Converting Algae into Oil

January 15, 2014
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With so much bad press directed toward the Obama administration and a number of failed federally-funded investment projects involving solar power and battery research, public investment in energy research projects is a hard sell for lobbyists in the Washington D.C. corridors of power these days. However, there’s too much at stake, in spite of the national debt, for the mighty apparatus of hustle to hibernate while everybody waits for spring.

Surprisingly, engineers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) put on a show to announce a new chemical process in Washington D.C. on December 17, 2013 at a special informational press junket and further announce more to follow in New York City, Seattle, Chicago and Detroit over the next three months. The usual crowd of young entrepreneurs, interns and minor-league lobbyists were there, enjoying the free food and booze, hoping against hope to find the next big thing.

This one was a little different, according to reporters from both the Financial Times and Der Spiegel. The presentation featured lots of men in white lab coats making a big ooh-ah show out of pouring a viscous green paste of harvested algae into a giant pot then flowing through all kinds of oversized tubes, filters and machinery, before ending up dripping gently out of an apparatus that resembled a stainless steel tea-kettle, looking and smelling like gasoline.


The upshot of all this is an announcement from a square-jawed young executive from the Utah-based Genifuel Corporation that North Americans will soon be filling their cars with a new form of gasoline using algae as a result of a brand-new process that converts the organisms into crude oil in under an hour.  Genifuel has licensed the technology and is working with both the Department of Energy and a number of unnamed industrial partners to build a pilot plant for mass production.

Details are rather opaque thus far but, according to the journal, Algal Research, the fundamental process involves a slurry of wet algae pumped into the front end of a chemical reactor and crude oil pumped out in less than an hour, along with recyclable water and a byproduct stream of material containing phosphorus, potassium and nitrogen that is easily recycled to grow more algae. This cheap crude algae oil can be converted on an as-needed basis into aviation fuel, gasoline or diesel fuel.

Algae has long been considered a potential source of biofuel, but research was previously projected as being too expensive to be practical.

PNNL’s breakthrough new technology, however, harnesses algae’s energy potential efficiently and incorporates a number of methods to reduce the cost of producing algae fuel, according to Douglas Elliott, the leader of PNNL’s research team.

PNNL scientists and engineers simplified the production of crude oil from algae by combining several chemical steps into one continuous process: slurrying. The most important cost-saving step is that the process works with wet algae. Previous research has always required that the algae be processed in advance, a time-consuming, expensive process. The new process works with algae slurry that contains as much as 80 to 90 percent water.

Heating at 350C (662F) at a pressure of around 3,000 pounds per square inch, the process, known as hydrothermal liquefaction, is neither cheap nor easy to build. ‘It’s a bit like using a pressure cooker, only the pressures and temperatures we use are much higher,’ said Elliott. “In a sense, we are duplicating the process in the Earth that converted algae into oil over the course of millions of years, just much faster.”

Elliott, who has been working on this process for over 40 years, truly believes that this kind of cooperative investment research between big government and big business may finally be the key to ending so much of the world’s dependence on crude oil-based fuels.

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