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Algae to crude oil: Million-year natural process takes minutes in the lab


December 24, 2013

Biocrude produced using the new process

Biocrude produced using the new process

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Engineers at the US Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) have created a continuous process that produces useful crude oil minutes after harvested algae is introduced. This new process does not require drying out the algae, which grows in water, saving time and energy that would be otherwise wasted. The final product can be refined into aviation fuel, diesel, or gasoline.

The process mimics some of the conditions that originally turned prehistoric plant material into fossil fuel deep within the earth – high pressures and temperatures.

Algae, an aquatic plant, has long been considered as a biofuel source, but the steps needed to turn a wet, green plant into clear, burnable fuel have been both expensive and time-consuming. The algae had to be processed in a series of steps, one of which involved drying it out and removing all the water, which might be 80 percent of the biomass. Then solvents were used to extract energy-rich hydrocarbons from the dried material.

The PNNL team created a continuous process that starts with the wet algae and subjects the entire mass – water, algae, and all – to high temperatures and pressures, in this case, 350ºC (662ºF) and 3,000 psi.

"It's a bit like using a pressure cooker, only the pressures and temperatures we use are much higher," said Laboratory Fellow Douglas Elliott, the leader of the research team. "In a sense, we are duplicating the process in the earth that converted algae into oil over the course of millions of years. We're just doing it much, much faster."

Steps in the process for making fuel from algae – the algae slurry, crude oil, and refined...

Steps in the process for making fuel from algae – the algae slurry, crude oil, and refined diesel fuel

The products of the process include crude oil, which can be further refined into aviation fuel, gasoline, or diesel fuel (in tests, the process achieved between 50 and 70 percent conversion of the algae’s carbon into fuel); clean water, which can be used to grow more algae; fuel gas, which can be burned to make electricity or cleaned to make natural gas; and nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium – needed for growing algae.

Genifuel Corporation has licensed the process, and has been working with the team at the lab since 2008. The company intends to team with some industrial partners to create a pilot plant using this process to make biofuel in industrial quantities.

The process was detailed in a recent paper published in the journal Algal Research. More information on the technology is available in the video below.

Source: PNNL

About the Author
Francis X Govers III Francis Govers is the designer of over 20 land, sea, air and space vehicles and teaches robotics and the design of self-driving cars. He spent 10 years at NASA, helped design the International Space Station, participated in the DARPA Grand Challenge, and managed the only Zeppelin operating in the US. As a commercial pilot, writer, artist, musician, engineer, race car nut and designer, Francis has a serious addiction to building things that frequently gets him into trouble.   All articles by Francis X Govers III

With the temperatures and pressures involved, the question is how energy efficient this process is. The whole biofuel process is pretty hard to get net energy positive to begin with. Algae are pretty good compared to others, but I still have my doubts.

Elmar Moelzer
24th December, 2013 @ 09:20 am PST

A nice story. Unfortunately it is meaningless without knowing what the efficiency of the process is.

24th December, 2013 @ 06:03 pm PST

Current refining have temperatures reaching 600 degrees C so the temperatures for this process are fairly moderate. There's a huge potential to improve the efficiency in the refining process as the algae can be tailored to create a specific 'crude oil' for a final product (gas, kerosene, diesel etc)

24th December, 2013 @ 06:31 pm PST

What happens if you add grass clipping into the mix?


So this could mean that the timeline for producing natural oil can easily fit into a 6000 year time frame.

25th December, 2013 @ 01:24 pm PST

It should be possible to capture a fair amount of the heat energy when cooling the mixture.

25th December, 2013 @ 07:30 pm PST

Yeah thats great. Now if they take all the bio mass know as human waste and shove that into the dry oil wells along with water they can produce algae again the old school way and maybe the owner of all those old wells can strrike it rich again.

Ikeleaka Kaluva
25th December, 2013 @ 11:20 pm PST

So if scientists find a cheap means of making fuel that contributes to the C02 problem and it drys up funding toward developing viable non polluting means of transportation then we are all screwed. Oil companies already try to get everyone believing that oil can't be replaced so they'll make sure that this algae thing is bought and buried.

