The Ultimate Green Fuel? Utah Engineers Convert Algae Into Bio-Fuel

131218100141There is a fascinating new breakthrough out of Utah where engineers at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) have invented a machine that can convert algae and into crude oil in minutes — skipping the usual millions of years of natural development. The invention could offer a unique and plentiful biofuel.

Genifuel Corp., a biofuels company from Utah, wants to developed the new invention on an industrial scale where a slurry of wet algae is pumped into the front end of a chemical reactor and crude oil comes out the other end within an hour. The process only produces the byproduct of water and material containing phosphorus that can be recycled to grow more algae. It would be interesting if natural algae can be used — allowing for the collection of growing algae blooms that are choking waterways that in turn would produce fuel and reduce dependence on fossil fuels.

The algae-based product can be conventionally produced into “aviation fuel, gasoline, or diesel fuel.”

Particularly with the recent study on the dangers of fracking, the Utah breakthrough is exciting and seems to offer a real hope for a viable alternative biofuel. Unlike corn with high production costs and collateral pollution, it would seem to offer a small environmental footprint for production.

What do you think?

25 thoughts on “The Ultimate Green Fuel? Utah Engineers Convert Algae Into Bio-Fuel

  1. An interesting development that could have more political implications – allowing us to eliminate many of the complications of the ME – than ecological implications. It still doesn’t address the carbon problem. That being said, I think being able to tell Saudi Arabia to get stuffed is worth it.

  2. This is not a new idea. It’s been around for years. Perhaps large government grants have not been made available for mass production because of threats by big oil.

  3. This is a disaster for the owners of oil wells and coal mines. It must be stopped until all extractable fossil fuels have been converted into atmospheric carbon dioxide, we cannot inconvenience the oil and coal barons by making their coal wells and oil mines worthless.

  4. “What do you think?” – JT

    Gives new meaning to “biofuel.”

    Gene H pointed out the essential, i.e., that this process does not deal with the fundamental problem of carbon based fuels, whether “biofuels,” fossil fuels, or not.

    That problem is CO2 garbage/poison being pumped into the atmosphere as a result of burning those fuels.

    That CO2 t continues to damage the already damaged Global Climate System.

    On the other hand, there is already a multi-billion dollar mature business / technology that is better in the sense of burning without putting CO2 into the atmosphere:

    … methanol was the required fuel for the Indy Racing League (IRL) from the 1960s until 2006 …

    (A Methanol Economy Way Out Of Here). Methanol was used in Indy cars at the Indianapolis 500 racetrack for some 40 years.

    There are a number of ways to begin to remove fossil-fuel poisons from the atmosphere so that civilization does not go down in spasms.

    Making synthetic poisons is not one of them.

  5. The petro industry will somehow or another obtain this patent…. They have made cars that back in the 60 that were capable of getting like 75 miles to the gallon…. And converting water somehow into fuel….. The auto industry and petro owners shut this down…..

  6. Mixed bag. I agree whatever it takes to stop the abuses by the oil industry is worth looking into yet I still worry about the damage the polituion caused by combustion of these chemicals is not mitigated by it, in fact it might be the case where if it becomes cheap enough there is not going to be any incentive to move away from it.

    Stop-gap? Perhaps but for how long?

    Nevertheless one has to congratulate those who developed this for their innovation and that they certainly feel they are doing something good for everyone.

  7. The Madison lakes produce enough algae to fuel a fleet of buses for a year. You can damn near walk across the lakes on algae in July.

  8. Bill took the words right out of my mouth. I was thinking “cold algae,” but the principle was the same. Lots of good things happen in Utah, but energy research?

    That said, this could be great if it works and if it doesn’t have unforeseen side-effects (other than the debatable increase in CO2 emissions). There are also food uses for certain kinds of algae, IIRC; some overlap would be an interesting development.

  9. Go for it. Perhaps we could reduce if not eliminate the highway fuel tax for those who use it until such time as it reaches the cost of diesel produced from crude oil. Wonder if Canada would like to make some of this. Sounds much much cleaner that tar sands.

  10. New Iconoclast 1, December 20, 2013 at 10:59 am

    That said, this could be great if it works and if it doesn’t have unforeseen side-effects (other than the debatable increase in CO2 emissions)…
    Good point.

    The argument in favor of this biofuel is that it takes CO2 out of the atmosphere when it is making the oil, but the CO2 then goes go back into the air when the fuel is burned.

