Tulare plant exploring algae for jet fuel

 Tubs hold algae that are made using CO2 and other gases generated by fuel cells in Tulare. The oil in the algae can be made into low emitting jet fuel. Tubs hold algae that are made using CO2 and other gases generated by fuel cells in Tulare. The oil in the algae can be made into low emitting jet fuel.The wastewater from Tulare County dairy operations may soon be used to power jets zooming overhead thanks to a brand new facility converting moist algae into biofuel.


Recently, the City of Tulare leased four acres next to its large wastewater treatment plant for the operation, which will use CO2 and other gases generated from the site’s adjacent fuel cells to grow the algae in large tubs of water. 

The lipids, or oils, the algae produces as it grows can then be extracted and refined for use as a low emitting jet fuel.

The plant is the joint venture of Pacific Algae Oil consisting of the nonprofit association Algae International Group and Huntington Beach-based Pacific Oil Products.

According to Pacific Oil’s CEO David Gair, the facility is currently in a pilot-scale phase, with the capacity to produce around a half a million gallons of the fuel annually.

But given the right equipment and enough gases, he said, as much as 6 million gallons a year could be pumped out each year.

“I would like to give it 30 days before we get a commercial project underway,” said Gair, who started Pacific Oil Products in 2008 selling presses and other equipment to extract plant oils. “To use all our resources will take until the end of the year in order to get centrifuges, oil presses, ponds, green houses.”

Most of the project’s $2 million price tag will be privately funded, although Gair said he is waiting to hear back on a grant application from the California Energy Commission. Another grant may come in the way of the Title 3 program by the U.S. Department of Education in light of plans to open the site up to field courses that will train college students for jobs in the biofuel industry.

“Biofuel is a lot cleaner and makes more energy,” Gair said. “It has the same amount of energy and 80 percent of the weight.

“The best plant, like perennial tree seed oil, is going to yield about 1,000 gallons per acre per year in the best conditions,” he added. “Algae is a different game altogether, but if cultivated correctly, it’s capable of 125,000 gallons per acre per year, so it has a lot more to work with and a lot less work to do.”

A study last year by the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory found that American-grown algae can produce 21 billion gallons of algal oil by 2022 consistent with the advanced biofuels goal set out by the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007.

That amount could replace 17 percent of the petroleum that the U.S. imported in 2008 for transportation fuels, and it could be grown on land roughly the size of South Carolina. 

Algae are relatively new to the biofuel game, said Gair, pointing out that cultivation technology didn’t really become optimal until last year. 

He added that there seems to be a greater need and demand for biofuel as an additive in jet fuel, satisfying federal government goals for clean fuels in its military operations.

“It’s not expensive stuff but the petroleum jet fuel is not well refined and it’s polluting,” said Gair. “And I think the price is going to get down to petroleum price with this project because if you run it 24/7, the costs goes down.”

Researchers also noted that algae can produce more than 80 times more oil than corn per hectare a year and, unlike corn, is not a resource people rely on for food.

As well, the water required for the process is roughly equivalent if not less than what would be needed to grow corn or other crops for ethanol.

There’s no shortage of that at Tulare’s industrial wastewater treatment plant, located at West Street and Paige Avenue just southwest of the city.

With an expansion project completed in 2009, the facility, one of two wastewater treatment plants in Tulare, now treats 12 million gallons of day of industrial wastewater, primarily flowing in from six large milk processing facilities nearby.

The plant is one of the largest in the nation, using a combination of biological processes, a dissolved air flotation unit, and six sequencing batch reactors to remove fats, oils, organics and other impurities.

Since 2006, the city has added four fuel cells using methane and other emissions from the facility’s anaerobic biomass digester to generate 1.2 megawatts of power, reducing the plant’s electricity bill by more than $1 million every year. 

The byproducts of that process are carbon dioxide, nitrates and phosphates that will be used to help the algae flourish.

In the end, the breakdown of those gases produces oxygen while the algae is netted and dried on racks before it is squeezed for its rich oils.

Lew Nelson said the new addition is the latest step in the city’s effort to become the most efficient in its handling of wastewater. Last December, a 1.7-megawatt solar system went online near the plant to further supplement its energy needs while the city recently signed a contract to install an advanced energy storage device that will be able to supply up to 2 megawatts of power for two hours if needed.

“We’re shooting to be the waste water management center of excellence,” Nelson said.