26th December, 2013 @ 08:43 am PST

Is everyone missing the elephant in the room? OPEC? Every nation on earth no matter how big or small or how many natural resources it has or what type - will be able to make their own oil. As much of it as they want. States that make their living solely on the sale of oil are going to be in deep doo-doo. Economic and geo-political realignment of EPIC proportions comin up!

William Bodin
26th December, 2013 @ 12:26 pm PST

Hmmm. In a sunny region how about pumping the algae through a high pressure pipeline surrounded by focused curved mirrors to increase the solar heating? It may be possible to increase the pressure and/or time. Perhaps an inexpensive catalyst could be found to speed up the reaction. Centrifuging the algae as it entered the the system would be a cheap method of removing a large percentage of the water before reacting. Or, setting up something like this next to an electric power plant using the waste heat and cooling lake water to process and grow more algae would be another possibility. Use the CO2 from the plant to speed up the growth of the algae. Just a few random thoughts.

26th December, 2013 @ 01:17 pm PST

To Rt1583;

That's proprietary info... Good luck getting a real number for any process form any manufacturer!

But seriously, getting this temp and pressure range, especially if the product is in an emulsion, is no big deal. Well within the range of adiabatic processes, especially if multi-stage. The part I'm really stumped by is how they keep the liquid at a set temperature/pressure for an hour

Gildas Dubois
26th December, 2013 @ 04:42 pm PST

Good comment Slowburn - I wonder how many of the other bloggers are carping because they work for Big Oil? I hope this refining process can be scaled up successfully - the algae brewing is easy to do - think brewing vats and people already making a lot of antibiotics drugs etc. Get scaled up and the "Peak Oil" doomsayers will be sobbing.

The Skud
26th December, 2013 @ 05:19 pm PST

Looks great! And here you could get algae and in the same time getting rid of CO2 and waste.

27th December, 2013 @ 02:08 am PST

This is a fascinating idea, but I am not sure what problems it actually solves. Algae only grows at a rate of 1g/L/day and so to scale it up sufficiently is unlikely. There are also some issues about overall energy efficiency (Bob made some good points about how to possibly reduce that amount of energy required). I think this technique will find a use, but this is more likely to be when oil runs out and new ways are needed to make plastic.

27th December, 2013 @ 04:33 am PST

Fascinating. A combination of different renewable energy production including this one should help sate our large appetite for energy. I'm curious how this compares, for example, against bio ethanol production. What is the primary energy input/output?

One reason I like algae more than other crops grown for biofuel, is that it doesn't compete directly with the land usage of food crops (food prices going up), and resulting destruction of rainforest (think Brasil).

Fretting Freddy the Ferret pressing the Fret
27th December, 2013 @ 07:28 am PST

Actually, this process has a great potential as alternative fuel and it could be environmental friendly. Great job!

Fabio Alape
27th December, 2013 @ 08:13 am PST

So this begs the question...Is crude oil being created today as biomass buried under the ground is compressed and heated by natural geologic processes?

The answer would seem to be Yes.

27th December, 2013 @ 08:19 am PST

Thanks for finding a use for all the algae growth as a result of pollution and the red algae killing of marine life in the coastal water inlets.

I will buy some for our new bio fuel burning hybrid airplane. Currently there is no such fuel being sold at airports.

27th December, 2013 @ 08:23 am PST

Good PR, but fast conversions of carbohydrates to hydrocarbons have been demonstrated repeatedly over the past few decades, and several, like this one, could occur under extreme but natural conditions. So far, though, none of these processes offers a significant energy gain above what is used in the process itself.

Gary Fisher
27th December, 2013 @ 08:33 am PST

It would be nice to be able to tell OPEC to take a hike, but at the same time it looks like we'll be burning petroleum derivatives for a long time to come. Environmental concerns have to figure into whatever plan there is to manufacture this stuff.

