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“The Thing to Remember Is that It’s Agriculture.” Manta’s New Way to Think about Algal Biofuel

Algae/Other Aquatic Organisms/Seaweed, BioRefineries/Renewable Fuel Production, Biorefinery/Fuel Production Infrastructure, Business News/Analysis, Co-Products, Energy, Farming/Growing, Federal Agency/Executive Branch, Feedstock, Feedstocks, Funding/Financing/Investing, Heating Oil/Fuel, Infrastructure, Marine/Boat Biofuel/MGO/MDO, Maryland, Original Writing, Opinions Advanced Biofuels USA, Process, R & D Focus, Sustainability, University/College Programs
November 16, 2019

by Joanne Ivancic* (Advanced Biofuels USA)  Not only is the Manta Biofuel system a way to grow, harvest and process algae into oil that can be used for heating or powering heavy duty engines or ocean-going vessels, or as a feedstock for refineries; Dr. Ryan Powell sees the Manta Biofuel system as a way for farmers to capture and treat high nutrient farm runoff before it enters watershed streams, preventing algal blooms before they start.

But for Powell, co-founder of Manta Biofuel, it’s not just about money.  Sure, everyone needs to make a living; Powell’s motivation is more than that, and may be representative of a new generation of innovators, leaders and just ordinary people.  Powell wants to invest his life in mitigating the horrors that will accompany the effects of climate change—the pain of people leaving their homes as they flee rising water levels or severe drought and the disease and the war and suffering those bring.

One of Manta’s test ponds, a repurposed fish hatchery pond in Frederick County, Maryland.

Forget the damage to property values; Powell sees how higher incidence of severe droughts and flooding will lead to devastation and wars in the world his children will inherit.  And he wants to be sure that he tried to make a better world for them. Manta Biofuel is how he will accomplish that.


A Maryland Story

This is the story about Powell’s efforts and the efforts of the team working at Manta Biofuel in central Maryland.  It’s about transitioning from a fossil-based to a renewable energy future while also solving other problems.

Manta’s final product ready for use

In addition, it’s a typical story that is rarely told about the twists and turns between the inception of an idea, something that has never been done before (not just doing something better), to something transformative, not just disruptive.  It’s about making that idea sustainable (economically, socially and environmentally) and successful as a business in a world with a changing climate, a climate that never existed before.

Vision, Confidence, Hope

It takes vision, persistence, confidence and a serious dose of optimism and hope amid depressing economic realities and climate change forecasts.  It also takes a bit of audacity to think about taking even a small corner of the energy market dominated by internationally established, well-financed and politically powerful oil/gas/coal/fossil energy interests.

Finished biocrude (Photo: Manta)

With 5 years of work behind them, financially supported by state and federal programs such as the Maryland Industrial Partnership (MIP), Maryland Technology Development Corporation (TEDCO) and the U.S. Department of Energy, Powell and his team of engineers, technicians and business partners have brought their bench-based work to the great outdoors, to agriculture.  Here the prototype technology is taking wild, natural algae or purpose grown algae and turning it into the building blocks of energy, fuel, chemicals and products which are now made with fossil carbon.

The Manta team has repurposed 15 acres of old fish hatchery ponds in the Maryland countryside for use as algae agriculture and algae conversion to fuel oil or biocrude using proprietary harvesting and conversion technologies. Just up the road from the U.S. Army weapons research facilities at Ft. Detrick and down the road a piece from the site of historic peace negotiations at Camp David, this is where they are testing each element of their process.

Twists and Turns: The Spiral Dance from Idea to Testing to New Idea to Testing to ….

Although Manta’s core business eventually will be selling the equipment for harvesting and processing algae, in order to have algae to test in a realistic environment, they have also found themselves learning about and growing algae.  At the moment, developing the systems for growing the algae is just as key to the integrated process as perfecting the harvest equipment and conversion system.

Field study: harvest prototype system test facility

This has led to a new approach to algae, one that takes it away from white lab coats and biotechnology to jeans, mosquito repellant, hats with brims and open ponds where algae can grow naturally, nourished by runoff and/or waste from local farms. It has also led to incorporating that algal agriculture into their business plan.

