News Column

Firm Says It's Making Crude Oil from Algae

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Oct. 21--Howard Walker III of Westmont says he's found a recipe to convert algae into what is essentially crude oil, like the petroleum pumped from wells.

"This is a direct result of using acidic mine discharge to grow the algae," he said. "Anybody using (other) algae is not doing anything like this."

A unique situation with polluted water from an abandoned Shade Township mine site led to the potentially world-changing results, Walker said at his company plant in the Hornerstown section of Johnstown.

U.S. Alternative Fuels at 432-438 Horner St. has been working on the production of biodiesel from the algae for about six years. The idea was to take the technology being used to make ethanol from corn oil and adapt it to get fuel from algae oil. Similar work has been going on since the 1970s in different parts of the country.

Walker is vice president and chief executive officer of the family business. His wife, Paula, is president.

They decided to focus on algae because it has been estimated the water-grown plant can produce 10,000 gallons of biofuel for every acre of "crop." Corn produces about 18 gallons an acre, he said.

In Walker's research to launch the project in 2006, he came across a study by Adam P. Jarvis of England's Newcastle University presented that year at the International Conference on Acid Rock Drainage. Jarvis' group found carbon dioxide levels can be 100 times higher in water discharged from deep mines.

Since carbon dioxide is normally added during biofuel production, the study made Walker think of mine treatment pond algae.

The algae in the treatment ponds absorb metals and help clean the water.

Those metals then become part of the elements used to produce fuel.

Certain other surface water biological pollutants are reaching the Shade Township water and helping create a unique algae that was being converted to fuel in U.S. Alternative Fuels' Johnstown plant.

A few weeks ago, the fuel being produced took on its unique characteristics.

The company has already applied for a patent.

"Once we know it is secure, we will announce how we are actually doing it," Walker said.

"It will change how the petroleum industry operates. I have full confidence we can actually control how the process is done so we don't have to worry about any major environmental disaster like the BP spill (in 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico)."

U.S. Alternative Fuels got its production equipment from Behrens Energy, Agriculture & Robotics, or BEAR Oceanics. The Montgomery County company has gotten some attention for its robotic harvesting of ocean algae for biodiesel production.

BEAR also tested U.S. Alternative Fuels' latest product. While company President Rudy Behrens wasn't ready to call it synthetic crude oil, he said the chemical properties were encouraging.

"They have an organic compound they want to convert to fuel," Behrens said. "We tested it and it tested very well. It fell into the range of conventional fuel."

The results did not shock Behrens, who noted almost any organic material can be processed into fuel.

Behrens said BEAR's process, known as cavitation, "forces liquid at high velocity to change it to a gas and reach a temperature of 5,000 degrees."

The process brings the material under 3,000 pounds of pressure to break down the molecules, he said.

Quality of the Johnstown company's fuel is not the big issue, Behrens stressed.

"It isn't:'Can you do it'" he said. "It is:'Can you do it economically?' The process will work. Everybody's system works."

Walker said his company's system will be profitable because of the quality of the product and the simplicity of its raw material. Other systems have to add some of the materials already found in acid mine discharge-grown algae.

He believes the cavitation system's heat and pressure acts on the algae in the same way eons of sediment pressing down on algae and other materials for millions of years originally created the petroleum now being pumped from oil wells.

"Not all algae turned into oil," Walker said, explaining his conclusion that the unique mix of mine discharge-grown algae reproduces the ancient natural process in an infinitely shorter time period.

But the process will not, ultimately, be limited to mine-discharge algae, Walker stressed. Now that his company has stumbled upon the right ingredients, those conditions can be duplicated to produce crude oil from algae grown anywhere.

Walker expects the Johns-

town plant can be in commercial production within two years, without any outside investment. The small system currently operating can produce about 51/2 gallons of fuel an hour from 30 gallons of algae.

He estimates the cost at less than $30 for a 42-gallon barrel.

The small system can collect fuel in a tank behind the former planing mill building.

"We are going to fill that sucker, send it to the refinery and take our $100 a barrel," Walker said, explaining that the algae fuel has the properties of a light, sweet crude oil, easily refined into diesel fuel or heating oil.

Alternative fuel and petroleum experts contacted by The Tribune-Democrat said they were not prepared to comment directly on Walker's claim of producing crude oil from algae.

But all said they were interested in hearing more about the project.

"This is the first time I've heard of anything like this," said Robert Enick, vice chairman for research in the University of Pittsburgh department of chemical and petroleum engineering.

Like crude oil, traditional biofuels are composed of hydrocarbon molecules, Enick said. But the petroleum molecules are much longer chains of hydrogen and carbon atoms, he stressed.

"It is difficult for me to comment on the claims," said Daniel Ciolkosz, senior associate for bioenergy at Penn State Cooperative Extension.

"I'd have to see a lot more detail to understand exactly what they are doing.

"It is possible that algae grown in acidic conditions may produce oil with unique properties, but the biggest challenge in algal biodiesel production is usually not the properties of the oil but the cost of growing and harvesting the stuff. So far, field crops like canola or sunflower have been a much more economical source of oil."


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