27th December, 2013 @ 08:51 am PST

Algae biofuels - this is not a new process. Back in 2008 Exxon Mobil spent $100 million building an experienmental plant to produce biofuels from algae. In May of 2013, they advised that the process is much too slow and complex for any commercial production. This appears to be the same result, even though the article leads one to another p;ossible conclusion. Converting algae to biofuels is possible, but it is also 10 to 15 years away and possible when pump prices reach at least double that of today's price.

27th December, 2013 @ 08:54 am PST

"So this could mean that the timeline for producing natural oil can easily fit into a 6000 year time frame. "

That has already been proven and documented. The process actually only takes a short time, once the proper temperature is reached.

They are essentially duplicating the geologic process of catagenesis. While the energy efficiency may be an issue, the bigger issue may be how easily the algae can be concentrated to make the process efficient. The Earth uses millions of cubic meters of rock that contains concentrations of up to 15% organic material, which is already concentrated by the depositional process. Duplicating that in a restricted space in order to produce significant volumes may be the big problem.

27th December, 2013 @ 09:12 am PST

They are making crude oil so the process will make the feedstock for lubricants and plastics as well.

@ Buellrider

This creates an endless supply of crude oil without having to deal with out having to deal with kleptocracies. Why would an oil company suppress tech that would solve the problem of diminishing supply?

@ William Bodin

If they have spent all their money as it came in they are not in a position to cause a real problem. If they invested a portion of the oil proceeds they will be like Kuwait and the UAE that get most of their current income as dividends.

@ Gildas Dubois

You act like 350ºC (662ºF) and 3,000 psi are somehow abnormal in industry. Your average steam cycle electrical generating plant operates at about 500ºC and increasing the pressure is just a matter of making the walls thicker. Just add a thermostatic controller and you are ready to go.

@ Rt1583

Pressurizing a tank of water and thoroughly saturated biomass is not an energy intense operation; look at the pressures in hydraulic systems.

Nor is heating the sodden mess to 350ºC prohibitively expensive. I think you could pay for the process generating electricity.

27th December, 2013 @ 09:14 am PST

People don't realize it takes as much as two barrels worth of energy (from nat gas) to extract one barrel of oil from the Alberta tar sands. If it weren't for cheap natural gas to heat the oil sands, there wouldn't be oil.

As long as the efficiency of this algae fuel process is in the positive, it will make conventional Alberta tar sands oil production seem expensive and destructive by comparison. Hopefully it comes to fruition.

The Flying Crowbar
27th December, 2013 @ 09:26 am PST

Concentrated solar power can easily achieve these temps. and residual heat can be captured in a recuperation process that will raise efficiency to 90% +...all without requiring any energy from the grid or conventional private power generation. Kudos.

27th December, 2013 @ 09:48 am PST

Flying Crowbar says it takes double the amount of energy to extract oilsands oil compared to the energy produced. Nonsense.

If he were correct, there wouldn't be any companies working in the oilsands.

And by the way, Alberta oil sands plants are basically huge soil remediation plants that turn naturally polluted soil into clean soil.

We should be happy they are cleaning up the environment for us at their own expense.

27th December, 2013 @ 09:58 am PST

The energy density and convenience of liquid fuel at present appears to be essential for aviation. Even if the conversion of algae to petroleum substitutes requires the addition of some unrecoverable energy, it could be worthwhile.

Norm Rhett
27th December, 2013 @ 10:22 am PST

This is an important breakthrough simply because plastics and other materials are produced from oils. So even if we go to all natural power generation we still require an oil supply of some sort and this breakthrough assures our national independence for all times.

In Florida algae really grows with great ease. We usually have to fight to hold algae back. The ability of Florida to provide tons of algae is a given.

Jim Sadler
27th December, 2013 @ 10:42 am PST

There are efficient ways of doing this. Those methods have all been patented, bought/sold, and shelved away to keep those people that profit from the energy bottle-neck still earning a profit and finding a tax haven somewhere.

What even more amazing is that scientist are just now doing this. They've been doing this with diamonds for a long time, why did it take so long to take something was an ingredient in one method and attempt to use it an another? Motivation, always lacking in direction and momentum.

