Researchers have developed a process that produces useful crude oil in under an hour, speeding up a natural process that would otherwise take millions of years to complete. Even more impressively, the secret to their success lies in nothing more glamorous than—wet algae.

At its simplest level, the process works like this: a slurry of wet algae is pumped into the front end of a chemical reactor, and less than an hour later, useful crude oil and several other byproducts exit the chemical reactor. The crude oil can then be refined in order to be used as aviation fuel, gasoline, or diesel fuel.

The chemical process was originally developed by a team of engineers at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), led by laboratory fellow Douglas Elliot, and it will be expanded on a more commercial level by the Utah-based biofuels company, Genifuel Corp. In fact, Genifuel Corp. has licensed the technology and is currently working with an industrial partner to build a pilot plant using PNNL’s technology.

There are several benefits to using this technology, including its small time investment, environmental sustainability, and its low cost.

Doug Elliot

Doug Elliot, the PNNL project leader for the algae-to-crude-oil conversion, poses in front of some of his laboratory equipment. The project greatly speeds up the conversion process. Credit: PNNL.

Small Time Investment
Since the new process is continuous, rather than broken up into many small steps, it can produce more crude oil in a smaller amount of time than many other production methods. In fact, the chemical reactor can process about 1.5 liters of algae slurry per hour, a rate that is much improved over previous methods.

Environmental Sustainability
The process is also sustainable from an environmental point of view. The byproducts that are produced by the process—including clean water, fuel gas, and nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium—can be recycled to create other forms of energy or to grow additional algae.

Fuel gas, for example, can be burned to create electricity or can be cleaned to produce compressed natural gas (CNG). Both forms of energy are used to power alternative fuel vehicles, signaling a promising future for the alternative fuel and advanced technology vehicle field.

Low Costs
Finally, the process is promising because it cuts down on costs.

“Cost is the big roadblock for algae-based fuel,” said Elliott. “We believe that the process we’ve created will help make algae biofuels much more economical.”

The most important cost-saving step is that the process works with wet algae. Most current processes require the algae to be dried — a process that takes a lot of energy and is expensive. The new process works with an algae slurry that contains as much as 80 to 90 percent water.

“Not having to dry the algae is a big win in this process; that cuts the cost a great deal,” said Elliott. “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.”

The project was funded with American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds by the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

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