How Scientists Are Turning Algae Into Biofuel

Justin Christensen |

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It’s really quite astonishing how one of the tiniest, slimiest microorganisms can be transformed into some pretty great things. Available in a range of colors and thousands of varieties, algae – plural of alga – is used in the production of food, plastics, animal and chemical feed, fertilizers, cosmetics, hydrogen, concrete and purifiers just to get started.

And let’s not forget biofuel. Yes, the oil from algae can be extracted and converted to a viable fuel source. As a matter of fact, it’s potential prompted the US Department of Energy to commit up to $24 million toward research in the commercialization of biofuels in mid 2010.

How Is It Made?

There are a number of mechanical and chemical methods used to extract oil from algae, however the latest development hails from scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Washington. The process mimics the natural conversion petroleum would otherwise undergo over millions of years. The difference – this method takes under an hour.

The hydrothermal liquefaction technique (HLT) utilizes a solution of 20 percent algae mixed with water. It is then run continuously through a tube and stirred while maintaining a temperature of 660°F at 3,000 psi for half an hour. This “pressure cooker” like process converts the algae (or other feedstock) into oil. The finished product is comparable to light, sweet crude, with a composite blend of compounds, aromatics, phenolics, heterocyclics and alkanes in the range of C15 to C22. 

It is definitely a sign of modern technological times, compared to some of the more traditional methods of extraction, including expression, ultrasonic waves, and Hexane solvent. Utilizing these processes, the algae oil is defined as “green crude” and must undergo a further process called transesterification before it’s ready for use as fuel.

What Are The Benefits?

The benefits of producing biofuel from algae are almost as long as some of its uses.

  • Byproducts can be used to produce natural gas, electricity, and fertilizer
  • Can be grown and harvested faster and produce higher yields of oil than other sources
  • Cleaner than petroleum, using up CO2 in production, reducing greenhouse gas emissions
  • Makes use of land not suitable for agriculture and salty or wastewater
  • Producing oil is simpler and more cost efficient
  • Doesn’t compete with food supplies
  • Renewable and sustainable
  • Non-hazardous and Biodegradable

Challenges

Like any new product, breaking into mainstream commercialism takes time and of course, money. There’s also testing and refining, and sometimes “technical limitations” can prolong the process – Synthetic Genomics lab estimates readily available algae fuel to be another 25 years away. 

When something is finally ready for market, you need to have buyers. Despite the opportunity to reduce their carbon footprint, Americans aren’t too interested in paying anything more than they already are for gasoline. While that might be the case at the outset, prices could be as low as $2 a gallon as production and supply increase.

If prices aren’t quite on par with regular gasoline or diesel, perhaps algae contributing to the job market will peak more interest. From farming to construction, research to engineering, and marketing to financial services, the Algae Biomass Organization estimates that the industry could generate well over 200,000 direct and indirect employment opportunities by 2022 if fuel production goes commercial.

Maybe being green isn’t so bad after all. In the meantime, stay up to date on market changes through your fuel distributor. As fuel experts, they are your best source for accessing the latest products at the best prices. They can also help to ensure your business is operating at maximum efficiency with a host of other professional services and environmentally friendly applications.