Turning Algae into Oil: A Million Years of Geology in a Minute

I always get excited when I see progress. The fact is, studying environmental issues is often a rather gloomy process – a few sprinkles of sunshine and the overwhelming sense of impeding doom. With issues of the scale of climate change, it’s easy to lose yourself in the magnitude of the problem until all solutions pale in comparison. There is no doubt that, in the long-term, a stable balance between environment and consumption can only be sustained by re-evaluating and redefining our ethical foundations. But that is a 180-degree paradigm shift and cannot be accomplished rapidly enough to avoid the brunt of short- and medium-term climate change impacts. I will thus say right away that my faith is placed in technological solutions.

Bio-fuels are a rapidly evolving technology that has emerged to fill the need for sustainable energy. With any solution, the first question to answer is: “Can it be done?” In this case, is it possible to artificially recreate the processes that produce oil? That question has been answered with a confident yes. The second question that emerges in this particular case is: “How long does this process take?” In nature, fossil fuels form over millions of years, as organic matter is deposited, compacted, and transformed over time into oil, gas, and coal. For this reason, we have always referred to fossil fuels as non-renewable resources. The assumption is that whatever reserves we have now are all we’ll ever get.

Recent experiments by researchers at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have managed to recreate the process in a matter of minutes. A slurry of algae, something like pea soup in color and consistency, is pumped through a high pressure and high temperature cooker and is converted to crude oil, water, and organic by-products. The by-products are rich in phosphorus and can be recycled back into the system and used as fertilizer to grow more algae. The crude oil can be processed into gasoline or diesel, and usable gas can be extracted  from the wastewater.

PNNL has managed to cut out two steps traditionally needed  for bio-fuel synthesis, thus reducing the total energy and cost. Usually, algae must be dried before it is processed, and chemical solvents are required to break down the organic matter into crude oil. Thus, the research takes another stride in making bio-fuels competitive with fossil fuels. As with many renewable energy technologies, the ongoing barriers are cost and scale. Once a process is perfected at the lab scale, it remains to be seen whether it can be translated into operations large enough  to make a meaningful dent in CO2 emissions.

A good example of a scale issue is carbon utilization. Some have proposed that carbon be captured from the atmosphere and integrated into usable materials. However, even with novel applications of carbon in electronics and building materials, the carbon sequestration impact of all applications remains low compared to total emissions. Coupled with the short storage timescale (disposal of electronics at the end of their lifetime would return the CO2 to the atmosphere) and the costs of building facilities to produce these materials, carbon utilization loses its appeal as an emissions reduction strategy.

Be warned: you may have just sustained a lethal dose of mostly harmless science

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Cover photo courtesy of CIFOR, Flick Creative Commons

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2 responses to “Turning Algae into Oil: A Million Years of Geology in a Minute

  1. Nicely done. I corresponded with PNNL about this, initially being skeptical, but they convinced me that 100% of the carbon the algae used was atmospheric. I missed the subtleties you indicated regarding carbon utilization as an atmospheric reduction strategy.

    • It’s always interesting to me to look through the filter of scale and storage time when comparing different carbon reduction technologies. It turns out that what seems like a reasonably level playing field initially can change quite dramatically.

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