I don’t know if I have just completely missed the build up to this but the announcement that DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) has successfully extracted oil from algae at $2 gallon really caught me off guard.
The brains trust of the Pentagon says it is just months away from producing a jet fuel from algae for the same cost as its fossil-fuel equivalent.
The claim, which comes from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) that helped to develop the internet and satellite navigation systems, has taken industry insiders by surprise. A cheap, low-carbon fuel would not only help the US military, the nation’s single largest consumer of energy, to wean itself off its oil addiction, but would also hold the promise of low-carbon driving and flying for all.
Darpa’s research projects have already extracted oil from algal ponds at a cost of $2 per gallon. It is now on track to begin large-scale refining of that oil into jet fuel, at a cost of less than $3 a gallon, according to Barbara McQuiston, special assistant for energy at Darpa. That could turn a promising technology into a market-ready one. Researchers have cracked the problem of turning pond scum and seaweed into fuel, but finding a cost-effective method of mass production could be a game-changer. “Everyone is well aware that a lot of things were started in the military,” McQuiston said.
Now, I don’t want to be blamed for over-analyzing the use of one word here but there are a couple things one might want to note about this article before they get too excited.
For off, the article seems to focus strictly on extracting the oil from the algae with no mention of what the cost of refining the oil is in addition to extracting it.
Additionally, the article doesn’t clarify if the $2 cost includes the cost of growing the algae either. The actual growth process is where the real expenses add up, not the extraction. I don’t know exactly how much it costs but OriginOil’s Single Step Extraction method seems pretty cheap when you watch how simple it looks in a video of the process in action.
Now, I may seem really nit-picky of me to focus all my attention on the extraction bit but from my experience in researching algae fuels, growth, harvesting/extraction, and then refining are often considered three completely separate processes with algae companies often focusing on developing one at a time.
Therefore, when someone says that they have “extracted oil from algal ponds at a cost of $2 per gallon,” I typically take it as a very literal meaning: the extraction process alone costs $2.
Now this may have just been poor wording by the Guardian but with my inability to find an actual press release where these numbers are quoted, this article is really all I have to go on.
However, the thing that makes me think that it is a little more than just the extraction process is the fact that the Pentagon believes that they are “just months away from producing a jet fuel from algae for the same cost as its fossil-fuel equivalent.”
That is a pretty bold statement and, if it holds true, could do wonders for the algae biofuel field, illustrating that they can in fact be produced at a commercially viable price.
If you want to learn more about what DARPA was looking to do in the development of algal fuels, check out this Fact Sheet.
One last thing to note, if you do run across something that answers my “extraction” questions above, please post it in the comments.