27th December, 2013 @ 11:12 am PST

Government research gives mankind a way to make fossil fuels from algae, then government sells it cheap to a rapacious capitalist who gauges the country’s citizens while lining politician’s pockets.

Nelson Hyde Chick
27th December, 2013 @ 12:02 pm PST

Correction: its two barrels of water used to produce a barrel of tar sands oil. The EROI on tar sands oil is 1-6 units of energy produced power unit invested. Still not a great return.

Robo the Boreal forests, pristine lakes and streams of Alberta are not polluted lands until after the extraction process. Remediation of the landscapes back to forests and lakes will take decades or centuries if its even possible at all.

My cousin is an oil sands geologist, specialized in fracking; she explained a lot of problems and inefficiencies with the production out there. Without government subsidy or incredibly low provincial royalties, none of it would be happening.

The Flying Crowbar
27th December, 2013 @ 12:42 pm PST

Interesting that when the Russians claim abiotic production of oil within the earth they are considered to be wrong.

(in spite of massive oil production from +30k deep wells and replenishment of 'dry' wells worldwide).

As usual, it seems it's primarily just a case of NIH from the US standpoint.

27th December, 2013 @ 02:08 pm PST

My first thought was, are the heat and pressure needed to activate this process using an equivalent or more energy than it is producing and will the end result be to simply power itself and create waste? like another life form, like humans. Theeen I thought, if this process needs algae, pressure and heat, why not use the natural volcanic fissures at the bottom of our oceans to create the entire process naturally? Just create self contained robotic crawlers that collect, contain, deliver, store and process the algae throughout the entire process on the ocean floor and then walk up to a GPS programmed destination and offload themselves into peoples backyard storage and delivery systems where hoses dispense the commodity to your home and vehicles?! Theeeeeeeeen I thought, we ALREADY have that capability without the expenditure of energy to create robots or heat or pressure or GPS systems or any of that, it's called Solar Power and Wind Power!!! AMAZING!!!

John Sandefur
27th December, 2013 @ 03:30 pm PST

This has been done with a process called Thermal Depolymerization, using offal from chicken processing as feedstock.

The plant got shut down because there was always someone conveniently complaining about bad smells, even when the plant wasn't in operation.

Gregg Eshelman
27th December, 2013 @ 05:36 pm PST

Does the process consist only of releasing the oil contained in the algae,or does it also convert some of the hydrocarbons to oil? If it is the former,the process will be of variable efficiency,as wild algae often has only small amounts of oil.Special strains can contain much more oil per algae cell.

27th December, 2013 @ 07:00 pm PST

My God. If the speaker/writer of that dialog could only listen to herself through a rational mind, she'd hear how silly it is. "Engineers have found a new way to turn the green goo into energy as part of an effort to reduce use of traditional fuels, like oil, which contribute to climate change." Does she not understand that it takes -more- energy to make an equivalent to crude oil, which is then -burned- in ICE, which does absolutely nothing to reducing any Anthropogenic Global Warming (kumbaya)?'s kinda like using tens of millions of therms of natural gas boiling the oil out of tar sands from Canada. Let's hear about the efficiency of such methods, shall we? We don't want yet another ethanol debacle...or do we? (deep sigh)

27th December, 2013 @ 07:56 pm PST

well, pressure and heat is no problem. a 2km vertical tube leading straight down, produces both the temperature and the pressure , just by hydrostatic force, and geothermal heat - losing neither, as the intake makes a heat exchange with the output. this method can make any biomass waste to oil. cheap and renevable.

Károly Hőss
27th December, 2013 @ 09:46 pm PST

It's like so many commenters didn't actually read the article.

First, it's NOT about this being more efficient than natural crude. It's about it being renewable vs. non-renewable; an inexhaustible source.

Second, those who are saying "this is not a new process. It's been done but it's too slow and complex to be worth it." Seriously? Did you not read the article at all? The whole idea of the article is that this is a totally new process and it is much faster and easier than before.

Dave Andrews
28th December, 2013 @ 06:18 am PST

@ Pres

The best explanation for the refilling oil wells is oil in a matrix that releases it at a lower rate than the pumped wells extract it, but with the pumps and pressurizing systems turned off the pressure balances with the fast movement matrix filling up.

