Q & A With OriginOil CEO Riggs Eckelberry

Earlier this week we covered the announcement that OriginOil had created a Live Extraction process for converting algae to oil coined, ‘milking’. This is just one of several big breakthroughs the company has had during the past year so I decided to catch up with CEO Riggs Eckelberry to get his take on algae to fuel.

[social_buttons]Q: Due to this breakthrough technology (Live Extraction) and some of the others you’ve recently announced, how soon do you think you’ll be able to use this technology to produce algal fuels at a commercial scale?

A: Due to the lag in actually building large scale projects, the ability will come long before the fact. Also, we won’t build or produce ourselves, but instead we will provide technology and devices, and help design, build and maintain these sites. The next step is a pilot plant which could occur as early as next year.

Q: Factoring in your technology, how much do you anticipate a gallon of algal fuel will cost when it comes to market as compared to both other algal fuels and other advanced biofuels?

A: Current ‘best cost’ for our industry is $8 per gallon of algae. I think it will take some time for that to come down further. That’s why the 5-year business plan of any algae producer will be heavily dependent on the higher priced co-products: pharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals, specialty chemicals and even livestock feed. By the end of the 5-year period we should see algae based fuel absolutely competitive with other advanced biofuels.

Q: When do you anticipate that consumers will be able to fill their tanks with algal fuels?

A: The ability to make biodiesel from algae oil is very much there, so just as soon as we have enough algae oil production, customers will be able to use it as biodiesel. It will take much longer for conventional refinery ‘cracking’ to produce gasoline and so on – if only because of the capacity issue in conventional refineries. New capacity will have to be built to refine all biofuels.

Q: Is algae best suited as a replacement for diesel, or can it also be converted to ethanol (be used in gasoline based engines?)

A: Algae is equally well suited for biodiesel, ethanol, jet fuel and even gasoline and other distillates using conventional refining.

Q: Will cars need to be converted to fill up with algae based fuels?

A: Algae converts to diesel like any other vegetable oil. Algae based fuels can be converted to biodiesel, but there is a limit to how much biodiesel the new clean diesels can have in their tank (usually 5%). This is a matter that should be resolved soon and has nothing to do with algae. I covered that in a recent blog

Q: Are there any current vehicle tests that give an indication how the fuel will perform? Will vehicles using the fuel see a loss in fuel economy? An improvement?

A: I don’t have vehicle tests but recent flights by Continental and JAL using algae have proved that algae oil makes an outstanding liquid fuel. It does tend to have a lower cetane value, which means that it requires some processing or blending with high-fat oils to meet ASTM standards for diesel vehicles. Algae oil which is processed to meet these standards will have the performance of that type of fuel. There should be no loss in fuel economy over comparable fuels. The improvement will be in better smog numbers in general.

Q: Realistically, how many gallons of algal fuel can our country produce in the next 30 years or so?

A: As I pointed out in my UN speech the current rate of adoption of biofuels will keep up with the growth in demand for liquid fuels, so that it will roughly equal petroleum during the period 2010-2030 (ultimately achieving petroleum’s current level of 1 cubic mile of crude per year), but it will NOT replace petroleum. We need to change that, and I proposed a new decentralized model for doing so.

So there you go. Some good stuff. We’ll have to catch up with Riggs again in a few months to see if any of his projections have changed based on additional technological breakthroughs.

Joanna Schroeder

Joanna is a writer and consultant specializing in renewable energy and sustainable agriculture issues.