Imagine a world where we no longer had to drill for oil, but instead grew it like pond scum. Sound like a fantasy? Thanks to a breakthrough new process developed by scientists at the Department of Energy, concentrated algae can now be transformed into bio-crude oil in less than an hour, reports NBC News.
The raw algal material, which resembles slime, is a mixture containing about 10 percent to 20 percent algae by weight; the rest is water. The gooey concoction is then piped into a high pressure cooker that heats it up to 660 degrees Fahrenheit. Pressures around 3,000 pounds per square inch keep the goo in a liquid phase.
In standard government fashion, some of how the process works is top secret, admitted Douglas Elliott, a fellow at the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, to NBC News. "Some technology tricks that other people don't have" are at play inside the cooker to help separate the plant oils and other minerals from the water.
Around an hour later, the sludge that remains after being separated from the water is none other than crude oil.
"We can clean up that bio-crude and make it into liquid hydrocarbons that could well serve to displace the gas, diesel, and jet (fuel) that we make from petroleum now," explained Elliott.
It's potentially a world-changing breakthrough. Our vehicles could essentially fill up on pond scum. There would be no more reliance on foreign oil. Fears of peak oil would subside.
There's only one problem: the technology is extremely energy intensive and, thus, expensive. In other words, it's not generally viewed as a cost effective way of generating fuel. But these latest advances in so-called hydrothermal liquefaction promise to minimize concerns about cost.
The refined process "makes use of the whole algae, therefore it has the significant advantage that there is no need to promote lipid accumulation or indeed to extract lipids," explained Aris Karcanias, an energy analyst at a consulting company in London. "Furthermore, there is no need to expend energy for the algae drying process."
In other words, the energy requirements of the process have been significantly reduced since this technology was first envisioned. Researchers have also learned how to complete the separation of the water from the oil without the use of chemical solvents, further reducing costs.
Perhaps the only major obstacle remaining before you can fill up with pond scum at the pump is figuring out how to grow enough algae to sufficiently replace petroleum. Even so, these latest breakthroughs in hydrothermal liquefaction make an energy-independent future appear ever-closer to reality.
Related on MNN:
- Biofuel from algae could compete with oil, according to report
- How algae could change your world (or at least your car)
- Is algae oil really a clean fuel?