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Algae-to-Biodiesel Project Reports Gains and Anticipates Expansion

Fleming, the chemical engineer, with Hatcher (right)

The algae-to-biodiesel research project at Old Dominion University has been boosted by three key developments in recent months, and Patrick Hatcher, the chemist who is in charge of the initiative, says new milestones are in sight.

During the warmer months of 2009, the algae-growing facility that ODU and the Virginia Coastal Energy Research Consortium (VCERC) operate near Hopewell, Va., made significant gains and discoveries related to the growing of high-oil-content algae in open ponds, said Hatcher. He is the Batten Endowed Professor in Physical Sciences at ODU and executive director of VCERC.

"We now have a stockpile of hundreds of pounds of the algae that we grew, harvested and air-dried. This is the raw material that we can convert by our proprietary process into biodiesel fuel," Hatcher added. "Never before have we had the luxury of having this much high-quality, dried algae on hand. We have enough that we plan to ship some to Mississippi State University, where researchers will use it in a process they have developed for converting algae into jet fuel and gasoline. We already provided some to our VCERC partners at the University of Virginia."

The second recent development is ODU's hiring of Dennis Fleming, a former manager and senior planner with Exxon/Mobil Research and Engineering Co., who is advising Hatcher and VCERC as they try to increase the scale of the algae project. "He's helping us with the economics of it as we move from a laboratory project to something big enough to be commercially viable," Hatcher explained.

In one of his last jobs for Exxon/Mobil before he took early retirement in 2003, Fleming led a team of senior engineers in planning a multimillion dollar gas conversion project in the Middle East based on proprietary technology developed by his company. He holds a master's degree in chemical engineering from the University of Iowa.

ODU has agreed to join a group of universities and corporations, led by the upstart Planktonix Corp. of North Carolina, that is seeking federal stimulus funds to build a $50 million algae farm and biodiesel production facility on land owned by the city of Virginia Beach. Hatcher said even if this group does not receive stimulus money to build the facility, he is prepared to look elsewhere for partners and a site for the large-scale facility that his project now needs.

At its current research facility 70 miles west of Norfolk, ODU has operated a one-acre algae pond since the summer of 2008. "We still have people working at the farm almost every day, and what we are learning is very valuable to us," Hatcher said. "But we need to scale up and we'd like to have our next farm closer to campus."

One of the problems that has plagued open algae-growing ponds is keeping favorable species growing while fending off invasive species that are not oil-rich. "We have made gains in maintaining species constancy," Hatcher explained, "and we have developed ways to monitor algae growth."

In summary, he added, "The research that has taken place over the year's timeframe has proven that open-pond algae systems can be maintained over the long term without serious problems."

Another aspect of the research at the pond involves harvesting the algae, and in this category is the third major development. "We made a true scientific discovery," the ODU researcher said. "We found that in response to the heat wave late this summer, the algae settled to the bottom." This made harvesting easier with a bottom skimmer and gave the research team something to mull over.

Still, the team is going ahead with its work at the pond on a continuous harvesting scheme that would use a coagulant to clump the algae, which then would be separated from the water by a centrifuge or skimmer.

Early this year ODU was selected to receive more than $700,000 in earmarked funds through the U.S. Department of Energy for a large-scale reactor to convert the dried algae into biodiesel fuel, but the money has not yet been released. "When we get the new reactor it will really help us to build upon what we've been doing in the lab," Hatcher said.

The reactor he now has in his lab uses a proprietary process to convert small amounts of algae into vials of fuel. The scaled up reactor will use a similar process.

This article was posted on: October 19, 2009

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