Nov 172011
Coal power plant

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Algae eats CO2, and then it makes fuel.

Where do we have a lot of CO2? Spewing out of coal power plants. Now OriginOil is working to use those emissions to feed algae and ramp up the biofuels business.

At first glance, a marriage between algae and coal-fired power plants seems unlikely. One is a natural source of healthy fish oils and biofuel; the other spews greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. But OriginOil, a company that helps algae growers with the incredibly difficult process of extracting oil from their product for commercial use, is bringing the two together as part of a carbon capture project at a coal plant in Australia–and it could be an alternative to risky and expensive underground carbon capture and storage (CCS) schemes.

CCS is a catch-all term for technology that captures carbon emissions from industrial plants and buries them underground so that they can’t escape into the atmosphere. The technology is unproven, pricey, and possibly dangerous–one study, for example, indicates that captured carbon could leak into groundwater aquifers, making the water undrinkable. But OriginOil and carbon capture and recycling (CCR) company MBD have a potential solution: using carbon-hungry micro-algae to capture CO2 directly from coal-fired plants. The well-fed algae quickly reproduce, and OriginOil’s extraction system quickly separates out the good stuff–which can be used to make ethanol, among other products–from the water.

The company’s system works using electromagnetic pulses that cause algae to bunch together and break up cells. The whole process is done without chemicals and, according to OriginOil, it uses just one tenth of the energy required for competitors’ algae extraction techniques. “Turning green water into feedstock–that’s the hard part,” says Riggs Eckleberry, OriginOil’s CEO.

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