by David Schwartz

Jose Sanchez Piña next to two outdoor algae scale-up reactors at a customer’s site in Australia.

Jose Sanchez Piña next to two outdoor algae scale-up reactors at a customer’s site in Australia.

Currently Vice President of QA & Services at OriginOil Inc., Jose Sanchez Piña is a veteran in the design and field operation of open pond, photobioreactor and dark-growth algae production systems, as well as an experienced executive in product and intellectual property development. An expert in the commercialization of algae, he designed Mexico’s first biodiesel plant and advised Mexican lawmakers in the creation of the country’s biofuel industry.

Before joining OriginOil, Sanchez Piña was General Manager of Aurora Mexico, a subsidiary of the then Alameda, California-based Aurora Biofuels, where he launched Aurora’s Mexico-based field operations, built and opened its R&D facilities, managed initial scale-up endeavors, and carried out negotiations on land acquisition, water rights and CO2 procurement. He is an expert on the operations required to address the environmental, water management and land use aspects of algae production systems worldwide.

We spoke with Jose at the ABS in Orlando recently and he brought up some astounding observations. Read on!

Over the past couple of years it seems like the direction of OriginOil has shifted from algae harvesting technology to cleaning water, using the same technology. What do you see as the company’s strategy at this point?

The strategy of OriginOil at this moment is to saturate the markets that are going to induce us to have profits. We are the specialists, and probably the best, to harvest algae, but during the testing that we did, we discovered processes like, for example, removing the ammonia from the water, and sanitizing water for the aquaculture industry. And at this moment, the aquaculture industry is ten times larger than the algae industry. So we are doing that in order to keep improving and have our products ready for the timing when algae becomes the large industry we need to have for biofuels, for foods, and everything else it can do.

How do you see the future of algae?

We are so sure that algae is going to be the answer, because the largest problem that mankind is facing right now is not global warming. It’s phosphorus depletion. We are going to run out of phosphorus by 2035 and right now the only way that we can retrieve phosphorus from the sewage, before it goes back into the ocean, is with algae. Phosphorus is very important because it is the fertilizer that is necessary to make the cell walls of plants. So if we don’t have it, there is not going to be food production and it will lead to wars, famine…

Phosphorus for algae is going to be what the Internet was for the computer. It’s going to give algae justification and something imperative to do that will allow the algae businesses to thrive. We know that algae is the future, but for the time being we are living in the present, which for us is very much aquaculture.

Describe the recovery process for phosphorus from wastewater.

You have phosphorus in the fertilizers that you use for food production. Sometimes what happens is that this phosphorus gets into the wastewater systems, the irrigation systems, and it goes to the drains and then to the sea. We can retrieve it back by putting algae right there in the drains, making the algae grow and taking the phosphorus out of the water.

The phosphorus goes to the food, the food goes to the humans, the humans go to the wastewater, and before it goes back to the ocean we can take it back to the algae. Right now, one percent by weight of any algae, pretty much, is phosphorus. So if you put the algae right there in the drain systems, you can retrieve the phosphorus before it goes back into the ocean.

What was the original connection between algae and phosphorus?

20 million years ago there was phosphorus in the seawater. The phosphorus was taken by the algae, the algae was eaten by, for example, a sardine. The sardine was eaten by a sea gull, the sea gull went over to a cliff in Peru or Morocco and they did what they needed to do, and that is what made the phosphoric rock that later became the phosphate fertilizer that eventually allowed mankind to grow food.

This is good not only for food supply for mankind; it is good for biofuels, because you will need fertilizer for the biofuels. So phosphorus is important and at this moment the public doesn’t know about the coming crisis.

So that being said, we are the best in retrieving the algae out from the water, and we are the best in retrieving the phosphorus out from the water so we can make organic fertilizers. At this moment, that is not on the market.

What are you doing for aquaculture producers at the moment?

In aquaculture right now we can do three things for the aquaculture producers. One, we remove the ammonia out from the water. The fish, instead of urinating the ammonia, they expel it from the gills, and the more food you give them, the more ammonia they expel, and it’s toxic for them. So there is a limiting factor in the growth of the fish and the food you can give them because of the ammonia.

We have a system that can remove in thirty seconds what other systems like biofiltration, or biofloc filters get out in four or five hours – and they only get half of the ammonia out. We get 100% of the ammonia out in thirty seconds or less. This allows the fish farmers to make recirculating aquaculture systems feasible.

At the algae culture growth room at OriginOil’s headquarters, in Los Angeles.

At the algae culture growth room at OriginOil’s headquarters, in Los Angeles.

