Real-time monitoring software developed for algae harvesting

By Bryan Sims | August 10, 2011

California-based algae oil extraction technology developer OriginOil Inc. has developed a real-time control network to supervise continuous algae harvesting operations at large-scale algae production sites.

The company recently filed for patent protection on the new control technology, its 16th patent application, entitled “Systems and Methods for Monitoring and Controlling Process Chemistry Associated with Biomass Growth, Oil Product and Oil Separation in Aqueous Mediums.” Inventors of the patent-pending system include OriginOil Senior Vice President of Technology Paul Reep and Senior Director of Engineering Gavin Grey.

According to OriginOil, the patent application aims to simplify the complex task of computerizing an intelligent control system for a robust commercial facility’s environment where all algae production and extraction processing systems are integrated.

Codenamed “Green Stick,” the network will be installed at Australian algae producer MBD Energy’s power plant test site where the system will interface with MBD’s own growth control system to integrate operations with OriginOil’s proprietary Single Step Extraction unit and downstream concentration and separation processes. According to OriginOil, the real-time monitoring system makes use of industry-standard components that are all integrated using proprietary hardware and software from the company.

In May, MBD Energy placed an order for OriginOil’s SSE technology to be installed at its coal power station in Tarong, Australia. The order by MBD Energy follows recent collaborative trials of OriginOil’s equipment focused on optimizing capacity to handle large volumes of algae on a continuous basis.

“Anyone harvesting algae at large scale has to deal with literally hundreds of variables in real time,” Reep said. “That’s why we built this dynamic system that can adjust harvest settings on the fly.”

Measuring and controlling the hundreds of interactions that are critical to automate and scale large production operations, including algae growth, dewatering, flocculation, cell lysing and oil recovery have so far been accomplished in the industry with little automated process sophistication. As the industry matures, integration of a real-time automated control system becomes a necessary component for continuous operations at commercial scale.

The real-time control network system is managed by a Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition System that connects the biology and engineering with high throughput process control. This development, according to the company, was the direct result of ongoing research and testing activities that are focused on optimizing its SSE process. For a comprehensive view of algae operations, the SCADA’s Programmable Logic Control will interface with existing growth control systems. Where these are lacking, OriginOil is able to extend the network into the growth phase.

“Being able to supply our SCADA with an array of comprehensive real-time information about water chemistry and quantifiable data about what the algae cells are doing is absolutely critical to optimize our processes, and will help keep us on track with our development goals,” Reep said.

The new supervisory network is also expected to reduce operating expense—a key concern faced in the algae industry today—by mitigating the number and skill requirements of human operators, according to OriginOil.