by Jonathan Williams
Hydrogen is often hailed as the ultimate alternative fuel but many problems from high production costs to inefficient storage methods need to be resolved first. However, even if all the problems involving the development of a hydrogen economy were fixed today, it would still be several decades before a hydrogen infrastructure would be in place that compared to our current petroleum infrastructure. That is why alternatives like algae biofuels that can run in our current engines and can be used in the current infrastructure are being looked at in the near-long term future.
As mentioned before, one of the major roadblocks on the road to a hydrogen economy is the cost to produce hydrogen. If hydrogen is to become a viable fuel source, it will need to be produced cheaply. This is where an announcement by an algae technology company last week may bring the production problem one-step closer to a solution. OriginOil, a Los Angeles based algae oil technology company, issued a press release stating that they had developed a “Hydrogen Harvester” that cheaply collects hydrogen molecules given off by algae.
This announcement could prove significant for both the hydrogen and algae fuel sectors. First off, the idea of using algae to produce hydrogen has been around for a while. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) has been looking at various techniques to stimulate hydrogen production in algae. However, up until this point, most of these methods were in some way detrimental to the health of algal cell.
OriginOil’s process, on the other hand, does not seem to harm the algae. In fact, their process allows the algae to produce oil, biomass, AND hydrogen simultaneously. In a 2005 NREL document titled “New Horizons for Hydrogen – Producing Hydrogen from Renewable Resources”, researchers said that if photosynthetic microorganism production of hydrogen became feasible, it would truly be “the ‘Holy Grail’ of the hydrogen economy.”
With this announcement, it’s possible that this could be the “Holy Grail” many hydrogen researchers have been looking for, a discovery that has many at OriginOil excited.
“I honestly do feel that we have a landmark discovery here,” said Brain Goodall, Chief Technology Officer of OriginOil. “[Our method] is something that as far as I can tell, no one has looked at before, and the reason that we did is because we have some very creative, hands-on people.”
While expectedly guarded on details, the basic process would take any species of algae growing in either a bioreactor or open ponds and run the still living algae through the “Hydrogen Harvester”. There, in a process that OriginOil is currently working on patenting, the algae would release hydrogen to be collected.
“We’re using the same algae and the same sunlight [to] produce biomass, oil, and hydrogen,” Goodall explained. “We think that with this breakthrough discovery, further development and scale ups could lead to a situation where you are using completely ‘green’ hydrogen… [all] coming from sunlight.”
The species of algae also does not seem to be a factor in whether or not hydrogen can be produced using OriginOil’s process. “As far as we have seen to date, it should work with any algae,” Goodall explained.
With this technology not being reliant on specific species of algae, OriginOil is looking to make sure that their harvester system will have “plug & play” capabilities where it can be incorporated into almost any algae production process, be it open ponds, bioreactors, or otherwise.
As for the quantity of hydrogen that can be produce, the exact amount has yet to be seen and will most likely depend on the species of algae as well as growth factors like exposure to sunlight. However, Goodall is very optimistic that the amounts will be significant and that the process should be scalable without too many problems.
“Right now, it looks like a lot of hydrogen is coming out [of the algae] and the rate of production seems to be pretty constant over several hours. The algae aren’t dying and are remaining viable and robust [plus] we are not putting any energy in and hydrogen is coming out.”
Goodall clarified that additional energy is involved in the process, since the algae still needs to be moved throughout the Hydrogen Harvester system. However, all the energy needed for the algae to actually produce the hydrogen can be obtained freely from the sun.
While using hydrogen produced from this method for transportation would still be a long way off, it can actually help in the immediate future with the production of algae biofuels. To produce algae biodiesel or biofuel, the oil needs to be hydrotreated using hydrogen. Currently, hydrogen would either have to be shipped to algae production facilities or the raw algae oils would have to be taken to where the hydrogen is (most likely at other refineries). The production of hydrogen onsite will allow for some flexibility in where the refining of algal oils take place as well as offer some cost-cutting abilities.
Overall, this breakthrough offers the potential to leapfrog both the hydrogen and algae industries forward. With OriginOil being an algae technology company and not an actual algae producer, whatever technology they create will be available to market to the industry as a whole. Therefore, a discovery like this has the potential to be benefit not just one company, but the entire algae biofuel industry.