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.

7 thoughts on “Researchers pressure cook wet algae into crude oil in one minute

    • eideard says:

      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 says:

        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 says:

    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 says:

      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.

      • Lotus says:

        In one of the first studies to examine the potential for using municipal wastewater as a feedstock for algae-based biofuels, Rice University scientists found they could easily grow high-value strains of oil-rich algae while simultaneously removing more than 90 percent of nitrates and more than 50 percent of phosphorous from wastewater. The findings, which are based on a five-month study at a wastewater treatment facility in Houston, are available online in the journal Algae. Includes a link to the study (“Low algal diversity systems are a promising method for biodiesel production in wastewater fed open reactors”) and Rice University’s press release, as well as links to the National Research Council’s 2012 report “Sustainable Development of Algal Biofuels in the United States” and the EPA’s “Nutrient Pollution: The problem”.

  2. Surprise! says:

    CEO reports Chevron’s attempts to turn plants into alternative fuels for profitable, large-scale production have failed. Note: “Major crude producers from Chevron to BP have been scaling back investment in renewables to focus on higher-profit ventures such as deep-water oil wells. Chevron’s setbacks echo those of Exxon Mobil, which last year said its $600 million foray into algae-based fuel may not succeed for another 25 years. BP put $3.1 billion of wind assets for sale last year after withdrawing from solar in 2011.”

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