Researchers at the University of Michigan have discovered that cooking green marine algae for less than one minute at a high temperature is enough to make 65% of the algae into biocrude. In other words, they have been able to turn wet algae into a viable substitute for oil in under a minute. Conventional processes for extracting oil from algae use dry algae and take much longer.
The researchers placed the wet algae in a steel tube and exposed the inside to very hot sand for a minute. The temperature of the algae rose to around 550 degrees Fahrenheit. Before trying this new method, they had been cookng the algae for about ten minutes.
Apart from the much shorter time needed to get oil from algae, the researchers think some of the other benefits of this process are that the quicker cooking time at a higher temperature means fewer unnecessary chemical reactions, and potentially, smaller bio-reactors may be needed in the transformation process.
Lowering costs for making biofuel from algae is important if it is ever to be a viable large-scale alternative to conventional oil. Currently, algae biofuels cost around $20 a gallon. It has been said that this new method, if it works out of the lab at scale, has the potential to result in huge cost savings.
It has been estimated that to produce enough algae-based oil for the U.S. market, an area the size of New Mexico would have to be set aside for algae ponds. That would be a huge endeavor but as stated in the video, not impossible considering the even larger area currently used for growing corn in the United States.
My biggest question about this new method, that doesn’t seem to have been addressed, is about the huge amount of energy that would surely be needed to superheat all that algae to 550 degrees. Presumably, not to defeat the purpose of making biofuel in the first place, it would have to be renewable energy used in this process. So, aren’t we still left with the basic issue of having to create abundant amounts of renewable energy in order to scale this process? After all, we could also have more than enough clean drinking water in the world if we had abundant clean energy. Problem solved.
Again, that’s a huge endeavor, but I think it’s not impossible. In fact, contrary to popular belief, with the exponential growth of renewable energy, abundant clean energy could well be achievable within the next couple of decades.
Image: University of Michigan (snapshot from video)