 “The thing to remember is that it’s agriculture,” was one of the first things Powell said during my visit as I parked downwind of the pile of poultry manure used to feed the algae.

As he explains it, “A high input, high control approach works for high value biotech products, but it doesn’t work when you are growing biomass for fuel. Only systems that have taken an agricultural approach to producing the biomass have scaled.”

Trenches for gravity-fed pond fill and drain system


The Basics

Powell envisions the first commercial versions of the system working on the model of typical agricultural enterprises. Farmers will grow native algae in ponds built on low spots on farms where its often too wet for crops and where excess water runs off fields. 

The Manta system spans the process from making sure the algae is properly fed to harvesting the algae using magnetized nano beads and to production of fuel oil or biocrude for shipment to an oil refinery.  A co-product will be biochar for sale as a carbon sequestration soil amendment.


Overview of the system:

  1.  Ponds will be gravity fed, about 10 acres, three feet deep in appropriate clay soil filled with 1-3 feet of farm-sourced water. This avoids expensive liners usually used for algae cultivation.

2.  Local wild algae communities will assemble themselves and populate the ponds or cultured algae can be used. This avoids problems with contamination of tailored algae strains and avoids concerns related to genetically enhanced or non-wild organisms.

Trough for mixing manure slurry algae feed

3. Locally sourced manure can be mixed with farm-sourced water to create a slurry to supplement nutrients in any runoff. From 2-5 tons of manure per acre is used to nourish the algae, depending on the pond’s water characteristics.

4.  Rotating sprayers about 5 feet above the water surface distribute the algae feed.

5.  After 3-7 days, depending on weather, algae is ready to harvest.

6.  The Manta system pumps the algae into the patented harvest/separation system.

a.  Algae is mixed with nano-sized magnetite beads made by Manta which pull the algae out of the solution as it “sticks” to the magnetized beads.

b.  This solution passes through a tray of magnetized ceramic disks, the algae/beads “sticking” to the disks.

c.  Every so often the disks rotate and scrapers remove the algae/beads from them.

d.  After repeating this process to an appropriate density, the calcium is removed from the solution (similar to a water softener process) which enables the algae and beads to disengage and go their separate ways: the beads to gather more algae and the algae to the conversion process.

Feed sprayers in test pond

7. Hydrothermal liquefaction (HTL) converts the algae to products ranging from sweet light biocrude (.25% sulfur) to #6 fuel oil or heavy biocrude (depending on the chosen temperature of the reaction); and biochar.

8.  Depending on the temperature of the conversion, the final oil product may be used as heating oil,  as #6 (bunker) oil for heavy engines such as maritime shipping vessels, or as a biocrude feedstock for processing or co-processing at large refineries.

Where is Manta Now?

At this time, each of the dynamic elements of the system is being tested independently at the fish hatchery: the algae agriculture, harvest and separation, and conversion.  In the lab, innovations for continuously improving the production of the nano-sized magnetized beads continue.

Current harvester with magnetic disk separation system (Photo: Manta)

By the 2020 growing season, Powell expects to bring all the elements together, to work on fitting together, synchronizing and automating all the processes from harvest to conversion.  The system will be readied to operate in the ponds to minimize energy use.

Now that the technologies are settled, the Manta team is working on the devils in other details.

Questions Being Discussed

As the Manta team looks to the practical aspects of bringing the technology and algal products to market, they have some decisions to make.

Algae before (left) and after (right) harvest (Photo: Manta)

Do they use the ponds to demonstrate not just the technologies, but also a retail or wholesale business? If so, do they want to start selling to residential heating oil customers where there is great interest or to one large customer such as a university or industrial customer?  Then, do they set up their own company or work through existing distributors?

Do they want to incorporate the conversion system into each harvest location or bring the dense algae solution to a location on the farm that will service multiple ponds?

The Manta team has consulted with experts at national laboratories, business and academia about these options.

