From eons to hours: new process can pressure-cook algae into crude oil

Algae head

A new discovery could let scientists artificially create crude oil in under an hour, accelerating a natural process that normally takes at least a few million years to complete. In nature, crude oil is the product of hundreds of species of algae and bacteria that grew, died, and slowly settled to form deposits of decaying organic matter. This matter builds up and compresses itself, the slow pressure and ever-rising heat slowly baking microorganisms and tiny animals like plankton into a waxy substance called kerogen, then subsequently into the thick, smelly soup of crude oil. Not unlike cooking an onion down to a thick, sweet sludge, natural processes can eventually break down small organisms to a suspension of their least ordered but most energy-dense molecules. Coming to global prominence only in the most immediate portion of oil’s history, we humans slurp up natural crude and process it into (among other things) asphalt, plastics, and gasoline.

The Earth of course got a pretty sizable head start on humanity, bubbling up several big batches of flammable life stew, but even with enormous reservoirs of oil ripe for exploitation, the human race has encountered problems. Projections are finally beginning to include concrete estimates for the emptying of the world’s known sources of oil, and the extraction process itself can be troublesome and polluting. Even leaving aside the problems with burning fossil fuels in the atmosphere (carbon capture is a growing priority for industry), using naturally occurring crude oil introduces problems all its own. So, it makes sense to try to mirror that process at higher rates of speed.

Research released this week shows a process that can turn algae to crude in less than an hour. It works thanks to an innovative new algae suspension that can carry out the necessary reactions with 80-90% water content. Prior solutions have required a slow and expensive algal drying process, and have separated the necessary reactions into discreet steps. By removing the need for drying and collapsing these steps into a single continuous process, these Pacific Northwest National Laboratories researchers believe they can make oil production vastly cheaper. The word “continuous” is worth noting here, since the crude is not produced in batches, but rather as a continuous stream.

Offsetting these cost reductions is the process’s sole major sticking point: compressing millions of years of time into just a few minutes means we have to similarly compress the sample. Preparing crude in this way requires temperatures over 350 degrees Celsius and pressures over 3000 psi. This ultra-pressure cooker takes in the algae slurry and produces a mixture of crude oil, pure water, a nutrient-rich material perfect for growing more algae, and a small amount of naturally refined fuel gas that could go (almost) straight to use. The biofuels company GeniCorp has plans in the works to create the first production plant, though there are no specifics available right now. Remember that this process does not produce gasoline but crude oil, which still needs conventional refining to make usable fuel.

More algae

Laboratory manager Todd Hart pours algae into a bucket as he begins an experiment to convert the substance into biocrude oil.

The prospect of speeding up the formation of fossil fuels is a bit like the prospect of speeding up diamond formation; for the corporations involved, there are incentives running in both directions. The problem with algal production has always been cost, but assuming this and further research could achieve cost parity, cheaper and easier production would undercut the stranglehold on supply currently enjoyed by certain companies and governments.

Still, until carbon capture progresses far beyond its current point, it will always be of questionable value to advance the ways in which we burn and release carbon into the atmosphere. Dealing with the problems of extraction and supply shortfall is important in the short-term, but these days even the most exciting advances in crude oil are seen as stopgaps on the way to a more sustainable long-term future. Biofuels may end up playing a large role in that future, and these sorts of technologies can help sanitize the oil we will be unavoidably using for a long time to come.

Now read: Researchers generate hydrogen from any plant, creating safe, renewable energy

ExtremeTechNews & Updates For Hardcore Tech Fans | ExtremeTech

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>