Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Turning Algae to Crude Oil

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Turning Algae to Crude Oil

Article excerpt

Engineers have created a continuous chemical process that produces useful crude oil minutes after they pour in a verdant green paste of harvested algae with the consistency of pea soup.

The research by engineers at the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) in Rich-land, Washington, was reported recently in the journal Algal Research. Meanwhile, a biofuels company has licensed the technology and is working with an industrial partner to build a pilot plant using the technology.

In the PNNL process, a slurry of wet algae is pumped into the front end of a chemical reactor. In under an hour, out comes crude oil, along with water and a stream of by-product material containing phosphorus that can be recycled to grow more algae. (For a related classroom activity involving algae, see "Pond Power," pp. 43-49 of this issue.)

With additional conventional refining, the crude algae oil is converted into aviation fuel, gasoline, or diesel fuel. And the waste water is processed further, yielding burnable gas and substances like potassium and nitrogen, which, along with the cleansed water, can also be recycled to grow more algae.

While algae has long been considered a potential source of biofuel, and several companies have produced algae-based fuels on a research scale, the fuel in those cases is projected to be expensive. The PNNL technology harnesses algae's energy potential efficiently and incorporates a number of methods to reduce cost.

"Cost is the big roadblock for algae-based fuel," says Douglas Elliott, who led the PNNL team. "We believe that the process we've created will help make algae biofuels much more economical. …

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