Grants have taken Manta this far; now they need serious investors to complete the integrated testing, to build multiple modules, and to prove the process for mass production and trouble shooting.  They want to operate multiple modules in an agricultural business setting.

Federal grants don’t cover scaling up or capital costs.  With their federal grants they can develop the prototype system, but not 5 or 10 modules needed for testing at the next scale. For that they need private capital.  Finding that capital is their priority until the next growing season.

Magnitite beads attracted to magnet (no algae in solution)

The Steps of the Dance — Stories from the Bone Yard

While touring the test site, I learned not only of the successful end-products and current business plans, but of the “iterations” that came before.

The foundation of the algae harvest system is the magnetized nanobeads of magnetite.  The algae in water adheres to the beads. See video.  One of Manta’s key innovations has been finding a way to make these beads more economically than anyone else.

Harvest and separation

After the algae adheres to the beads, it still has to be separated from the water, then separated from the beads in sufficient concentration for conversion to biocrude.  The story of developing machinery to accomplish this is told in the “boneyard” at the test pond site.

In the “boneyard.” The first prototype.

The very first prototype Powell built using basic hand tools on the back deck at his home.   This prototype resulted in the first $150,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

The DOE grant helped pay for more sophisticated tools such as 3D printers and a computer-controlled cutter, CNC router table.  Manta engineers, Zachary Schwartz and John Sturgis  are now able to design and engineer the mechanical prototypes for Manta’s systems, and quickly make and assemble them in-house which makes moving from one iteration to another immensely faster than if they had to outsource this work. Powell is glad to be able to “cut, test, remake in a day as compared to weeks.”

At the time of the first prototype, they were thinking the system would be mobile; that it could move through an algae pond while it harvested and processed.  On-lookers, like me, hoped that this system would be useful for harvesting harmful algal blooms in lakes in Florida, in the Great Lakes along the North Coast, in the Chesapeake Bay or Gulf of Mexico.

Second prototype using stacked, light weight refrigerator magnets

 “Quickly we realized that was not the best idea,” explained Powell, referring to the mobile characteristic as well as to its use to harvest algal blooms.

–Preventing, not harvesting, wild algal blooms.  Address the algae problem before it begins.

As for use for algal blooms, Powell says there are two problems.

The first is technical: the density of wild algal blooms.  Although they are dense enough to block sufficient sunlight from underwater plants causing dead zones; or spread toxic strains of algae in large bodies of water, the density is too low for that initial system to either make a difference or to harvest enough to produce any useful product.  Even with their revised system, “the amount of money you could reap per gallon is about 10 times lower than with purpose-grown algae.”  Not enough to make such a system self-supporting.

The algae harvested at the ponds in Maryland is about 0.2 grams/liter prior to concentration in the Manta system.  Wild algae blooms are often ten times less dense.

Third prototype

The second problem, Powell explains, is “Who pays?  As a private company, you would have to have tens of millions of dollars of equipment built.  You can’t come up with that out of thin air.  You need a contract in place to go to a bank to get funding.”  Using a system like this to treat an algae bloom in a place like Lake Erie or the Chesapeake Bay would cost hundreds of millions of dollars because you would have to treat so much water.

Instead, the Manta system can address the algal bloom problem before it begins.

With the Manta agricultural algae process you could prevent the nutrients that cause algal bloom from reaching the lakes and bays by growing algae with farm-based nutrients before the water gets into the rivers that flow into the lakes, bays and Gulf.  This could be part of an economic, environmental and socially sustainable nutrient management plan.

Fourth prototype introduces disk shape for magnets

Moving to Agricultural Algae Harvest

So, for the following iterations, they learned two things.

One, they didn’t worry about being a water-borne mobile unit and, two, they needed to control costs. Thus, they built a very different system using less expensive, less powerful refrigerator magnets configured in flat layers. This significantly dropped the cost — by 60 to 100 times.

This iteration of the system was very good at collecting the algae/magnetite particles from the water flowing through the machine as it recovered 99.4% of the them in a single pass. While effective at collecting the particles, this design unfortunately did not make it easy to get the particles back out of the machine once captured. Not good, but the progress on the proof of concept was sufficient to get $1 Million from the U.S. Department of Energy to continue the research.

