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US government scientists have succeeded in producing crude oil from algae in less than an hour, but are still far from rendering the process commercial in scale.
Researchers at the government-run Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) say they have invented a continuous process for turning algae into oil faster, cheaper and more self-sustaining than anything that has come before it.
The process involves drying the algae and removing all traces of water, which can represents 80% of the biomass, and then using solvents to extract energy-rich hydrocarbons from the dried material. The government team described the process as using a pressure cooker to transform algae into oil, only at much higher temperatures.
"In a sense, we are duplicating the process in the Earth that converted algae into oil over the course of millions of years. We're just doing it much faster," Douglas Elliot, who led the research, told reporters.
The scientists claim that during the process between 50% and 70% of the algal carbon is converted to potential energy in the form of crude oil, which can be used for gasoline, diesel or aviation fuel.
There is also a recycling potential, as the residual outcome is clean water, fuel gases and nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, which can be used to provide nutrients for more algae growth.
But for now it's a small scale idea, and the PNNL reactor can handle only 1.5 liters of algae per hour.
Fuel from algae has long been eyed as a potential form of clean energy, but so far the fuel produced has been prohibitively expensive, and nothing has reached commercial scale.
The PNNL technology harnesses algae's energy potential efficiently and incorporates a number of methods designed to reduce the cost of producing algae fuel. However, a key drawback remains the challenge of efficiently growing enough algae to convert biofuels on larger scale.
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