    Thus, it is better than burning fossil fuels taken from the ground.

    Methanol can be made out of “thin air” with electricity alone, and during the process CO2 is removed from the atmosphere.

    Thus, using both for a time would diminish CO2 levels back down to the safe area somewhere around 350 PPM …

  11. Dredd is correct in that any fuel made from Algae is Carbon Neutral, so it does not contribute much to the problem, certainly not to the degree fossil fuels do.

    This is hardly the first bio-fuel based on algae. There is a whole strain of algae that can be pressed for a type of vegetable oil which, with a minimum of processing (basically filtering), can be fed to diesel engines directly. There are other algaes & bacteria that can produce a variety of hydrocarbons easily and abundantly (albeit with more processing).

    The big hurdle with all of them is scaling up production such that it can meet our appetite for hydrocarbon fuels. It’s not as straight forward as building a big pond. The draw to a reactor like the one presented is that it is quick & and it appears to be somewhat non-discriminating with regard to what algae it is fed.

  12. How much energy is expended in making bio-crude from algae?

    Does the energy expended in creating bio-crude exceed any potential return?

  13. Lower carbon in production is only part of the picture and does not change the impact that burning hydrocarbons as an end product has on atmospheric composition.

  14. Personanongrata – That is the big question (and the major reason Ethanol from Corn is so bad, because the energy invested in making it exceeds the return, before we even factor in the energy needed to transport & deliver it).

    Gene H – Carbon Neutral fuels aren’t an end in themselves, they are a way to buy time. Ideally we’ll someday be able to run our world on carbon free sources, but that is a long way off. In the mean time, if we can stop adding so much more to the atmosphere (because we take it out at nearly the same rate we put it in), we buy ourselves more time to figure out a better way.

  15. it’s soylent green.

    it’s using carbon that’s already in the carbon cycle. that’s a big improvement over the carbon that’s been locked up for millions of years.

    we’ll see how much exxon pays for it.

  16. some people are so far away from reality, it is scary. CO2 is poison? the “Global Climate System” is “damaged”? wow, religion is powerful indeed…

  17. “please point out where anyone here has said “co2 is poison”.

    strawman much?”

    If you can read, then Dredd did. Here:

    “That problem is CO2 garbage/poison being pumped into the atmosphere as a result of burning those fuels.”

    He is obviously a little unfamilair with how nature – and life itself – is totally dependent on Co2. Without it there would be no plants?grass/trees and no food and no humans or animals.

    Poison indeed. But this kind of over the top rhetoric is well known here.

  18. Cameron and svoogie,

    Ever hear of too much of a good thing? You know how important it is to stay hydrated, but it’s also possible to overdose and die from drinking too much water. It happens every now and then.

    Geological processes have sequestered amounts of CO2 necessary to create the climatic zones in which humans have evolved. That process took millions of years. You want to claim god did that, I’m fine with that. After all, who else has that much time.

    Unfortunately, mankind has evolved to the point where it can undo that process and reintroduce all that carbon back into the atmosphere, thereby altering the global climate. I’m curious why you don’t view this as undoing god’s hard work. If we’re given the choice of good or evil, isn’t possible for a society to collectively choose evil? Isn’t that what Sodom and Gomorrah. did? Ruining the Lord’s good work would be evil; their fate could also become ours.

    Developing a carbon neutral fuel source could be an important step to slowing the increase in atmospheric carbon. More importantly, it would substantially reduce the damage to the landscape caused by drilling, and drilling mishaps, which is increasingly taking place in sensitive ecosystems. No longer exploited for oil, natural areas could be returned to performing the undervalued role of mitigating the atmosphere and changes in global climate.

    BTW, I recall hearing a year ago about a company in Spain that was looking to industrialize this process.

  19. madrocketscientist,

    I won’t argue that incremental improvement beats no improvement, but I don’t think I agree with the statement “because we take it out at nearly the same rate we put it in”. That describes a system in homeostasis.

  20. Gene H.

    This is simple chemistry, every molecule of fuel we produce from plants we grow fixes CO2 from the atmosphere into the fuel, then releases it when we burn the fuel.

    As long as the production/distribution process does not require us to burn additional coal or oil, then the whole process is homeostatic.

    Now in reality, that is rather unlikely, so true homeostasis is not practical, but note that I said “nearly”, not “exactly”.

    We have no idea when the CO2 concentration will hit some kind of runaway point, so every little thing we can do to reduce the new CO2 we introduce is a win for all.

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