Firth prototype

The following version had generally the same design and also used refrigerator magnets. The Manta team developed a different way to get particles out. Yet they still were stymied in effectively retrieving the algae/bead slurry from the machine.

Powell describes the thought process, “So, now we were at the point where, OK, we have two different types of machines.  We’ve got the disk type machine where it is easy to retrieve the particles once the machine captures them, but isn’t very good at capturing them from the flowing water; and we have these two machines that can capture the particles out of the water very well, but we cannot get them back out of the machine. So, let’s combine the best of both worlds.”

So combining what they learned from different development paths, they used refrigerator magnets with the disks and celebrated one of their first really successful machines.  It could separate the particles from the water and the captured algae/magnetite beads from the machine.

Calcium removal system (Photo: Manta)

Eventually, they developed and made their own disk-shaped ceramic magnets because when they asked industrial ceramic magnet makers to produce them, they were told it couldn’t be done.

Undaunted, Manta had to get innovative yet again.  The team created a way to make the ceramic disk magnets that they needed and they are in use today.

Next they needed to separate the magnets from the algae slurry that is scrapped from the magnets.  The “reversal process” they created uses a process similar to that used by water softeners.  It separates algae from the beads so that the algae biomass can move to the HTL converter and the beads to gather more algae.

Modern American Gothic: Manta co-founder Ryan Powell and technician Kelly Morsey in front of the prototype HTL system

Conversion Process

The iterations of the HTL conversion process are not so visually apparent. There’s no boneyard for the various iterations that resulted in their efficient, cost effective process.

In this prototype, the algae slurry (about 200 gram/liter) is pumped through a high pressure pump to 2000 psi and is heated via a series of coils. A heat exchanger picks up energy from converted algae oil going out to a chiller and returns that energy to the process.

The high pressure algae slurry starts at a coil at ambient temp, then moves to another coil at the heat exchanger that takes it to 225-250 C then to 270-290 C.  The substance circles around pipes and out to a chiller. 

The details of what Manta has done to make the process cost effective and energy positive are proprietary.

Ryan Powell explaining the prototype HTL system

The Army Corps of Engineers has expressed interest in this element of the Manta system.

As with the magnetized beads, Manta might have a separate business based on their economical HTL innovations.


If you run the HTL hotter, you end up with light sweet crude (.25% sulfur—very sweet crude). If it runs less hot, the result is a heavy crude.  The co-product is biochar which, if used as a soil amendment makes the process carbon negative.

At this point in the demonstration phase, Manta performs proprietary post processing to use the algae product in heating oil which meets the ASTM D396 spec for #2 fuel oil.

So far, two barrels have been tested using their product as residential heating oil and negotiations are in process for testing at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science where Powell invented and licensed the system while earning his Ph.D. at its Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology (IMET).  They hope to eventually fuel the UMCES boilers that heat water for the oyster research ponds with this product.

HTL prototype cooling coils

Algae Agriculture

Every farm that employs this system will have its own characteristics with some baseline shared requirements.

To minimize costs and energy input, gravity-fed waters fill ponds from streams or field runoff. To minimize equipment costs and maintenance, ponds must have a clay base and sides.

Feeding the algae will depend on the types of wild algae, local water characteristics and the characteristics of local manure at each site, in each pond.  Manta technicians test water samples at various locations regularly to determine if and when feeding is needed and appropriate times for harvest.   Eventually, these will be automated as part of the system.

During the real-life pond testing, Manta has devised a number of ways to address the agricultural aspects of this project.

Algae test pond with lemna, duckweek, and creeping primrose

Part of the agreement with the fish hatchery property owners was that Manta could use the ponds for testing in exchange for, among other things, improving this area that had been left fallow and unused for hatching fish for a number of years.  That meant clearing trees, shrubs and weeds and learning how to prevent them from growing back.

