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.