Researchers pressure cook wet algae into crude oil in one minute

Researchers at the University of Michigan have discovered a fast way to turn algae into biocrude oil, a clean substitute for conventional crude oil. Chemical engineering professor Phil Savage and doctoral student Julia Faeth were able to pressure cook microalgae in 1,100-degree-Fahrenheit sand for about one minute, converting 65 percent of it into biocrude.

It’s a revolutionary way to speed up the natural process, given that waiting for dead organisms to decompose can take millions of years. It’s a big improvement over the lab’s own research. Two years ago, the team was able to speed things up to less than half an hour while converting about 50 percent of the microalgae into biocrude.

The researchers have been mimicking the natural process that forms crude oil with marine organisms. Savage and Faeth filled a steel pipe with wet, green microalgae from the genus Nannochloropsis, and pressured it into hot sand. Within a minute, the algae made it to 550 degrees all the way through, and 65 percent of it turned into biocrude…

It won’t be competing directly with dry algae anytime soon. The Michigan researchers used only 1.5 milliliters of microalgae for testing, and still don’t know exactly why they were able to convert to biocrude within one minute. Algae biofuels have huge potential for reducing vehicle carbon emissions and dependency on foreign oil, but it will take a while for any version of algae to make it to gas stations – even if you can cook it in a minute.

But, that’s only a description of early proof of concept processes. If and when Professor Savage and Julia Faeth are are able to ramp up to the smallest pilot plant, they’ll have a clearer picture of the capabilities and costs of their new method.

I wish them well.

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5 comments

    • eideard

      Foreign or domestic, researchers patent strains as often as they patent processes,

      Pilot operations here in NM get some of their venture capital from oil companies. Useful because of experience refining and distributing. Not so useful because they already own the politicians needed to help screw us all.

      • List of X

        If oil companies actually manage to keep this under wraps in order to hold the price of oil artificially high, that will only encourage a faster development of solar, wind, and other alternative energy sources to take advantage of high energy prices. It’s a win-win, if you ask me.

  1. argylesock

    How much energy did they have to put into the process, compared to how much they got out?

    I so hope this new technology turns into something useful. But near where I live, there’s visible evidence of another green technology (an onshore wind farm) that has failed. I think that’s because the windmills generate less energy than it takes to build and maintain them.

    • eideard

      That would be a pretty rare occurrence – the wind farm that is. They require almost no maintenance. Whose motor/generators are used. MTBF is usually measured in decades.

      No clear picture on the energy required – as noted on the algae; but, duration of a minute is almost nothing compared to the usual half-hour of consuming energy. Saying that, I don’t place algae near the top of any list of economic successes I expect.

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