Having grown up on a farm in western Ohio where his family still farms, Powell was familiar with managing field drainage and weeds.  Eventually, one element of their essential equipment became a tractor to keep pathways cleared and to prepare the ponds for the algae.

Duckweed (lemna) and creeping primrose liked what Manta had done for them in the ponds and grew well.  Because the HTL part of the system can process these types of biomass, the Manta team tried to grind the duckweed into a slurry for the HTL process. With the equipment at hand, they couldn’t get the grind quite right.  Eventually, this should work, but it’s a project for another day.  For now, they are learning to control these by adjusting the depth of the ponds.  As Powell reiterated, this is agriculture and challenges of pests and weeds can be expected and addressed.


Manta has made innovations in every step of its system from growing algae as an agricultural crop through production and sale of fuel oil or biocrude.  Manta would like to commercialize the entire system; however, they may also find markets and discrete business opportunities for specific elements of the system: the magnetized nano-beads; the ceramic disk magnets; the HTL system.

Product samples. Light and heavy biocrude and biochar

All of these elements of the Manta system are ready to integrate into a continuous flow.

Next year the team wants to test whether it is better to go all the way from harvest to oil/biochar at each pond or to consolidate the conversion process for multiple ponds at a central location on land.

They will also put in place the business of selling the final products.  They are using the Ensyn business plan as a model.  Not only was the successful Ensyn concept also developed by the co-founders at a university, for Ensyn it was the University of Western Ontario; Ensyn’s first biofuel products have been heating oil and biocrude with industrial heating and cooling customers and co-processing at oil refineries.

Manta Biofuel provides an example of industries needed by a climate change conscious world, an example of thoughtful, creative innovation and an example of an opportunity for investment leading to climate smart agricultural innovation, good paying jobs, and movement to replace fossil fuels and fossil carbon with renewables.

Banks, financiers and venture capitalists who want to be prosperous in the climate changed world must consider new concepts like Manta’s as a path to prosper in a new future full of never-existing-before demands and their never-existing-before solutions.


*Joanne Ivancic serves as executive director of Advanced Biofuels USA(Photos by JIvancic unless otherwise noted)

H2Ohio Plan Recognizes Agriculture’s Contributions to Sustainable Goals (Solutions from the Land)

Excerpt from Solutions from the Land: A plan detailed last week by Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine underscores the role agriculture will play in meeting the Solutions from the Land vision: By 2030, America’s farms, ranches and forests are at the forefront of resolving food system, energy, environmental and climate challenges and achieving global sustainable development goals (SDGs).

Among the SDGs laid out by world leaders in 2015 and supported by SfL is the ensured availability and sustainable management of water.

The “H2Ohio” initiative was introduced in March in an early draft of the Ohio state budget, and on Nov. 14, DeWine rolled out the plan’s specifics. H2Ohio is said by state officials to be an investment in targeted solutions to help reduce runoff through increased implementation of agricultural best practices.   READ MORE


Update from Manta 1/08/21: On the technology front, we have developed a major improvement in our magnetic particle chemistry that dramatically improves separation efficiency. You can see a video of the new particles on our post about it here. We have also started the regulatory approval process for obtaining $50/barrel renewable energy credits. You can find the full post on this hereREAD MORE