@ ljaques

You fail to understand that the process making the synthetic crude is not creating energy it is converting it into a convenient package; the energy was already in the biosludge.

You also fail to understand that the synthetic crude is depending on the energy source powering the conversion process "Carbon neutral" which does not mater because even the IPCC has admitted that despite increasing atmospheric C02 concentrations there has not been a measurable increase in global temperature.

@ The Flying Crowbar

The oil sands are not fracked therefor your entire statement is suspect.

I have seen ground that has been reclaimed it is indistinguishable from the virgin landscape.

28th December, 2013 @ 08:19 am PST

It is not only algae that makes up the source for crude oil. It is the constant rain of dead fauna onto the sea floor, which includes all single celled animals living in the water column, for example.

Erik Osbun
28th December, 2013 @ 11:59 am PST

I can see the usefulness of this process. While I am not an industrial engineer, I have read the paper referenced.

In order to make this process commercially viable, most if not all the energy used for transformation must come from external sources.

The process described uses continuous flow through the reaction system. This provides potential for significant heat recovery using heat pipes from the the terminating end of the system to the initiating side using water (typically used 30-200 degree C range) and mercury (typically used in 250 to 650 degree C range) for the heat pipe medium. An external heat source would be required in the section of the process where the main reactions would take place (350 degrees C). Maintaining the appropriate pressure would simply be perform by controlling the amount of material added and removed from the system.

Should I be designing the plant, I would recommend either location of the facility in an area of high geothermal content such as Yellowstone National Park (no I am not saying place there, just a similar area) or in an area where mirrors can be used to concentrate solar energy. I would also place almost all the facility at least 60' below the ground using the earth itself as a secondary insulator as well as providing more help to keep this giant pressure cooker strong.

The biggest problem I see is with the heat pipes. For maximum efficiency a LOT of mercury would need to be used. These pipes would need to virtually incapable of rupture or we are looking at an environmental disaster greater than Chernobyl. While I can see, industrial engineers being able to design and build such, I would actually want to see how they would protect against all the possible natural disasters before I would really trust the plant is safe to operate.

With a stated 50-70% conversion rate and the proper external heat source (solar, wind, or geothermal) I see this as commercially viable and would gladly purchase stock in a company building such a plant. If the non-converted material can be recovered at the end and can still be used for conversion this will increase the efficiency also.

To those that suggest the renewable energy source could be better used to generate power other ways, I agree. The idea here to to generate power in a specific way, namely petrochemicals. As long as recharge rates for electric vehicles are in the hours range, the maximum driving distance on a full charge is typically 40-70 miles, and cost of vehicles is in the 30,000-150,000 dollar range the internal combustion engine will remain the primary power source for private and commercial driving as well as use for heavy machinery.

As suggested this also presents the possibility of re-burying carbon, lower the atmospheric CO2 levels. This would be an extremely slow process though and I would be happy just reducing high (relatively percentage wise) CO2 level increases.

29th December, 2013 @ 05:06 am PST

Sorry, guys, it doesn't take millions of years to change biomass. Notice the intact margins of the fossils. Observe the paraconformity of layers of deposits. Read and heed.

Dianne Patti
29th December, 2013 @ 06:09 am PST

Maybe this is why my friend who is a top petro chemical research guy, stated to me that new research says that Crude may be produced constantly, renewing supplies with the natural intense pressures/heat within the earths mantles etc.

I thought that it totally makes sense, but the fiends that own the oil corps won't want us knowing the truth, will they! It isn't actually running out, it is making it in much shorter timescales as we speak.

Standard Oil GAVE Hitler the formula for synthetic oil in WW2 as he didn't have enough fuel to roll across Europe, I believe they have known how to do this economically for 70+ yrs, just don't wish for us to benefit from cheaper/cleaner fuels. They wouldn't make as Much then.

29th December, 2013 @ 10:56 am PST

I like it. I think we should do more of this kind of stuff and worry about the social, economic, environmental and geo-political fallout later.

