Engineers have created a continuous chemical process that produces useful crude oil minutes after they pour in harvested algae — a verdant green paste with the consistency of pea soup. Who says America must depend on foreign oil?
The research by engineers at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory was reported recently in the journal Algal Research. A biofuels company, Utah-based Genifuel Corp., has licensed the technology and is working with an industrial partner to build a pilot plant.
In the PNNL process, a slurry of wet algae is pumped into the front end of a chemical reactor. Once the system is up and running, out comes crude oil in less than an hour, along with water and a byproduct stream of material containing phosphorus that can be recycled to grow more algae.
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.
“Cost is the big roadblock for algae-based fuel,” said Douglas Elliott, the laboratory fellow who led the PNNL team’s research. “We believe that the process we’ve created will help make algae biofuels much more economical.”
PNNL scientists and engineers simplified the production of crude oil from algae by combining several chemical steps into one continuous process. 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.”
While a few other groups have tested similar processes to create biofuel from wet algae, most of that work is done one batch at a time. The PNNL system runs continuously, processing about 1.5 liters of algae slurry in the research reactor per hour. While that doesn’t seem like much, it’s much closer to the type of continuous system required for large-scale commercial production.
The PNNL system also eliminates another step required in today’s most common algae-processing method: the need for complex processing with solvents like hexane to extract the energy-rich oils from the rest of the algae. Instead, the PNNL team works with the whole algae, subjecting it to very hot water under high pressure to tear apart the substance, converting most of the biomass into liquid and gas fuels.
The system runs at around 350 degrees Celsius (662 degrees Fahrenheit) at a pressure of around 3,000 PSI, combining processes known as hydrothermal liquefaction and catalytic hydrothermal gasification. Elliott says such a high-pressure system is not easy or cheap to build, which is one drawback to the technology, though the cost savings on the back end more than makes up for the investment.
“It’s a bit like using a pressure cooker, only the pressures and temperatures we use are much higher,” said Elliott. “In a sense, we are duplicating the process in the Earth that converted algae into oil over the course of millions of years. We’re just doing it much, much faster.”