also specialty products.
At Sapphire I became convinced that the best approach is to make drop-in replacements of today’s fuels, because then you are not having to change the existing infrastructure and as soon as you get the economics right you can commercially deploy. It doesn’t involve major retooling of either refineries or vehicles. Otherwise it will be a long row to hoe, and involve trillion dollar investments into new refineries, jet turbine engines and the like.
Q: And where do you see the biggest hurdles?
A: There are various “choke points” along the value chain that need to be addressed to make it commercially viable. For example, there is no getting around the fact that when you grow microalgae in an open pond, the concentration of the algae in the water is less than one-tenth of one percent. That’s an awful lot of water and unless you have a very efficient way of getting the algae out of the water, or getting the oil out of the algae while it’s still in the water, that right there can be a significant impediment to economic viability given how much energy is required to remove that water using conventional methods.
Q: These and the other choke points you see, is the natural progression of science dealing with these things, or do you see any kind of brick wall we may hit out there?
A: I think the challenges can be overcome. Something else where attention is being given now is the actual oil. A lot of people over the years drew a parallel between the type of vegetable oil that you can buy in the supermarket, like canola or soy, and figured that algae oil is going to be the same. Well, typically it isn’t. People who are in the field and doing the work are starting to recognize that algae oil can be a very different and much more complex beast.
In algae there are different oil components dispersed throughout the organism to fulfill different roles. So if you just go ahead and do an extraction in the same way that you would extract, say, soybeans, you don’t just get triglycerides, you get all of the other things that Mother Nature put in there, like chlorophyll and phospholipids and all sorts of other things that you really don’t want in the downstream processing.
One of the other things I am keeping an eye on, as far as brick walls we could hit, are the nutrients and fertilizers we need, be it for algae or any other plant. And the real bugaboo I look at is phosphorus. We need to make sure that when we grow algae, or any other plant, that we really manage our phosphorus resources well and make sure we have viable technologies to get that phosphorus recycled. That’s every bit as limited a resource as crude oil.
Q: What attracted you to join OriginOil?
A: A big thing for me has always been commercialization and productization. I’m driven by meeting the needs of the market and the customer. So I’ve been looking at what’s needed by today’s refiners, the big oil companies, or people who want to process the oils or biomass you get from algae into the commercial products on the downstream side. And on the upstream side, I have people who are growing or planning to grow algae on a large scale but need a big, viable market for their products.
In my opinion, between the upstream and downstream there’s a missing link, just like there was when crude oil was first discovered more than a century ago. In the early days of crude there wasn’t all that much market for it, even though it was basically a world changing material. The technologies to convert that crude oil into the useful products (e.g. gasoline, chemicals, polymers) we have today, still had to be developed. And from my viewpoint in the algae space, there aren’t really many people focusing on that part of the equation.
I was watching a situation develop where beautiful science was being done on the biology, microbiology, and phycology side, but then what was being made didn’t really fit into today’s infrastructure. It took me a little while to realize, but in fact that is exactly what OriginOil is setting out to do, and has successfully done at several of these choke point areas — developed enabling technologies that take the green water and turn it into either streams or products that the world wants today. And that’s what Riggs Eckelberry has been building, and continues to build, and I really wanted to be part of it.
Q: In pursuing the drop-in model, what other infrastructure elements need to be developed around algae oil?
A: There are some new add-ons that need to be addressed. If we look back at what crude oil is, Mother Nature had 70 million years to mature it, reduce it, and pull the oxygen out. Now what we’re starting with is fresh algal oils and all of the oxygen is still in it, so technologies have to be developed, and are being developed to pull the oxygen out – HDO, hydrodeoxygenation for example. Once that oxygen is out, then you have a nice hydrocarbon stream and that hydrocarbon stream is perfect for making diesel and jet fuel.
The full diversity of what you can do with crude oil has been developed over the decades, so it’s going to take a lot of work to replace everything that you can get from crude oil.
Right at the beginning of my career, when I joined Shell in the 1970s, we were brainstorming about what things would look like in the year 2020. We were looking at alternative fuels, but the major thought at that time was that we would need to make sure that there was enough crude oil left in the ground to make the chemicals we were drawing from it.
In the short term, in order to be profitable, algae is going to be driven by things like biosequestration and more valuable products than fuels. But when it really gets to scale, I think the role for algae is going to be for fuels, and then for some of the more exotic things that require multi-step processes starting from fossil sources. Another huge commodity product being targeted in the algae space is ethylene (via ethanol and its dehydration to green ethylene). Ethylene is the building block used for roughly 2/3 (mass basis) of today’s petrochemical products (e.g. polymers, resins, anti-freeze, detergents and more).
