Biocrude Production from Algae in Minute-long Reaction

This is a response to an article found on ScienceDaily.com, titled, “Biofuel Breakthrough: Quick Cook Method Turns Algae Into Oil.”  Click here to read the full story.

Green algae under a microscope

Green algae under a microscope

Engineers from the University of Michigan recently found a way to produce crude oil from algae in a ‘quick cook method’.  The researchers converted algae to biocrude in only a minute’s time.  Better yet, the process yielded 90 percent of the original energy contained in algae as oil.

How?

The process began with utilizing 1.5 milliliters of wet algae, placing it into a small, steel pipe connector.  The strain of choice was green marine micro-alga of the genus Nannochloropsis.  The algae were then dug deep into 1,100-degree Fahrenheit sand to react.

Phil Savage, a chemical engineering professor at the University of Michigan explains, “We’re trying to mimic the process in nature that forms crude oil with marine organisms.”

After only a minute, the algae had reacted to form the 90 percent conversion to biocrude.  The short process time insists that the reaction to convert algae to biocrude happens much faster than originally thought by scientists.

What does this mean?

Since the reaction takes less time, the volume of the reactor can be decreased significantly, reducing costs and resource requirements to produce algae.  This also makes it easier to produce mass amounts of biocrude for fuel.  This is a huge success in the pursuit of sustainability.  This finding will help to reduce algal biofuel costs, making them more competitive with petroleum prices.  It will also make producing mass amounts of biofuels more realistic.

With the high conversion rate of biocrude from algae, the researchers estimate that replacing the United States’ petroleum demands (yes, this refers to the total petroleum use, and not just for transit) would require area the size of New Mexico.  To put this in perspective, the U.S. already utilizes half of that area for corn ethanol production.  Not to mention, corn ethanol requires arable land, where as the algae can be grown in brackish ponds.

When the scientists mention ‘replacing’ petroleum use, the process would actually be as simple as it sounds.  Biocrude is a nearly identical alternative to crude oil, and could be used in existing fuel distribution systems and engines.

Discovering ways to extract fats from algae for biofuel production has been a long-time challenge. Finding a way to do this quickly and cost effectively is not an easy task.  This breakthrough is a huge step in the right direction for algal biofuels.

What’s next?

In moving forward to implement this discovery, there are a number of questions that need to be addressed.  This study was conducted using a specific algal strain that grows in ocean waters or brackish ponds.  Growing mass amounts of algae in open waters poses potential harm on the water ecosystems.  If wastewater algae were utilized in this process, could there be similar conversion results?

Studies on the environmental effects of the reaction process also need to be analyzed.  Will the process create a carbon sink, or a carbon negative effect?  Also, can the process be done in an energy efficient way to achieve sustainability?

Certainly, there is much research that must be conducted in order to find an answer, but this advancement in biofuel production is a victory.  This process of converting algae to fuel proves the potential of transitioning from crude oil to biofuels.

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