The natural process of turning organic matter into crude oil takes millions of years, but scientists recently revealed a method that takes less than 60 minutes.
Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory engineers used an algae mixture to produce the "bio-crude oil."
"In the PNNL process, a slurry of wet algae is pumped into the front end of a chemical reactor," the news release about the research stated. "Once the system is up and running, out comes crude oil in less than an hour, along with water and a byproduct stream of material containing phosphorus that can be recycled to grow more algae."
Scientists have refined a process that uses an "algae slurry" to produce a biofuel. It's now a method they think could be more effective than other existing processes. (Image source: YouTube)
Producing biofuel in this way is not a new concept. But working with the Utah-based biofuels company Genifuel Corp., the researchers believe they developed a more cost-effective method of producing the fuel by streamlining the process.
"Cost is the big roadblock for algae-based fuel," Douglas Elliott, a laboratory fellow with the government research team, said in a statement. "We believe that the process we've created will help make algae biofuels much more economical."
Watch this video about the process:
The news release stated the biggest saving step was working with a wet "algae slurry" as opposed to dried.
"Not having to dry the algae is a big win in this process; that cuts the cost a great deal," Elliott said. "Then there are bonuses, like being able to extract usable gas from the water and then recycle the remaining water and nutrients to help grow more algae, which further reduces costs."
An algae mixture (left) is sent through a chemical reactor and within an hour is transformed into crude oil (center). This oil is then refined to a usable biofuel (right). (Image source: YouTube)
Another step that the lab made more efficient was how they extracted the fuel from the algae. Instead of using a hexane solvent, the team developed a method that broke up most of the algae into liquid and gas fuels, according to the release.
Here's a list of what the process produces:
- Crude oil, which can be converted to aviation fuel, gasoline or diesel fuel. In the team's experiments, generally more than 50 percent of the algae's carbon is converted to energy in crude oil — sometimes as much as 70 percent.
- Clean water, which can be re-used to grow more algae.
- Fuel gas, which can be burned to make electricity or cleaned to make natural gas for vehicle fuel in the form of compressed natural gas.
- Nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium — the key nutrients for growing algae.
As a whole, James Oyler, the president of Genifuel, said this "hydrothermal liquefaction process" could make biofuel "that is cost-competitive with established petroleum-based fuels."