Researchers at the University of Michigan have discovered a fast way to turn algae into biocrude oil, a clean substitute for conventional crude oil. Chemical engineering professor Phil Savage and doctoral student Julia Faeth were able to pressure cook microalgae in 1,100-degree-Fahrenheit sand for about one minute, converting 65 percent of it into biocrude.
It's a revolutionary way to speed up the natural process, given that waiting for dead organisms to decompose can take millions of years. It's a big improvement over the lab's own research. Two years ago, the team was able to speed things up to less than half an hour while converting about 50 percent of the microalgae into biocrude.
The researchers have been mimicking the natural process that forms crude oil with marine organisms. Savage and Faeth filled a steel pipe with wet, green microalgae from the genus Nannochloropsis, and pressured it into hot sand. Within a minute, the algae made it to 550 degrees all the way through, and 65 percent of it turned into biocrude.
Along with shaving down time in the production process, the researchers are exploring ways for wet algae to cost less than dry algae. Algae biofuel is typically produced as dry algae before extracting biocrude, which costs around $20 per gallon. Savage and Faeth can't yet estimate cost savings for their method, but are assuming that simplifying the process and cutting down production time are likely to bring prices down.
It won't be competing directly with dry algae anytime soon. The Michigan researchers used only 1.5 milliliters of microalgae for testing, and still don't know exactly why they were able to convert to biocrude within one minute. Algae biofuels have huge potential for reducing vehicle carbon emissions and dependency on foreign oil, but it will take a while for any version of algae to make it to gas stations – even if you can cook it in a minute.