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Biofuel breakthrough: algae converted into crude oil within an hour

Updated on August 13, 2015

Scientists of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have succeeded in converting algae into crude oil, which then can be used to produce gasoline, diesel and even kerosene. About a new, groundbreaking technology which may make the consequences of our rapidly depleting oil supplies far less disastrous.

No new idea
The idea to convert algae into crude oil is not new – on the contrary. In 1978, upon request of the Carter Administration, American scientists started conducting research to investigate the possibilities of such technologies since fuel prices were skyrocketing at the time. Nevertheless, the PNNL scientists claim that the methods they developed have led to results the like of which has not been seen so far. Their technology is supposed to be more cost-efficient and environment-friendly due to lower energy usage and result into a stream of wastewater from which combustible fuel can be derived as well as nutrients necessary to grow new algae. Not to mention the fact that said wastewater can also be used for watering algae that’s being grown. All considering, it seems like this method comes with multiple benefits.

Why can algae be converted into crude oil?
Before I start explaining the method, I’d like to answer the question why algae can actually be converted into crude oil. This has everything to do with its properties. All algae consist – in varying proportions – of proteins, carbohydrates, fats and nucleic acids (biochemical macromolecules). Fatty acids, making up as much as up to 40% of the mass of certain kinds of algae, make it possible for us to convert it into crude oil. In other words, oil forms a large component of algae.


How the method works
In order to convert algae into crude oil, it is first heated in 662 °F hot water by a pressure of 1000 pounds per square inch. These extreme circumstances cause two processes to be initiated, the first of which is called hydrothermal liquefaction. In common English, this means that by using hot water, the algae are turned into a liquid. The second process is called catalytic hydrothermal gasification, which can be explained as the accelerated conversion of algae into gas by using hot water. The processes I just described are the same processes organic substances naturally undergo in the Earth. Hence we can say that this technology comes down to an accelerated version of the natural processes that cause oil to originate.

The big difference
Like I already stated earlier in this article, the PNNL scientists have claimed that their methods are better than other methods which have been tested so far. The big difference is that they have succeeded in finding a way in which wet algae can be converted into crude oil, whereas dry algae used to be required which cost enormous amounts of energy to produce. Meanwhile, the PNNL scientists are able to convert algae with moisture contents of up to an astonishing 90%, thus making their method both cheaper and more environment-friendly at the same time.

Mass production possible
The PNNL scientists made use of a system capable of producing 1.5 liters of crude oil per hour. This is of course a rather modest amount, but it is possible to build a far bigger variant in order to enable mass production based on the current concept. Should this ever really happen, then the consequences for the fuel sector will be life-changing, since it would mean the rise of a new competitor that’s capable of dealing heavy blows to the established oil companies by offering fuel for low prices.


Biofuel from algae and the environment
Compared to fossil fuels, fuel derived from algae is far less harmful for the environment. As such, less carbon monoxide and other pollutants are released into the air after combustion. Also, like I mentioned earlier on in this article, the conversion process in itself generates multiple by-products which can be used for the production process. And should you still not be convinced at this point: research has proven that replacing fossil fuels with renewable forms of energy (including biofuel) can reduce CO2 emissions by up to a stunning 80(!)%.

The biggest problem that used to occur when scientists tried to convert algae into biofuel, was the huge amount of energy that was involved. Therefore, this kind of fuel could not exactly receive the environment-friendly label. This hurdle has now been taken however, hence the road to mass production has been opened. Whether or not mankind will start to go down this road in the short run remains to be seen though, since the almighty lobby of oil corporations is certainly not waiting for a powerful, new competitor.

Prospects for biofuel made from algae
We will have to wait for now to see if biofuel derived from algae will have a future. A lot depends on the results of more scientific research, whereby scientists will face the challenge to further improve the cost-efficiency and environment-friendliness of the method discovered. Another factor that will play a key role in deciding its fate is formed by the established oil corporations, which will have to be convinced of the profitability of this new type of fuel. Needless to say, the fact that big players on the market such as Exxon and BP have invested millions of dollars in scientific research to biofuel derived from algae gives a lot of hope.


© 2015 Victor Brenntice


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