And then, hopefully, we can stop burning crude oil for fuel and use it for its more valuable components and chemicals, which is kind of where I started from, almost 40 years ago at Shell.
Q: Among these enabling technologies you talk about, OriginOil recently announced the hydrogen capture process. How does the process work and how did that come about?
A: We call it the Hydrogen Harvester, and it came about because at OriginOil we’re far from being a homogeneous group of people. There are many different things going on there, people building experimental devices, working on the single step extraction technology, our CO2 delivery technology called quantum fracturing… It’s a very eclectic mix of different skills all over the map, with people doing not just biology, but chemistry, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering. And so it wasn’t that we were looking for this, but we noticed that while growing algae in our labs under certain conditions, a huge and potent amount of gas bubbled out. And analysis showed that it was hydrogen.
This is at a large bench scale version right now — we’ve scaled up about a factor of ten. The algae do not die in this process; in fact they remain active in photosynthesis and produce copious amounts of hydrogen pretty constantly over the course of many hours.
When you put the system into the sunlight the rate takes off dramatically. The algae start to run out of steam if you stop feeding them CO2. Essentially what we are doing is using sunlight and photosynthesis to split water and generate hydrogen.
Q: What role do you see for this development?
A: Basically it’s a bolt-on. If you’ve got a large algae production facility in the ideal place, you’ll be close to a CO2 producer, a refinery, and a hydrogen pipeline. But those things are unlikely to happen, whereas if you generate your own hydrogen at the point of algae oil production, then you can imagine for the first time actually building a freestanding hydrotreating plant to make diesel and jet fuel right at the location where you’re growing your algae. It further improves the carbon footprint of renewable fuels since today hydrogen is generated from fossil methane.
If you think bigger, maybe you can get into gas/electricity production using fuel cells. Think about it. On the one hand you’re using carbon dioxide, and you are generating hydrogen and oxygen, so you could be a gas production facility. All of that can be done at no additional energy input because it’s still the same algae and sunlight, and without a major capital investment.
Q: How aggressively are you developing this technology?
A: We are going to work diligently over the next few months to quantify, further develop and optimize this technology as much as we can. However, we are a multiple products company serving multiple production roadmaps, with differing timelines and states of readiness and so our resources must be carefully managed. We have some key short-term goals and we are currently delivering some of our technologies to a commercial customer in Australia. So at the moment we are developing multiple products in parallel, each at its own pace and I relish the thought of giving the Hydrogen Harvester my undivided attention when schedules and timelines allow.
In terms of figuring out exactly how big the Hydrogen Harvester will have to be relative to the algae production facility for oil, we haven’t gotten to that level of fine tuning just yet. My goal is to try and be there within three months. To supply sufficient hydrogen to hydrotreat algal oils to renewable diesel and/or hydrotreated renewable jet (HRJ) requires roughly 25Kg per ton oil (depending somewhat on the algae strain used).
Q: Are you looking toward partnering with another organization to further develop that technology?
A: I would certainly consider that. Hopefully something like that could materialize because that would be my preferred way of doing things. It’s something that could be so important, it would be nice to have it front and center of a large, concerted effort.
Q: Origin recently publicized that their first commercial customer, as you just referred to, is MBD, an Australian energy company, and the first deliverable is the Quantum Fracturing system for dealing with their CO2. Can you tell us more about why that technology is valuable for them?
A: MBD’s real driver is biosequestration of carbon dioxide, and so it is very important to them because they are burning a lot of coal and producing copious amounts of CO2. And the most cost effective way to do something about their CO2 is biosequestration using algae. Having said that, you want to capture your CO2 as effectively as possible: Not just cost effectively, but actually utilize as much of that CO2 that you’re feeding into the system as possible. So it’s very important to have a smart system that introduces the material as rapidly and efficiently as needed into the algae culture, and not oversaturate it so you lose the CO2 into the air and defeat the purpose.
Q: What are your feelings about going outside of this country for your first customer? Do you see competition in the world market to develop these technologies?
A: I think developing algal biofuels is a truly global endeavor, which is a great thing. Countries have different reasons for making this development. Some countries have more government funding available for this, and some countries where they don’t get much sun are at a distinct disadvantage.
There is no excuse for America not having and maintaining a lead role, because we have an entrepreneurial spirit, some of the best research establishments in the world, and we are the driver of the huge potential promise of this industry.
At the end of the day I don’t think there’s going to be any single company that’s going to encapsulate the whole value chain and do everything themselves. There’s going to have to be a network of partnerships where an algae producer partners with a technology provider and a refinery. That’s in essence the way that things will likely develop, and in the case of OriginOil, we are a technology provider that thinks that we have a lot to offer to both algae growers and refiners, being the important link between the two.