Quantcast
Energy

U.S. Scientists Convert Algae to Crude Oil in Less Than an Hour

By Tim Radford

U.S. scientists believe they may have cracked one of the great biofuel conundrums. They have turned a thick soup of algae into a mix of crude oil, gas, water and plant nutrients in less than an hour. That is, they have taken 60 minutes to do what Nature does—at great pressures and temperatures—over millions of years.

Algae Slurry. Photo credit: Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

Better still, the researchers at the U.S. Government's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) believe they have invented a continuous process that is not only faster than the experimental methods pioneered so far for making oil from natural growing things, but cheaper and more self-sustaining.

So far, the PNNL reactor handles only 1.5 litres of algae an hour. But, the team reports in the journal Algal Research, somewhere between 50 percent and 70 percent of the algal carbon is converted to potential energy in the form of crude oil, which in turn can be made into aviation fuel, gasoline or diesel.

The leftovers are clean water, a mix of fuel gases and nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium that can be used to nourish more algae.

Pea soup

It helps to be able to recover fuel gases, because there are still serious energy costs. The system has to run at 350°C and a pressure of 3,000 pounds per square inch.

“It’s a bit like using a pressure cooker, only the processes and temperatures we use are much higher”, says Douglas Elliott, who led the research. “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.”

The experiment, part of the U.S. Department of Energy's National Alliance for Advanced Biofuels and Bio-products, eliminates two stages in the laborious laboratory process of converting algae to oil.

Researchers don’t have to expend fuel to dry the algae before sticking it in the reactor. Instead, the mix goes into the reactor as a well-stirred slurry with the consistency of pea soup: as much as 90 percent water, the rest algae rich in lipids (molecules which can store energy).

L-R): Algae slurry; biocrude oil; and, with further processing, refined biocrude which contains mostly the makings of gasoline and diesel fuel. Photo credit: Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

Nature's way preferred

And the scientists don’t have to process the mix with solvents to get the oil out of what's left of the algae: gravity does that for them. Both steps will reduce the costs.

That the team can also recover something that could be turned into natural gas, and therefore energy, is one bonus. Another is that they can get back water and nutrients to sustain the process.

The big engineering challenge, however, will be to scale up the system to something that could ever compete commercially with the stuff that gushes from an oil well. The PNNL scientists may have accelerated a natural process, but the petroleum industry can still benefit from the huge reservoir of natural crude that has been stewing and brewing in the rocks over vast periods of geological time.

Still, says James Oyler, president of Genifuel, the research team’s commercial partner: “This is a huge step in the right direction.” 

Visit EcoWatch’s ENERGY page for more related news on this topic.

Show Comments ()
Sponsored

Strange Days: Ex-Hurricane Ophelia Batters Ireland Under Orange Skies

By Dr. Jeff Masters and Bob Henson

Ex-Hurricane Ophelia hit Ireland hard with full hurricane-like fury on Monday, bringing powerful winds that caused widespread damage and power outages. At least two deaths have been reported from trees falling on cars, and The Irish Times said at least 360,000 ESB Networks customers lost power in Ireland because of the storm.

Keep reading... Show less
Runoff from a farm field in Iowa during a rain storm. Lynn Betts / U.S. Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service

Drinking Water for Millions in Rural America Contaminated With Suspected Carcinogen

Drinking water supplies for millions of Americans in farm country are contaminated with a suspected cancer-causing chemical from fertilizer, according to a new report by the Environmental Working Group.

The contaminant is nitrate, which gets into drinking water sources when chemical fertilizer or manure runs off poorly protected farm fields. Nitrate contaminates drinking water for more than 15 million people in 49 states, but the highest levels are found in small towns surrounded by row-crop agriculture. Major farm states where the most people are at risk include California, Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin and Kansas.

Keep reading... Show less
www.youtube.com

Trump's Approval Rating on Hurricane Response Sinks 20 Points After Puerto Rico

President Trump's approval rating for overseeing the federal government's response to hurricanes fell by 20 points after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, a CNN poll conducted by SSRS revealed.

Trump's approval rating for responding to hurricanes Harvey and Irma stood at 64 percent in mid-September. Just a month later, only 44 percent approve.

Keep reading... Show less
Photo taken by Hélio Madeiras, a firefighter in Portugal. Facebook

Wildfires Rage Through Portugal and Spain, Kill at Least 39

Wildfires have killed at least 39 people in Spain and Portugal since Sunday.

Hundreds of fires in both countries are being fanned by winds from Hurricane Ophelia in the north, currently barreling towards Ireland, and encouraged by extremely dry terrain from a scorching hot summer in the region.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Desperate for water, Puerto Ricans are resorting to any available sources, such as this stream in Cayey. Angel Valentin / NPR

Desperate Puerto Ricans Are Drinking Water From Hazardous Waste Sites

The ranking Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee called for an investigation into the availability of potable water in Puerto Rico following reports Friday that residents are scrounging for water from hazardous waste sites.

After the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) confirmed residents were trying to access water from three Superfund sites, and following a CNN story Friday featuring Puerto Ricans taking water from a fourth site, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS) wrote a letter to acting DHS Secretary Elaine Duke asking if she knew about the situation and calling the reports "beyond disturbing."

Keep reading... Show less
Brant at Izembek Lagoon. Kristine Sowl / USFWS

Groups Slam Zinke's 'Backroom Deals' to Build Road Through Alaskan Wildlife Refuge

Ryan Zinke's Interior Department is working behind the scenes to build a controversial and long-contested road through the heart of Alaska's Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, documents show.

The refuge was established more than 30 years ago to conserve wetlands and habitats for migrating birds, brown bears and salmon and other wildlife. 300,000 of its 315,000 acres has been designated as Wilderness in 1980 under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
FAO / Giulio Piscitelli

On World Food Day, Pope Francis Says Link Between Climate Change and Hunger Is Undeniable

By Andrew McMaster

Speaking at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) on World Food Day, Pope Francis addressed the need for governments around the world to acknowledge that climate change and migration were leading to increases in world hunger.

Francis received a standing ovation after a stirring speech in which he said all three issues were interrelated and require immediate attention.

Keep reading... Show less
The pallid bat is native to the western U.S., where the spread of white-nose syndrome is a threat. Ivan Kuzmin / Shutterstock

Why Are America's Bats Disappearing?

By John R. Platt

It's Friday evening in Pittsburgh, and the mosquitoes are out in force. One bites at my arm and I try to slap it away. Another takes the opportunity to land on my neck. I manage to shoo this one off before it tastes blood.

I'm at Carrie Furnaces, a massive historic ironworks on the banks of Pennsylvania's Monongahela River. Stories-tall rusting structures loom all around me, as do the occasional trees poking their way out of the ground. A tour guide, leading a group from the Society of Environmental Journalists conference, tells me the soil here is full of heavy metals and other pollutants from the factory, which operated for nearly a century before closing in 1982.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

Get EcoWatch in your inbox