Harvesting algae to power sophisticated unmanned aircraft

DARPA looking to develop cost-effective large scale production of algae-based jet fuel.

One wouldn’t typically associate greenish-colored algae plants with advanced unmanned aircraft but General Atomics is out to change that.

The unmanned Predator builder today said it subcontracted with Algaeventure Systems to help it develop algae-to-jet-fuel technology. Algaeventure’s Systems Harvesting, Dewatering, and Drying technology allows for a more efficient and cost-effective process to removing water from algae, one of the key processes needed to then make it into an alternative fuel source, the company said.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) gave General Atomics what ultimately could be a $43 million contract to develop scalable processes for the cost-effective large scale production of algae triglyceride oil and an algae-derived JP-8 jet fuel.

DARPA’s Cellulosic and Algal Biofuels program is designed to develop affordable alternatives to petroleum-derived JP-8 from algae and from cellulosic biomass. The program has a crucial financial caveat. Sufficiently energy-dense biofuel oil must be produced at a cost that is competitive with petroleum-derived fuels. DARPA seeks to produce a surrogate JP-8 that would cost less than $3 per gallon at a production rate of 50 million gallons per year.

In the algae-related portion of the program, DARPA is looking to demonstrate algae triglyceride production at a projected production cost of $2 per gallon. In Phase 2, contractors will demonstrate production of algae triglyceride at $1 per gallon. Contractors will develop and demonstrate a process for affordable algae triglyceride production and conversion of the algae triglyceride into biofuel. By the end of phase I, contractors will deliver a 100-liter sample of algae-based biofuel for government testing. A larger sample (4,000 liters) will be delivered at the end of the program, DARPA stated.

DARPA listed the technical challenges of developing algae-based fuels include:

1. Identifying oil rich algal crops that can be grown and sustained in large quantities. Typically, algae is grown in and harvested from large pools (raceways) or in large tanks (photobioreactors). Each has their advantages and disadvantages. For example, bioreactors are more expensive to operate, however they allow for better environmental control and generally produce a higher energy density algal oil. Raceways are more readily expandable to large-scale operations and less expensive to operate, however they generally produce a lower energy density algal oil.

2. Identifying processes for the economic extraction of triglyceride oils from algae. Existing processes for the extraction of oils from algal crops are cost prohibitive and cumbersome to implement. To meet the DARPA cost objectives, the cost of growing and harvesting algae must be reduced by more than an order of magnitude over existing processes.

3. Identifying commercially viable “co-products.” The processes for extracting oils from algal and cellulosic biomass are not 100% efficient and will leave behind by-products that can be further processed into a variety of products (fertilizer, alternative fuels, etc.) that may have a marketable value of their own. The sale of these co-products may dramatically reduce the final end user price for JP-8 surrogate biofuels.

In the Cellulosic realm, DARPA is looking to for a 30% conversion energy efficiency (the conversion of biomass to actual fuel), by energy content, of feedstock material into JP-8. In the program’s second phase, the contractor will demonstrate 50% conversion efficiency. Logos Technologies is the contractor here.

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