The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
In Bloom From Algae to Oil In Just One Hour

Researchers at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) are pioneering a process that produces oil from algae in just one hour. Wet algae goes in, heat and pressure is applied, and crude oil comes out. From the PNNL itself:

“It’s a bit like using a pressure cooker, only the pressures and temperatures we use are much higher,” said [Douglas Elliott, the laboratory fellow who led the PNNL team's research]. “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.”

The process can only handle 1.5 liters of algal slurry at a time, but researchers are confident that in can be scaled up. Plenty of other teams and companies are working on generating energy from algae, but this new process marks a significant step forward in the field for a few reasons. First, it can be run continuously, rather than batch-by-batch, making it easier to mass produce. Second, the algae input doesn’t need to be dried out—an expensive process—but can go in as a wet slurry. The process also produces water and important nutrients necessary for growing algae which can then be reused.

Making our own oil from algae would be great—the process is green, insofar as the carbon released by burning the resultant oil is offset by carbon used in the algae production process. And it’s sustainable, in that we can keep growing more algae to produce more oil. But, like every other green energy source, its future depends on whether or not it can be commercially produced at cost-effective levels. This method isn’t ‘there’ yet, but researchers are making impressive strides.

Note that the PNNL is operated by the Department of Energy. Reports like this one are a reminder that governments are best-served allocating money towards the research and development of nascent green technologies rather than by subsidizing them and trying to pick winners in the marketplace.

Published on December 23, 2013 1:40 pm
  • bigfire

    What’s the amount of energy and pressure required? And have this thing reach break even point, even if you can harvest algae slush for free?

    • Andrew Allison

      You miss the point, which is to obtain publicity for the “scientists” responsible for the “research”.

  • Corlyss

    Another fuel in the sky boutique operation. If you talk to people whose livelihoods depend on gullible government officials and investors to back these programs, this is what you get: “The process can only handle 1.5 liters of algal slurry at a time, but researchers are confident that in can be scaled up.” In the trade, it’s called vaporware, or a sales pitch.

    • Andrew Allison

      Interesting, is it not, that so-called “scientific breakthroughs” are now announced at press conferences rather than in peer reviewed journals. Not that peer review, which has degenerated into”you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” adds much credibility these days.

    • http://radical-moderation.blogspot.com/ TheRadicalModerate

      I’m gonna have to poke at you a bit here to see what you’re objecting to. Government loan guarantees for private companies? I don’t think that’s a good idea, but it’s not really applicable in this case. The idea of national labs, which is applicable? Any government investment in R&D?

      I’m not wild about researchers justifying their existence via press release, but when you’ve got every last NSF and DOE research dollar under constant pressure, it’s only good strategy to do some PR to protect your grants. From a policy perspective, you really only have two choices: Take everything private, in which case the politicization occurs in an opaque fashion and funding decisions are even more haphazard than they are now, or provide some of the funding through a public process that’s as transparent as possible. That doesn’t de-politicize it, but it does filter out some of the really stupid stuff. But if there are politics, there’s PR.

      I’m pretty sure you’re right that this is fuel in the sky. But everything is, right up until the time that somebody takes tech from four or five unrelated projects and puts it together to make something that nobody thought of. Maybe it’s a nice biofuel system, or maybe it’s a nifty new way to make some bizarro fiber for a composite material that reduces the cost of lawn furniture by 75%. Who knows? That’s how tech progress happens.

      Personally, I find it hard to believe that anybody’s really serious about low-emission energy if they’re not dumping 40% of the budget into deploying small modular nukes and another 20% into every fusion project anybody can think of (there are about 15 of them, as far as I can tell). But then again, that’s my opinion on how to spend your money. Public funding isn’t very efficient, but then again neither is private funding.

  • http://radical-moderation.blogspot.com/ TheRadicalModerate

    Does anybody know what’s going on at Joule Unlimited? Harvesting algae for lipids has always seemed kinda dubious to me, but Joule’s process has the algae excreting fuel continuously. Last I heard, they’ve got their pilot plant working, but it’s still only producing ethanol. They claim they’ve got algae engineered to generate diesel as well, but it’s not in pilot production yet.

    This has always seemed like it ought to be one of the few renewable winners, but they’ve gone awfully quiet. Have they hit a snag?

  • teapartydoc

    I spent many hours as a teen wasting my time reading puff like this in Mother Earth News. It gets recycled every few years to the newly gullible.

  • Joseph Blieu

    Until I read a paper on the process economics in the “Journal of Chemical Engineering” I will consider this to be pre-feasibility work. If this is government research there is no need to keep secrets, it is free to all. Publish the details of the reaction including R/M , energy inputs, and yield.

  • gunsmithkat

    If there was any “truth” to Peak Oil, then projects like this might be worthwhile. However with modern drilling methods Peak Oil has proved to be just another Malthusian myth.

  • Lyle7

    Heat and pressure… how does that happen?