It typically takes about 65 million years to convert plant material into crude oil - but now a new process has dramatically reduced the amount of time necessary and can get the job done in about an hour. This is accomplished at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), which is run by the Department of Energy. The results were published in Algal Research.
The process begins with a slurry of algae and water. It looks a lot like pea soup and has a similar consistency as well. The slurry is dumped into the reactor which exposes it to high levels of heat, reaching up to 662 degrees F (350 degrees C) and pressure up to 3000 PSI. These parameters are used in order to simulate conditions of being beneath the Earth’s surface for millions of years. Less than an hour later, the algae has been completely changed into a dark mixture of crude oil, water, and byproducts that can be recycled back into the manufacturing process.
Once the crude oil has been isolated, the team can use traditional refining techniques to make gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel. The byproducts are mostly potassium and nitrogen, which are turned back to the earliest parts of the process by feeding more algae.
Algae has been the focus of a source for biofuel for a long time, but the success from PNNL comes from their ability to streamline the operation and use wet algae, instead of incurring the expense of having to dry the algae first. Drying algae is expensive and time consuming, so eliminating that step is one of the biggest marks of success of this technique. Additionally, creating useful byproducts of water and fertilizer allows the team to recycle as much material as possible, which both minimizes waste and reduces costs of materials on the front end.
While this process certainly streamlines the traditional process of having to drill for oil in the ground, it is more expensive and currently less efficient than regular methods. This isn’t too surprising, given that most new technologies begin the same way. In order to try to cut costs, this technique has been licensed out to a biofuel company named Genifuel Corporation in the hopes that they will build a plant to make the biocrude on a much larger scale.