29th December, 2013 @ 05:00 pm PST

Well there goes the world algae, or I can just imagine some companies trying to also create GMO algae. Do not think this is a good idea. We just need to not so be greedy and selfish and reduce our horse powers and engine sizes in the USA and I can assure that we move our nation with 1/3 of the amount of fuel we now use. I have traveled extensively and have also have had the opportunity to drive in most of the countries that I have visited. I have gone and up and down hill with a 1.2 liter and no problem. But yet back home in the USA it gets me upset when I see people driving a 5.7 liter truck with just one person on board.

Roger Silverio
29th December, 2013 @ 11:56 pm PST

@ NatalieEGH

Why are you using mercury?

@ PaulYak

The synthetic oil of WWII was coal based and the process was developed by Germans in Germany.

@ Roger Silverio

The next time you see someone driving a pickup alone stop him and buy him an econobox to commute in since you clearly have enough money to have a vehicle specialized for every different task you drive for. The rest of us just make do with only one vehicle.

30th December, 2013 @ 09:08 pm PST

False Hope, The admissions are worse than Oil that has been Drained out of the earth. it reacts differently to the elements and congeals becoming black sticky Tar on everything and completely stuffs up the environment.

Daniel Nicholson
1st January, 2014 @ 09:57 am PST

Hello, I think the hydrogen used as energetic vector, can be better, the efficiency between available and used energy is higher. Why so much fear about hydrogen technology? Almost all the cars bumped into on films explode, and that isn't means that in the real world takes place. Goodbye.

2nd January, 2014 @ 01:09 am PST

@ AritzCP

The problem with hydrogen is not the danger. It is the expense of generating the hydrogen into practical to use configuration.

This is a process for converting biomass into a conveniently used form.

3rd January, 2014 @ 10:42 am PST

@ Slowburn The formulae I stated was about the synthesis of basic HydroCarbons into long strings and using them as fuel. Didn't say it could only come from coal, and these hydrocarbons ARE available in many other living forms throughout the earths plants.

Will find and send it to you if you require. I can synth fuel from hemp plants and that grows like weeds (pun intended) why can't we use that instead of oil, BECAUSE big elite families OWN the Oil Corps, ask UK Queen, and Duke of Westminster (Head of UK Masons), Dutch Royal family, the Bush family etc etc, THIS is why no synthetics are allowed.

3rd January, 2014 @ 07:43 pm PST


Hello, I think that transform electricity to hydrogen has efficient over 69%. Heated the biomass to 350° and pressurize to 4'5 atm expense many energy (over 1.200kj/kg) for get 50-70% of fuel through the algae weight. Then is needed to count the energy algae production, and the energy loss in the fuel destilation, for get gas, gasoil or others.

In addition, the energy power of hydrogen is over 130.000kj/kg, and for the fuel over 40.000 kj/kg, then the hydrogen is three times powerful than the fuel. The efficient of the gas engine is over 30-40%, and for the hydrogen 40-60%, better hydrogen. I want also comment too, that if in the US have be able to get hydrogen for 5'20$/kg, the same energy of fuel are over three kg, then 5'20/3 = 1'73$/(energy gas/kg) or 1'275€/(energy gas/kg) a competitive price. In Spain the price for the gas today is 1'406€/l = 2'067€/kg more expensive than the hydrogen; however is needed energy to change into hydrogen, and the petroleum is under earth for burn it; but the energy price...

Although as you say, the biomass converting, can use existing dregs; and the most important, for "the Kioto commitments" the biomass energy commitment isn't completed yet, much remains to be done, although fuel produce CO2. Goodbye.

4th January, 2014 @ 01:28 am PST

i wonder if it would be possible to use a solar energy source in combination with steam power to create the energy for the process they use to make the algae into oil.

Devin Schmitz
5th January, 2014 @ 01:20 am PST

By the way, Klamath Lake has a *lot* of algae. Perhaps a pilot project at Oregon Institute of Technology?

Jean Lamb
25th January, 2014 @ 05:30 pm PST
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