And how exactly do you remove the ammonia?

We dissociate the ammonia, and then we transform it into Nitrogen gas, and it gets released. This is good for the fish, because when you remove the ammonia, you remove the bacteria that make them sick, and they grow faster, less stressed. What we have seen so far in the aquaculture tests is that they are growing twice as fast, depending on the species.

So, is this OriginOil’s concentration now: aquaculture, as opposed to, say, treating produced water from oil fields?

No, the oil fields process is another business, which is getting the produced water from the oil fields and separating the hydrocarbons from the water, to create clean water. This allows the fracking operations to be very sustainable.

We have three lines of business right now. We have the frack water of the petroleum, we have the aquaculture systems, and we have the algae systems. And we have interactions between the algae systems with aquaculture, for example, to create algae as a substitute for the fishmeal.

The fishmeal situation right now is one that can give all of the people in the algae industry a reason to live for the next five years, because fishmeal – the pellets they are now giving to the fish to eat – are about half fishmeal, with the other half being soybeans or corn. Fishmeal, traditionally, comes from captured fish in the ocean, and there is a limiting feature that we cannot capture more fish because they are being depleted.

But when we grow algae – which has the same nutrients, or better, than the fishmeal – it costs about one-third of what the fishmeal cost, which is about $1800 a ton. Right now I can grow algae for $600 or less. If you substitute fishmeal with algae, you can have more nutritious food for the fish, it’s more sustainable, and you don’t have a limiting factor with the fishers. ­You can keep the aquaculture industry growing, and do it without the environmental pressure of capturing more fish in the wild.

The other interaction is algae with petroleum. This sounds a bit like science fiction, but some people are doing it right now. It’s not about producing ethanol from algae, or biodiesel from algae for fuels. The way of doing it and obtaining energy independence will be by mixing two parts of ethanol and one part of biodiesel, and creating a kind of a solvent to inject into a rock in what appears to be a depleted oil field. The fact is that the rock is not really depleted – it’s not really dry. In fact, 70% of the hydrocarbons are still inside the rock. So, if you inject that solvent – made from biodiesel and ethanol – into that rock, just like what they do with frack water, and then add CO2 to add pressure to get into the nooks and crannies of the rock, you can extract twice as much petroleum as you’ve already extracted. You can more than double all the production that the well had in its conventional production state.

What happens, as I understand from our chemists, is that the real solvent is the ethanol, and the biodiesel acts as a molecular bridge. A country I can’t mention (south of the border) is already doing this, with a “dry” oil well using biodiesel from canola and ethanol from sugar cane, and it seems to work.

So that is going to decrease the capital and operational cost of getting petroleum, because you know the locations of the dry wells and won’t need to explore. Just go right there, open the well again, inject the solvent, and get the petroleum out. What I was told by the petroleum engineers that one gallon of the solvent will get you seven gallons of oil. So that is the reason I say that algae has a future. I tell people that if you knew what we have in our hands right now, you would understand the amazing potential!

To be clear, is this a substitute for fracking, or an additional technique?

It’s an additional technique. What I understand right now is that fracking uses some things that are hazardous for the environment. In this case, what you can do is use this solvent and you don’t need to separate it from the petroleum – you don’t have any produced water.

(There will be always the need to separate water from petroleum, due to the fact that petroleum is usually associated with fossil brine water deposits. So what we do avoids injecting new water with chemicals in to the oil wells. Right now, petroleum engineers use water with lye as a way of extracting hydrocarbons from rock or tar sands).

I’m not a petroleum engineer, but I’m telling you that’s the way it probably will be done. It is more sustainable and it allows the operations of petroleum extraction to be more efficient. By recovering the oil wells with the algae solvent, you go to wells that you know were productive and you rescue them. And that’s going to be a renaissance for the American economy.

At OriginOil’s algae scale up reactor room in their headquarters.

At OriginOil’s algae scale up reactor room in their headquarters.

In your work with algae farmers, introducing these new techniques, what message are you giving them to be successful at this point in time?

What I recommend to the algae farmers is that, at this moment, start with something that will let you pay your bills. Go for the cosmetics, go for spirulina, go for nutraceuticals. Then evolve into something like phycocyanin. And then after that go for the fuels once you have the experience and the knowhow, because I have seen a lot of producers failing because they want to go to fuels right away, and they are not ready for it.

And if you make fuels, try to make biojet fuel, because the airlines need to comply with regulations from Europe and will pay you well for biojet fuel.

(There is a mandate to blend biojet fuel with petroleum-based jet fuel in Europe, for any airline landing or taking off from Europe. The blending should be 20% by 2020.)