Ben Wen, Ph.D., vice president of United Environment and Energy LLC, Horseheads, N.Y., believes the firm’s new process “Is the first economical way to produce biodiesel from algae oil. It costs much less than conventional processes because you would need a much smaller factory, there are no water disposal costs, and the process is considerably faster.”

UEE Algae Oil Solid Catalyst Test Set. Click image for more.

UEE Algae Oil Solid Catalyst Test Set. Click image for more.

The report is a development of what UEE termed the first economical, eco-friendly process to convert algae oil into biodiesel fuel — a discovery they predict could one day lead to U.S. independence from petroleum as a fuel. We’ve heard that “independence” thing before, and this research might be one of the steps. The news was broken when Mr. Wen presented the research at the American Chemical Society’s Salt Lake conference on March 25th, 2009.

Algae to useful oil is a multi-step chain from growing, extracting and converting the raw vegetable oil to a benign commercially viable oil similar to petroleum products compatible with current uses. To get from the raw state to something more like diesel or jet fuel requires treatments that standardize the oil to one (or a set) of molecules. This step is another cost barrier to getting algae oil to market at a competitive price. As we saw Monday in the post about oil separation from the solids and water, great strides are being discovered, created and innovated.

Mr. Wen and UEE are beneficiaries of a grant from the National Science Foundation and had early funding from the USDA. Early in the research the objective was a “heterogeneous catalyst” biodiesel production process proposal. That seems to have led to solid catalyst said to be at least 40 percent cheaper to operate than that of other catalyst processes now being used.

Most treatments are batches, volumes tanked and treated, emptied, refilled and cycled again and again. The UEE process using the solid catalyst uses the “continuously flowing fixed-bed” method to create algae based biodiesel. Mr. Wen adds there is no wastewater produced to cause pollution, a major plus.

The solid catalyst can be used continuously rather than consumed as liquid catalysts are when used in a batch. That is much faster and needs less labor and oversight attention. The liquid catalysts are acids so no neutralization chemicals are needed or a treatment regimen to recover them or the base used for neutralization, which needs a system running in a facility as well.. This dramatically simplifies the operation.

Moreover, Wen is asserting that the technology is scaleable now and simple enough that processing facilities can be mobile where industrial sized plants aren’t feasible.

UEE is conducting a pilot program for the process with a production capacity of nearly 1 million gallons of algae biodiesel per year. Depending on the size of the machinery and the plant, Wen said it is possible that a facility could produce up to 50 million gallons of algae biodiesel annually. Their confidence seems high. But one wonders where they’re getting the algae oil at a market competitive price.

Monday’s post about clearing the oil free to a dehydrated algae state leaves the oil extraction matter open for a breakthrough, then on to a process such as UEE solid catalyst that produces consumer ready product.

Regular readers know that algae production is its own problem too, with lots of solutions well under way. Its clear that algae will in time offer the highest yield for bio middle petroleum oils.

The algae industry is getting there – growing, harvesting, separating and converting to useful oils is nearing completion and the ideas are proving up nicely, which should trigger competition in ideas for the process steps in controlling production costs.

A year ago, and some thought, and some today still think that algae is or was way too expensive to ever make a market presence. Yet with each passing month, it looks like algae might become the low price benchmark someday. It might come sooner than anyone thinks.


6 Comments so far

  1. Biodiesel on April 6, 2009 3:24 AM


    An accounting term indicating the time required to recoup an investment. It is expressed as a ratio of investment cost to savings or income (usually annually). For example, if a new high- efficiency boiler costs 10,000 to install and saves 2500 per yea…

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