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duckweed e e-diesel e-LNG (synthetic/electro Liquified Natural Gas) e-methanol E. coli E0 E0 price E1 E2 E3 E4 E5 E5 price E6 E7 E8 E10 E10 certification fuel E10 price E12 E13 E15 E15 price E15 pumps E20 E20 price E20 pumps E22 E25 E25 pumps E27 E30 E30 capable E30 certification fuel E30 optimized E30 price E30 pumps E35 E40 E50 E55 E75 E78 E80 E85 E85 conversion kit E85 optimized engines E85 price E85 pumps E90 E92 E95 E97 E98 E100 E100 conversion kit earthquakes East Africa Eastern Europe economic development Economic Development Administration economic modeling economic policy economics Ecosystems Services Ecuador ED95 educatio education educational business private educational tour Education Series 3030 EERE efficiency Egypt Electric aircraft Electric Car/Electric Vehicle (EV) electric grid electricity electricity/power generation electricity/power transmission electricity price electrocatalysis electrochemical electrochemical cell electrofuels (e-fuels) electrolysis electrolytic cation exchange electromethanogenesis (ME) Elephant grass/Napier grass elephants El Salvador embargo emissions emissions standards EN 228 EN 590 EN 15751 EN 15940 EN 16709 end-of-life Endangered Species Act (ESA) end user Energy Bill energy cane energy consumption energy crops energy density energy dominance energy grasses energy independence Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA) Energy Information Administration (US EIA) energy law energy policy energy reserves Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROEI or EROI) energy security Energy Security Trust energy storage enforcement engine Engine/Fuel Co-optimization Engine Development engineering engine problems England enhanced oil recovery (EOR) entrepreneur environment Environmentalists environmental justice environmental policy Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) Enzymatic enzymatic conversion enzymatic depolymerization enzymatic hydrolysis enzyme production enzyme recycling enzymes Enzyme solicitation EPA 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Organisation (FAO) Food and Drug Administration (FDA) food and fuel food policy food prices food processing waste food safety food security food vs biomaterials/bioplastics food vs fuel food waste for forage forage sorghum forecasts foreign oil Foreign Policy forest Forest Biomass for Energy forest biotechnology forest residue/waste Forest resources forestry Forest Service fossil carbon fossil fuel fracking fractionation fragrance France franchise fraud Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) free fatty acids (FFA) French French Guiana fructose fruit FT-SKA fuel fuel additives fuel cells fuel economy fuel efficiency fuel injection fuel mixtures fuel molecules fuel oil fuel performance fuel prices Fuel Quality Directive (FQD) fuel registration Fuel Retailers fuel testing fuel transportation fuel use fuel wholesaler fully burdened cost fund funding fungus/fungi Furanics furfural fusel oils Future Farmers of America (FFA) Gabon Gambia gas-to-liquid (GTL) gasification gasoline gasoline-range 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farmers hombayniya homogeneous-charge compression-ignition Honduras honey locust Honge tree nuts Hong Kong hops horticulture Housing and Urban Development (HUD) HPF (High Performance Fuels) HRJ (Hydrotreated Renewable Jet) human rights Hungary Hurricane Sandy HVO (Hydrotreated vegetable oil) HVO100 Hybrid aircraft hybrids hydrocarbon fuels hydrodeoxygenation hydrodiesel hydrofaction hydrogen Hydrogen/Renewable Hydrogen hydrogenation hydrogenation-derived renewable diesel (HDRD) hydrogen fuel cells hydrogenolysis hydrogen price hydrogen pumps hydropower hydroprocessing hydropyrolysis hydrothermal carbonization hydrothermal liquefaction (HTL) hydrothermal treatment Hydrotreated renewable diesel (HRD) hydrotreating hydrotreatment hydrous ethanol hypoxia zone Iceland Idaho Illinois illuppai ILUC (Indirect Land Use Change) import/export incinerator ash India Indiana Indian beech tree Indian grass indirect effects indirect emissions indirect fuel use change indium Indonesia industrial 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forces marketing markets/sales market share Mars Marshall Islands Maryland Masdar Institute Massachusetts mass balance standard Master Limited Partnership (MLP) Mauritius Mazda meat mechanics training medical waste MEEC membranes mergers and acquisitions mesquite methan methanation methane/biomethane methane leaks methanization Methanol/Biomethanol/Renewable Methanol methanol price Mexico Michelin GreenX Challenge Michigan micro-crop microalgae microbial electrosynthesis microbiology microorganisms/microbes microwave Mid-Atlantic Middle East Midwest mileage military military policy military reserves military specifications military strategic flexibility military strategy military use of biofuels millennium fruit millet millettia pinnata milo stover minerals mining Minnesota miscanthus misfueling missile fuel Mississippi Missouri mixed prarie mobile refinery modeling modular molasses mold molybdenum MON (Motor Octane Number) Monaco Mongolia mongongo Montana Montenegro moose morama 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