Robert Fulton

CCA Developing Powdered Algae as Jet Fuel

October 8, 2010
by Tamra Fakhoorian

Recent press about the seemingly novel concept of powdered algae as a jet engine fuel has raised eyebrows in the airline industry, and among competing algae processing technologies. However, Robert Fulton, president of Utah-based Compact Contractors for America (CCA), sees dry processed algal biofuel as a serious contender for JP-8 replacement in military aircraft engines and aero-derivative gas turbine power systems.

CCA’s process takes dilute algae slurries, with as little as 2% solids, and runs them through a spray drier to produce a dry powdered fuel with excellent flash burn capabilities.

Fulton claims that advantages of dry process biofuels over liquid biofuels include a smaller energy footprint and lower CAPEX than current technologies. A typical 15% lipid algal strain can be processed to have 90% of the Btu content of jet fuel and is nearly 20% lighter. CCA’s powdered fuel uses a modified fuel delivery system developed by Pennsylvania State University.

“We are currently experimenting with a wide variety of algal feedstocks to determine top candidates for economic al production and lipid content,” says Fulton. “We are pleased that SOLIX Biofuels has been working with us for the past several months in supplying algae samples for our production tests.”

Fulton also is pleased with his interactions with Utah Science and Technology Research (USTAR). He says, “USTAR funded a grant for Southern Utah University to test our processed algae samples as well as camelina as possible feedstocks for dry powder fuel applications. In addition, USTAR has supported CCA with business plan development.”

CCA turned to ARL-Penn State’s Dr. Tom Cawley for high-pressure combustion testing of powdered algae samples. Results indicate that dry process algae shows promise and appears to have little moisture sensitivity. “Our patent-pending process creates dried algae cells with hollow interiors and cell walls that are permeated with lipids that have migrated outward by osmotic pressure during the drying process,” says Fulton. “These features allow for instant and total burn of the cell with no caramelization as found with liquid fuels. Plus, powdered algae flows better than liquid fuels at high altitudes and/or low temperatures.”

Electron microscope magnified dried algae

“The transportation industry has gotten accustomed to thinking in terms of liquid fuel as the only logical transportation fuel.”  Fulton continues, “However, our country’s roots are in burnable, solid fuels such as gunpowder and powdered coal. Liquid fuels are the more recent product by comparison. Another example of current solid fuel applications includes NASA’s use of powdered aluminum in their solid rocket boosters. Our work with powdered fuel is nothing new. It’s just that we were the first to develop algae for this purpose.”

Fulton got the inspiration for powdered algae fuel in 2007 during his work as a contracts administrator researching DARPA Broad Agency Announcements. “DARPA was looking for solutions to current biofuels issues such as costs, gelling, etc…” says Fulton.

“I also knew there were problems with coking of biofuels and decided to try to match products that met DARPA criteria. At the time, the focus was on liquid fuels but I kept flashing back to memories of grain elevator explosions and considered the massive energy potential of powdered grain—flour. I looked around and found that algae had properties that allowed it to be a good powdered fuel if manipulated during the drying process a certain way. DARPA expressed interest in my idea and that started me on my quest to become a powdered algae jet biofuel producer.”

Robert Fulton, (a descendent of the Robert Fulton who invented the steamboat) and his colleagues, Victor Garlington, marketing director, and Dan McKittrick, plant manager, announced in August the initial sale of powdered algae jet fuel to the United States Air Force Research Laboratory. Their powdered algae is currently being evaluated as a solid fuel propellant for rocket use.

“Northrup Grumman has expressed interest in our fuel, as well as have several other organizations,” says Fulton. “We are looking at a timeline of three to five years for dry powder algae to have solid testing behind it in the military aviation market. Our target market includes Northrop Grumman, the Boeing Phantom program X-45, Global Hawk Block 20 programs, DOD Allied Operations Drone programs, and ground-based turbine applications such as tanks and generators.”

“The US military is very open to finding biofuel alternatives right now and we are working to supply them with the most cost-effective and reliable bioenergy source possible,” he added.

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