By Thomas Scott
PNNL takes a million-year process and does it in under an hour
Recent advancements in the field of biofuels have drastically reduced the amount of time needed to produce usable oil from algae sludge.
According to a press release from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, the government run facility has “created a continuous chemical process that produces… crude oil minutes after they pour in harvested algae.”
This new technique is a breakthrough because it whittles down the time needed to produce crude oil from several million years down to less than an hour.
The PNNL is part of a nationwide network of laboratories run by the United States Department of Energy.
The PNNL was working alongside a company based out of Utah called Genifuel Corporation.
After the fuel is produced, it can be “converted into aviation fuel, gasoline or diesel fuel” through refining methods currently applied to regular crude oil, according to the PNNL.
The key to this new method’s success is how it has combined numerous once separate chemical processes into a single uninterrupted process.
The key development has been to remove the need to dry the algae, which increases both cost and energy. The slurry can contain roughly 80 to 90 percent water in order for the algae to be transformed into crude oil.
Another advantage of this approach is that the waste water can be recycled to produce even more algae fuel.
According to the press release, when recycled the wastewater provides “burnable gas and substances like potassium and nitrogen, which, along with the cleansed water, can also be recycled to grow more algae.”
This innovation reduces costs even further.
Another important aspect of this development is that the algae does not have to be turned into oil one bundle at a time.
The PNNL’s reactor can work with 1.5 liters of algae at a time in order to produce oil.
What makes that significant is that it makes algae fuel production all that more commercially viable.
Moreover, the reactor operates at around 350 degrees Celsius, which is 662 degrees Fahrenheit.
According to the press release, the reactor created by the PNNL also runs at roughly 3,000 PSI.
In effect, the algae sludge is being both heated and compressed. The PNNL researchers call this “hydrothermal liquefaction and catalytic hydrothermal gasification.”
According to Union Biology Professor Paul Willing, who was contacted via email, one of the primary challenges would be that of space.
Willing asserts that “in order to meet even a small fraction of our energy needs [algae] would still require vast areas to harvest enough sunlight” which could amount to hundreds to thousands of acres.
Another potential drawback is cost.
While the process of turning algae sludge into crude oil has become much cheaper as a result of this breakthrough, the reactor that researchers have built is not. However, researchers hope that the savings from the production of oil will make for this.
It is also interesting to note that this project was funded by the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act also known colloquially as the stimulus package.
The PNNL’s private sector partner, Genifuel Corporation “has worked closely with [the PNNL team] since 2008” and has also licensed the technology the company possesses to the research team.