Teams from around the world desperately try to find methods to produce the green alternative to oil by exploring various plants and plant organisms that can be safely and efficiently turned into gasoline, without having to sacrifice precious agricultural land or harvest.
One of the most promising contestants for the job is algae, but many have faced problems associated with difficulties to control the harvest, the amount of energy needed to grow it, the cost and the time needed to convert it into a useful substance. Experts from the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), however, claim to have developed a technology, which could speed up the process of conversion of algae into crude oil, making it happen in a matter of minutes, when in nature it takes around a million years.
A while ago, we told you about a new type of bacteria that is grown in a bioreactor at Proterro, which cuts down the cost of the process significantly. But the difference between that technology and the new one developed by PNNL is that in the latter wet algae is put into a chemical reactor, producing oil as a primary product, and water, phosphorus, potassium and nitrogen as byproducts, which can later be recycled and used for growing more algae. The team also managed to eliminate some of the chemical processes by using whole algae, which reduces the cost, the energy and the time needed for generating the crude oil. All details about their study are nicely compiled in a paper published this week in the journal Algal Research.
A limitation is the price associated with the construction of the system. It requires high pressure and high temperature, which has to be monitored and maintained constantly, but according to the makers, the investment pays off quite fast. Usually such statements are made as an advertising campaign but in this case it might just be true. The guys at PNNL are already granted with a licence by the Genifuel Corp, a biofuel production company based in Utah that have worked with the team since 2008. They are currently constructing a pilot plant together with an industrial partner.
If the lab tests of the technology are successfully improved to be suitable for commercial production, the PNNL scientists might just have found the way to produce biofuel in a competitive and very cost effective way, providing the much needed alternative to petroleum-based fuels.
Image (c) PNNL