Oil from Algae in Less Than an Hour

This article was written by Oilprice.com, the leading provider of energy news in the world.

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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  • Report this Comment On December 31, 2013, at 2:06 AM, Irvington wrote:

    I'm not an algal researcher, though I have taught environmental science. Why use all that energy and solvent in the process? Why not sun-dry it, and mechanically press the algae to extract the oil? It would be much more energy and expense efficient. The amount of time from algae to oil is much less important than the expense of production. Using your current strategy, energy and solvent costs would figure in considerably! OK, the sun-dry/press process requires a great deal of space. However, desert land in California can be had for less than $1000/acre. In addition, a greenhouse setup will facilitate drying virtually anywhere. If needed, a small amount of supplemental heating can complete the drying cycle. The use of solvents makes any byproduct less salable. On the other hand, sun-dried & pressed algal waste can readily be sold as fertilizer, animal food or for home heating fuel.

  • Report this Comment On December 31, 2013, at 8:08 AM, patanzalone wrote:

    THIS is not new it is over ten years old they dry the algae in the desert in glass tubes and it turns into fuel. It was done and still can be. The oil companies run the industry. With all there pay offs, [campaign money] for the presidency of choice. DO NOT FORGET DIRTY POLITITIANS, THIS WILL NEVER HAPPEN. The SAME AS FREE ENERGY FROM OCEAN WATER, [HYDROGEN].

  • Report this Comment On December 31, 2013, at 2:29 PM, RobertLB1 wrote:

    Actually, this process is very similar to how they currently extract syrup (oil) from plants, so its not really all that ground breaking. Anyone can do it now with plant and seeds.

  • Report this Comment On January 01, 2014, at 8:12 AM, kevindoyler wrote:

    Problem is photosynthesis is very inefficient in terms of the solar energy it converts to chemical energy.

    Methinks solar thermolysis has much better chance.

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