The inspiration hit Asheville resident DeAnna Hatch at around 4 a.m. “I was laying in bed about two-and-a-half years ago, mad about the war and mad about the price of gas,” she says. “And I thought, surely I can think of some way to create a gasoline. It’s just a fairly simple molecule—so why can’t we create it from a plant or something like that?”
What might sound like a far-fetched dream to some was actually a reasonable endeavor for Hatch, who has a doctorate in pharmacognosy— the study of the chemistry within plants, animals and microbes. Hatch says she worked up a plan “that had nothing to with algae at the time, honestly,” and pitched it to a friend who agreed to plunk down the money. OrganoFuels was founded in 2006, and Hatch now serves as CEO and chief scientific officer of the company she co-owns. But once she began her research, algae soon emerged as the most promising raw ingredient.
Hatch grows beakers full of the green stuff in her lab space at A-B Tech’s Center for Business and Technology Incubation. And business is blooming: She was recently awarded a $81,944 grant from the North Carolina Green Business Fund, which is administered by the N.C. Department of Commerce’s Board of Science and Technology.
“I’m looking at 10 different species of algae that produce a specific chemistry,” she reports. “We know that of some of these species produce a large amount of oil—and, I’m hoping, a large amount of that specific chemistry—but that has to be confirmed.”
Hatch isn’t alone in her quest. More than a dozen corporations, including Chevron and Shell, have begun seriously looking into the idea. The technology exists to extract oil from the simple aquatic organism and convert it into fuel. But no one’s figured out how to do it cost-effectively on a commercial scale.
“That’s what most of us who are working in the algae world are doing—trying to make it more financially feasible,” Hatch explains. But her focus is somewhat different, in that she’s attempting to create an algae-based biogasoline—as opposed to biodiesel—fuel. If perfected, it could be used in any gasoline-powered car or truck, eliminating the need for vehicle retrofits. “Most people are either going for jet fuel or biodiesel,” she says, because they’re potentially the most lucrative.
If algae-based gasoline did hit the market, the price differential between it and petroleum fuel would probably be slim, says Hatch. But consider costs that aren’t typically factored in, such as environmental degradation or the cost of fighting wars to secure oil supplies, and algae offers clear advantages. It also seems like a more promising biofuel feedstock than corn, switchgrass or other plants.
According to a back-of-the-envelope calculation, “The U.S. could produce enough algae to produce enough oil for the whole country, just using a fraction of what’s used currently for soybean [production],” Hatch asserts. Algae can yield some 15,000 gallons of oil per acre, compared with the roughly 335 gallons of ethanol that can be derived from an acre of perennial grass or woody crops, according to the Department of Energy.
Unlike those plants, algae is not a staple food crop that would have to compete for precious farmland. “You can grow algae on poor water, poor land, wastewater, just about any kind of water,” Hatch explains. “You could grow it in the desert, you could grow it in swamplands—anywhere that wouldn’t normally be farmlands.” There’s also the potential to use animal waste as a source of nutrients to grow it, she maintains.
Although burning algae fuel would produce fewer toxic chemicals than standard gasoline, it would still create carbon dioxide—“You can’t avoid that,” says Hatch. But since the simple organism feeds on carbon dioxide, it would act as a carbon sink before it was a carbon source.
Hatch was recently featured on the cover of A-B Tech’s course catalog, and since then she’s been getting e-mails from people offering the use of their algae-filled backyard ponds for her research.
Up till now, Hatch has been ordering the various strains of algae from a commercial source, but she plans to create a bioreactor that would allow her to produce larger quantities in a big vat (about the size of a tank at a microbrewery). “I hear people are starting to harvest algae from the ocean to start doing this work, and I don’t support that,” she says, “because the algae are a carbon-dioxide sink. It’s a little bit like taking down the rain forest to harvest the oceanic algae. But in terms of [harvesting it from] a lake whose normal balance is off, then I would support it to some extent.”
A-B Tech’s business incubator on its Enka campus has lent tremendous support to her endeavor, says Hatch—one of several green entrepreneurs ensconced on the premises who are cooking up ideas that could make Asheville a leader in sustainability.