Ryan Powell holds up a vial of water with fingers caked with mud. It is algae extracted from pond choked with a bloom. He is standing on a farm outside of Baltimore, a test site for a new technology he has developed that can harvest algae from open ponds so it can be turned into crude oil. The oil can then be used as jet fuel, fuel oil, and diesel fuel.
Last year, Powell earned his Ph.D. at the Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology in Baltimore, where he discovered a technique that could revolutionize the algal biofuel industry by harvesting algae cheaply enough to produce algal biofuels economically. Today, he is an entrepreneur, translating his laboratory work into a Baltimore-based biotechnology firm called Manta Biofuel, and working long hours out in the sun scaling up and fine tuning his idea to produce renewable crude oil from algae.
Powell is no stranger to hard work. He grew up on a 2,000-acre grain farm in Ohio, with farms stretching as far as the eye can see. He eventually wants to bring his idea to back to farmers.
“For algal biofuels to work you have to manage really large tracts of land,” he said. “If you’re going to convince other people to try it, you have to show you’ve taken the risk first.”
There are 500 algal biofuel companies attempting to turn algae into biofuel and well over $2 billion dollars invested worldwide, including by companies like Exxon and BP. So why aren’t we all running our cars on algae right now?
The challenge is to make algal biofuel cost less to produce than crude oil, says Powell. The cost is in the production and the harvesting.
“Algae are small and have to be concentrated 400 fold before making fuel from them,” he said. That means you need a lot of room to produce a lot of algae.
Powell has invented a ferromagnetic bead system—essentially a Roomba for algae—that makes it possible to pull algae out of pond water in seconds. It is inexpensive, fast, and can be used on all kinds of algae species. He signed a license on the technology with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science this year.
“It allows for a new production system that hasn’t been tried so far,” he said. “The key is to make it cost effective by reusing the beads over and over again. This is the first technology cheap enough to harvest algae for fuel.”
Here’s how it works: Build a large above-ground pond by making earthen berms and fill it with water (fresh, brackish, salt—any kind will do.) Add manure (turkey works best, according to Powell) and sunlight. Wait for an algae bloom. Set a Roomba-like piece of equipment loose in the pond to suck up the algae using proprietary magnet technology. Remove the algae, convert it to oil, and send to the refinery. Repeat.
Other processes require expensive systems to grow the algae (such as concrete lined ponds) and a lot of water since many current systems require draining the pond to harvest the algae.
According to Powell, using his technology it’s possible to make renewable crude that is cost competitive with traditional crude oil.
“My primary goal is to bring cost competitive renewable crude oil to market,” he said. “Next year, the goal is to produce 20-200 barrels of oil—on 1-10 acres, but ultimately we would like to use this process to produce millions to billions of barrels of renewable oil per year.”